Facing up to terrorism is a war of ideas first

Death sentences may kill terrorists but they may feed terrorism.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Relatives of defendants attend a court session at a makeshift courthouse in southern Cairo, last December. (AFP)
A complex issue. Relatives of defendants attend a court session at a makeshift courthouse in southern Cairo, last December. (AFP)

Religious fundamentalists see death as their ultimate reward. They are not intimidated by the death penalty and consider it the gate to cross to the realm of legend. Generation after generation of such legends keep the fires of vengeance burning in their hearts.

Indiscriminate arrests 50 years ago led to the cultivation of hatred in the hearts of young people taken by mistake along with real criminals. It is inside prisons that terror gurus invade the hearts and minds of young people, who come out of prison thirsty for blood.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government is repeating the same mistake. Any doubt of innocence among the crowds of arrested suspects serves to feed a stock of sympathy towards them and this sympathy spills over to include killers who boast about their evil deeds.

For every innocent suspect being tried, there is a family that inherits grief and a desire for revenge. The only way out of this conundrum is strict observance of the law and paying the utmost care in investigating a case and hearing it.

It is extremely important to cover all ground and options before resorting to death sentences, a penalty that I sincerely wish to be abolished because what is there to do or say when an executed prisoner turns out to be innocent?

There is nothing worse or more dangerous than losing trust in the integrity of the judicial system or disrespecting judicial decisions. The danger is that we end up facing contradictory outcomes: a judge issuing a death sentence who believes his decision is right and an indifferent terrorist who believes that he was executing God’s law and justice. I can give many cases to illustrate.

In July 2013, Mahmoud Ramadan objected to the dismissal of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi and, in retaliation, threw children off the roof of a building in Alexandria. The hideous crime was filmed and the killer did not even bother to hide his face. He walked proudly waving the black banner of al-Qaeda, confident that he had triumphed for his faith.

Ramadan was executed in February 2015 and immediately the religious right wing raised a banner saying: “Mahmoud’s execution… the execution of a homeland.”

It is incredible that none of these people put himself or herself in the shoes of the parents of the slain children. The Muslim Brotherhood’s propaganda machine was interested only in fabricating legends.

In June 2015, a car bombing killed Egypt’s Attorney General Hisham Barakat and 28 people were sentenced to death for the attack. On February 20, nine of them were executed.

Abdul Majeed, the father of one of the executed young men, declared in a phone interview with a Muslim Brotherhood television channel that he was proud of his son. He didn’t deny the murder charges against his son and stated that his son “had gone to heaven and got what he had wished for, namely, to die for the sake of Allah Almighty and we all desire that.”

The father read his son’s testament, written in classical Arabic, in which he stated that he was ready to fight “the people of the cross” and the Jews. That misguided youth sounded like Ammar ibn Yasir facing the infidels of Quraish in Mecca.

I am not a judge to decide whether those nine men were guilty or innocent. I believe, however, that justice must be rendered after the fulfilment of the strict legal requirements, such as admitting guilt without physical or psychological coercion or torture.

It is justice that must guarantee the acquittal of the innocent and the punishment of the offender. If a criminal walks free, then the judicial system is deficient, perhaps too restricted by legal procedures.

In any case, the question is this: How do we ensure that justice is upheld in the context of the current public tension, terrorist attacks making dozens of victims in our cities and on our borders and psychological and media warfare funded by unfriendly countries and intercontinental organisations?

Death sentences may kill terrorists but they may feed terrorism. If you look at officialdom in Egypt, you’ll not find it busy fighting terrorism.

There are religious scholars whose declared mission is to preach but not to invite Muslims to Islam. One of them, who described himself as a preacher, is Muhammad al-Ghazali, author of “Humoum al-Da’ya” (“Concerns of a Preacher”). State television has made the late Muhammad Metwali Al-Sharawi a legend and gave him the title “Imam of the Preachers.”

The legacy of both men is devoid of innovation in religious discourse. Both men adopted an intolerant position towards non-Muslims.

Sharawi even issued fatwas forbidding the fine arts, except for poetry if it is in the service of religion and the homeland. He considered acting and music as the devil’s work and did not object to the execution of those who do not pray, in line with the age-old doctrine of traditional jurisprudence. These fatwas and opinions are part of the Sayed Sabeq’s book “Fiqh al-Sunna,” which can be considered the “constitution” of religious extremism.

Today, we still find young preachers, armed with their best smiles and calling themselves “advocates of moderation,” preaching the same freedom-killing terrorist ideology.

So we have two parallel lines, one that celebrates owners of extremist ideas and the other that gets rid of the tangible results of these ideas. In the meantime, the intellectual roots of terrorist ideologies remain deeply entrenched in society and the system, nourishing more tangible outcomes that could explode in our faces.

Are we serious about confronting terrorism an idea before it takes the shape of a bullet?