Salafist dogma, Copts and the state in Egypt

Sunday 18/12/2016

The bombing of a Coptic church in Cairo opened wounds that Egypt would rather forget. Terrorism in Egypt is getting out of hand. The cause does not lie in the fact that Egyptian security and intelligence forces are incapable of thwarting persistent attacks against Copts. Rather, it must be structural.

While trying to bring about some form of stability, the Egyptian leadership is entrapping itself in instability. Attacks against the security forces and the army are indications that the government’s strategy against terrorism is working but the government’s policy against terrorism is failing.

The regime in Egypt includes the president, the army and internal security forces. This group controls the country’s political scene and is constantly shuffling its cards. This political construct takes its authority from the people represented by the parliament and the law repre­sented by the judiciary. It is, however, missing the religious authority and this is the crux of the problem.

Religious authority in Egypt traditionally came from support from al-Azhar. Today, this authority has been kidnapped and its fate rests upon the outcome of the everlasting joust between al-Azhar and the Salafists. Al-Azhar used to be the only religious authority in Egypt and was co-opted by the state to face off the challenges from leftist and pan-Arabist movements. However, al-Azhar’s religious legitimacy has been under attack since the 1970s by Salafist dogmas imported mainly from oil-rich Gulf countries.

Al-Azhar was a beacon of religious moderation because it was the only source of religious reference available. Now it has competition. Its many competi­tors have taken over much of its territory and have captured its vital space, namely al-Azhar mosque.

Then came the cassettes and satellite channels and they invaded every home. At the same time, Salafist books laid the theoretical groundwork for jihadist dogma. In the meantime, the armies of scholars at al-Azhar could not produce a single book or open a single channel or have a single conference to counteract this devastating Salafist tsunami.

Al-Azhar lost the battle for people’s minds and the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood moved in to capture the institution’s academic brain and the soul of the entire country. With the Muslim Brotherhood in power, al-Azhar had finally become a beacon of Salafist thought and thus the third source of authority for the Egyptian regime was in place.

The trouble is that, since the 1952 revolution in Egypt, al-Azhar has traditionally meddled in all aspects of life in Egypt. Not a single film, novel, non-fiction book or article came out before being filtered by al-Azhar. Even school curriculum, university theses and television programmes had to have the seal of approval of this unofficial religious authority. The prevailing reality today is that the religious umbrella for the regime in Egypt is the extremist Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood dogmas in place inside al-Azhar.

Most of the people in charge of the security forces in Egypt belong to a generation that has grown within the context of the new religious dogmas. They have grown up believing that a woman needs a male supervision to move about, that non-Muslims must pay a protection tax and that wearing the niqab is a virtue.

This connection between Salafist dogmas and the security class in Egypt is quite complex. Decision-makers at the most sensitive security levels likely do believe that Salafist figures such as Mohamed Hassan, Yasser Brahmi and Muhammad Hussein Yacoub are representative of the true religion.

The result of this fundamental interconnection of views and beliefs between the representa­tives of the regime and the Salafists is victimising the Copts. When you do not stop the spread of ideas such as that all Christians are apostates and concepts of “people under protection” and when you forbid exchanging holiday greetings with Copts, you get the bombing in Cairo.

Al-Azhar and all other official religious institutions in Egypt have not moved an inch towards moderating or renewing religious discourse in the country. This is normal because they really do not believe that the prevailing religious discourse needs renew­ing. Egyptian President Abdel Fat­tah al-Sisi’s calls for revising school curricula were given the cold shoulder by those institu­tions perhaps because they are convinced that the regime is not serious about reform.

No wonder then that the Copts become targeted in such a society. As long as extremist thinking prevails at all levels and everywhere in this country, terrorists will believe that Christians are the first obstacle to be removed from the road to a pure Islamic state and the state will continue to fight terrorists while aligning itself with terrorist thought.