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07 May 2012

Counter Islamists and Islam: The new religious opposition

“They can do good and they can do bad – but they’re just Muslims. They are not Islam.”
And with that, the man summed up his talk about the different Islamist movements in Egypt. His talk had been intense – perhaps better described as virulent. Such sentiments distinguishing Islamism from Islam is hardly unique – liberal and non-religious forces within predominantly religious conservative societies in the Muslim world have been making that argument for a while now.

But this man was hardly a secularist. He was a graduate of the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the pre-eminent Islamic educational institution of the world – and he was delivering his talk as the Friday sermon in one of the most prestigious mosques of Cairo. In short, he was a counter-Islamist religious authority.
It was fascinating to listen to the talk for many reasons. For one, the preacher was very clear in his essentially political diatribe – something that could not have been thought of a little over a year ago in Cairo. But more than that – the preacher was evidently representative of a large swathe of the religious establishment in Egypt. That establishment that regards religious interpretation as being the domain of academic specialists, or ‘the learned’ (‘ulama), rather than put into the hands of political activists who would corrupt God’s religion for petty political gain.
“Who are these people that claim to speak on behalf of Islam? They are taxi-drivers and bus drivers – having a long beard is not a substitute for the learning that the learned specialist of religion is obligated to have.”
In post January 25 Egypt, pretty much the entire non-Islamist political establishment is keen for the Azhar University and its scholars to take control of Islamic interpretations. Its not hard to see why – in the absence of a specialist institution, the loudest and most populist voices drown out other voices. In today’s Egypt, those voices belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis – groups that the non-Islamist political establishment seeks to keep in check.
Much of this tension flared up in recent weeks. Islamists of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis decided to dominate the constitutional assembly that is responsible for drafting Egypt’s new constitution. The Azhar University was bitterly disappointed that the constitutional document it had so painstakingly worked to build consensus around, including Islamists of different stripes and non-Islamists and others from civil society, was not the structure that the constitutional assembly had chosen to use. But it was particularly affronted by the fact that the assembly had decided to reserve one seat for the Azhar University, and one seat for the Coptic Church – as though the two institutions were equal --and equally insignificant.
“I’ve reached a stage in my life that I’m cautious of anyone who claims religion gives them a monopoly on power. The Muslim Brotherhood will soon learn that what they covet, may bring them down.”
The author of the above quote belongs to a Western civil society movement outside of Egypt with its intellectual roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, but many share his sentiment. Others within the broader Islamist movement have become severely disillusioned with the current leadership of the MB in particular – a leadership which has broken several political pledges over the past year with rather poor explanations. Not least of which was the running of a presidential candidate, against numerous promises to the contrary. For Kamal el-Helbawy, the former MB spokesman in Europe, that was the final straw. A committed Islamist, he refused to stay in the MB after that, saying, “I cannot stand in the ranks of people who turned their back on the revolution.”
It is early to tell where all this will lead – but it is significant to watch.
In that Friday sermon mentioned above, the Azhar graduate asked his congregation to pray for the rectification of their inward states. The subtext was clear: The Islamists might call for an ‘Islamic state,’ but the sheik sought for his congregants to reform their inner states to become Islamic. As the leadership of MB in particular, but of the newly political Salafi groups as well, seek to increasingly manifest their Islamism on the level of public policy, they will find opposition from an expected quarter: deeply religious, but non-Islamist, Muslims.
By Dr. H.A. Hellyer  a Cairo-based expert on the MENA region, with experience at Gallup, the Brookings Institution & Warwick University. Twitter: @hahellyer