Egyptians fret over growing Shia influence
Cairo - Egypt’s orthodox Islamists are warning against what they describe as growing Shia influence in a country known for centuries to be predominantly Sunni.
Iran-backed Shias, these people say, do everything possible to spread Shia ideology, sowing the seeds of sectarian tension.
“[Shias] do whatever it takes to convince uneducated Sunnis that their ideology is the correct one,” said Walid Ismail, the founder of the anti-Shia Society for the Defence of the Prophet’s Companions and the People of the House. “The problem is that all these attempts take place while the religious establishment is not looking.”
Historically, the split between Sunnis and Shias originated on who should lead the Muslim community soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. The dispute opened the door for differences in doctrine, law, theology and religious organisation.
The vast majority of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims but conflicts emanating from sectarian divides in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain fill Egyptians with apprehension about the role of Shias in their country, even if they are a minority.
There is no official figure on the number of Shias in Egypt but Haidar Qandeel, the coordinator of the Shia Youths Coalition, an unofficial grouping of Shia youths, estimates there are 2 million Shias among Egypt’s population of 89 million.
“The number is increasing,” he said, even though he denied accusations that he and fellow Shias strive to spread their ideology among Egyptians. “More and more people call me every day to tell me that they have converted to the Shia faith,” he added.
Egypt’s fear of growing Shia influence is especially manifest on Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram and a day of mourning for Shias for the martyrdom of al-Hussein ibn Ali, a grandson of Prophet Mohammad.
Egyptian authorities shut down al-Hussein Mosque in the heart of Fatimid Cairo and prevented Shias from entering the mosque to mark the day.
Authorities closed the mosque under the pretext that it was under maintenance.
Public frustration over the growing number of Shias was violently expressed in June 2013 when a mob of Sunnis stormed the house of a Shia cleric, who was conducting a ritual, and killed him.
Ismail and his colleagues in the anti-Shia society have decided to take the fight into their own hands. They publish books, deliver sermons and make TV appearances warning against what they consider dangers inherent in the presence of Shias in Egypt and Shia ideology.
The society tracks Shia activists and clerics and attacks them verbally using social networking websites and the media. It recently launched a satellite channel to warn against the Shia presence in Egypt.
The society was especially active during Egypt’s parliamentary elections publishing the names of parliamentary hopefuls they accuse of receiving funding from Iran to manipulate the Egyptian parliament.
“Acting according to foreign agendas, these Shias only want to sow the seeds of sectarian tension in this country,” Ismail said. “If we let them grow in number, our country will end up like sectarian tension-torn countries Iraq, Syria and Bahrain.”
Apparently, it is not easy for people such as Ismail to know whether there is a growing Shia presence in Egypt. Qandeel said Shias have to hold their rituals either at home or at secret sites to escape the heavy hand of Egypt’s security agencies and what he describes as a “hostile” public. Observers say conversion to the Shia faith takes place secretly and even away from the gaze of the convert’s relatives.
“Those who accuse us of wanting to sow the seeds of tension are working in the light of an Israeli agenda,” Qandeel said. “Israel wants Muslims to stop fighting it and start fighting each other.”
Nevertheless, some scholars, including Ahmed Kerima, a retired professor from al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning, downplay the supposed dangers of Shia presence in Egpyt.
“Some people like to claim that Shias are capable of converting all of Egypt’s Sunnis, which is totally wrong,” Kerima said. “Fatimids — originally Shia — ruled Egypt for almost three centuries but they could not force the people to embrace the Shia faith.”