Holier than thou: extremism against Islam
by Sheikh Musa Furber
Statements from three popular Egyptian religious preachers have left the Egyptian public in an uproar. One of the statements justifies sexually assaulting female protesters; another calls for murdering leaders of parties in opposition to President Morsi; yet another calls on the president to crack down heavily on protestors – before private citizens take matters into their hands. The irony of this situation is that from a religious perspective, the uproar against these statements is far more justifiable than the statements themselves.
Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah justified the sexual assault of female protestors with a detailed “analysis,” including demographics: “they are going there to get raped”; 90% of them are Christian, and the rest are widows without husbands to keep them in line. How he knew any of this is unclear – but even if it were all true, how any of it would be justification for sexual assault is even more unclear. Moreover, he ridiculed statements from the opposition that attacking women is a “red line” that must not be crossed.
The insensitivity and inappropriateness of Abdullah’s statements aside, given Egypt’s increasingly difficult sexual harassment problem, they are also in direct contradiction to Islamic law, which considers rape, assault and sexual harassment as always forbidden, sinful and criminal, with the harasser responsible for the harassment. Considering that these are basic items within Islamic law, one wonders how he might be brought to account by the law for essentially perverting the perception of Islam in the public arena.
Nevertheless, while Abdullah’s statements attempt to legitimize criminal behavior, he did not actually order people go commit it – whereas, Mahmoud Shaaban and Wagdi Ghoneim did so. Shaaban, on a popular TV channel, called for leaders of the opposition, mentioning leaders Mohamed El-Baradei and Hamdeen Sabahi by name, to be put to death – although he clarified that this punishment should not be carried out by private individuals. Ghoneim had no such reluctance with regards to protestors outside the presidential palace – he called on the government to deal with the protestors, failing which, private citizens would: “We will kill the criminals, the thugs, the thieves and those who give them money and those who help them with words. No mercy with them.”
Ghoneim and Shaaban’s statements are reminiscent of a similar statement issued by Hashim Islam. In August, Islam declared those protesting against President Morsi were guilty of brigandage (al-hirabah) and high treason (al-khuyanat al-uzma). Their blood was forfeit as a result, and he commanded the people of Egypt to confront them – using deadly force if necessary. Islam’s various claims were rejected by the Ministry of Endowments, Azhar University, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In contrast, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa has said that peaceful demonstrations are a right in Islam, though they should avoid harming people, property, and national interests. While some protests have resulted in violence, much of this violence was due in part by the heavy-handed response of the police – and in any case, the opposition leadership’s ability to command the protest movement is tenuous at best, and non-existent at worst. Even if the protestors were guilty of crimes, it is down to the state authorities responsible for maintaining law and order that have the authority to consider issuing legal verdicts – not private muftis (even if they are qualified), let alone unqualified TV personalities.
The irony of issuing such statements is that the act issuing them itself could be considered a form of calling to brigandage and vigilantism – precisely the charge that Shaaban and Ghoneim lay at the door of the opposition. Ghoneim’s statements in particular could easily be interpreted as enticing the public to defy the president, and carry out violent acts – which is an affront to the institutions of the state. That fact that the statements themselves make a mockery of Islamic law only worsens the situation further.
The general public and those targeted by these statements are not the only ones who are upset. Members of Azhar’s Islamic Studies Academy met with Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who vehemently rejected the legitimacy of the statement and cautioned Egyptians to ignore them.
While the President’s office was initially silent, it finally issued a statement last Thursday expressing its “full rejection of hate speech cloaked by religion,” calling for religious and intellectual leaders to unanimously reject such incitement. The statements included that “the promotion and instigation of political violence by some is foreign to Egypt, as is sanctioning killing because of political differences by others who claim to speak in the name of religion. This is terrorism.” The Interior Ministry consider the statements a public threat – especially since Shaaban’s statements were made soon after Chokri Belaid, one of Tunisia’s most well known anti-Islamist politicians, was murdered. Consequentially, the Ministry has increased patrols in areas where the opposition leaders reside.
It has been reported that the Egyptian cabinet is considering taking legal action against those who use religion to incite violence and that state prosecutor Talaat Ibrahim has ordered that Shaaban be investigated for his statement. Beyond incitement to violence, there may even be a case that such irresponsible statements fall under Egypt’s blasphemy law, which clearly states “whoever makes use of religion in propagating […] extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity.” Abdullah used religion to justify and excuse the sexual harassment and rape of Christian and Muslim protestors. Shaaban and Ghoneim’s statements used religion to justify killing opposition leaders and protestors.
While it is doubtful that the state prosecutor might use the blasphemy legislation to pursue irresponsible and extremist preachers, the reality is that such discourse is indeed an affront to religion. Morally, it is far more disgraceful when those calling for Islam use religion in such an unethical fashion, than when anti-Muslim bigots make poorly made films which would have been ignored had extremists not opted to draw so much public attention to them. The films resulted recently in a call to ban YouTube; where is the corresponding measure to combat errant attempts to use religious edicts (fatawa) for purely partisan purposes?
Sheikh Musa Furber is a research fellow at the Tabah Foundation and a qualified issuer of legal edicts (fatwas). He received his license to deliver legal edicts from senior scholars at the Egyptian House of Edicts including the Grand Mufti of Egypt. Twitter: @musafurber
[This piece was first published in Al-Arabiya, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.]