Egypt redraws the map of Salafist movements

Salafist preachers refuse to follow the requirements of Egypt’s reform plan and preach opposing views and dogmas.
Sunday 25/11/2018
In check. Egyptian naval conscripts check the ID of a Salafist man in al-Montazah district of Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, last March. (AFP)
In check. Egyptian naval conscripts check the ID of a Salafist man in al-Montazah district of Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, last March. (AFP)

The Egyptian minister of endowments has revoked the preaching licence of Mohammed Saeed Raslan, a well-known Salafist preacher and cleric belonging to the Madkhali school of Salafism. The minister’s decision made quite a stir inside the Salafist movement in Egypt.

Raslan, a student of Madkhali school founder Rabee’ ibn Hadi al-Madkhali, has become a symbol and reference for Madkhali Salafism through his scholarly work, prolific preaching activity in mosques and his own TV channel but especially his ideological battles with other religious currents, including other Salafist movements.

Raslan is famous for the school where he teaches, using a traditional Salafist style, by reading and commenting on a chosen work from the reference library of Salafist movement. His school and lectures attract students from around the world.

There are two competing schools of Salafist thought in Egypt: the Madkhali school, with Osama al-Qawsi, Mahmoud Amer and Raslan as its emblematic figures; and the scientific school of Salafism with headquarters in Alexandria with Yasser al-Borhamy as its main figure.

Both schools give the impression of disagreeing with each other but what unites them in method and approach far outweighs what separates them. Most Salafists in Egypt hold the Madkhali scholars and preachers in high esteem and look at their successes as credit and support for the overall Salafist approach.

Relying on its religious institutions, the Egyptian government is implementing a reform plan, which was designed by experts in religious thought, education and psychology under the supervision of the Ministry of Endowments and which calls for a new religious discourse.

Salafist preachers refuse to follow the requirements of the plan and preach opposing views and dogmas, especially in the areas of women’s rights, multiplicity of faiths and dealing with Copts. This opposition embarrasses the government and hinders its actions.

Many preachers employed by the Ministry of Endowments and who do not necessarily belong to a specific religious current have also refused to abide by the principle of the unified Friday sermon. They referred to breaches of that principle by licensed Salafist preachers, such as Raslan, and by highlighting their right to preach ideas based on personal convictions, particularly when the discourse proposed by the ministry is not, in their view, in conformity with sharia.

The Ministry of Endowments had to move quickly to dam this rebellious trend by silencing opposition voices among its troops in Salafist movements and independent preachers known for extremist views.

Security expert and specialist on Islamist movements Khaled Okasha said the ban imposed on Raslan might turn out to be a passing summer shower or maybe a quick “ear pinch” because Raslan’s reaction and his call for calm among his followers were rather unexpected.

“It seems that some mistake or another in the topics usually treated by Raslan in his sermons must have pricked the ministry,” Okasha said, adding that he expects Raslan “will be allowed to preach again once the mistake is fixed and Raslan agrees to abide by the ministry’s line and its religious reformist programme. Raslan’s position with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood is clear; he’s totally against them.”

Raslan has often given scathing criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadist Salafist movements. The words and expressions he usually uses in these attacks are full of political significance.

However, the fact remains that Raslan’s approach is a pure traditional Salafist one. This is why many fear the risk of having the mosque platforms belonging to the state be used to further spread Salafist ideologies and radical ideas that go against the state’s vision on many topics the state wishes to reform.

Many also fear the pragmatic opportunism that Salafist movements have shown since the revolution of January 2011. They have changed colours and directions depending on the general mood of the period and reverted to their former selves once the danger passed.

People did not forget how the Salafists had opposed the revolution and declared taking part in it religiously illegal. Later, they took advantage of the revolution and its consequences. They had been staunchly anti-elections and declared the Muslim Brotherhood’s project to participate in the legislative elections sacrilegious. Later, they participated in all elections.

The same scenario happened with respect to their position concerning coordinated work. At first, they opposed any form of organisation and opted to remain as a proselytising movement but then turned into a structured and hierarchical movement very similar to the Muslim Brothers in terms of the administrative and organisational details. When the opportunity for political work opened, scores of Salafist bodies were formed in record time for the legislative elections.

It is clear from this experience that the Salafist movement has become expert at political manoeuvring and can easily adjust to the prevailing realities and challenges in a way that guarantees its survival and growth.

It is this talent for survival that allowed it to absorb the reverberations of the fall of the Islamist movement in the revolution of June 2013. Some of its elements perfectly adjusted to the new context and thrive, which again raised fears that Salafists were acting from inside the government by using political and partisan mechanisms inside parliament and preaching platforms in mosques.

For some, however, banning Raslan from preaching is a test balloon launched by the government to measure the reaction of the Salafist movement. They say the choice of a popular figure of Salafism as Raslan is not random, given Raslan’s popularity and the sizeable number of his students and followers.

The purpose of the experiment is to gauge the distance between the movement and society on the one hand and the distance between it and the state institutions. The government also wants to find out if the Madkhali Salafist movement has been infiltrated by other more radical Salafist movements.