News / Africa

Egypt's Salafists Raise Their Political Profile

Separate elevators for men and women at the Towahid mosque in  Cairo,  April 5 2011
Separate elevators for men and women at the Towahid mosque in Cairo, April 5 2011
Elizabeth Arrott

As Egypt prepares for its first elections since a popular uprising, many new actors have entered the political scene. Among them are Salafi Muslims, whose fundamentalism is seemingly at odds with both hopes for a democratic future and the country's long history of tolerance and pluralism.

The mosque of Sheikh Shaaban Darwish sits side-by-side a Coptic church, not an unusual sight in Egypt where roughly ten percent of the people are Christian. But the Taawoun area of Giza is unmistakably Muslim, and conservative Muslim at that. The bearded men wear prayer caps, and the form-fitting clothes of women in wealthier neighborhoods give way to the flowing head-to-toe black of the niqab.

Salafi Sheikh Shaaban Darwish at his office in Giza, Egypt, April 5, 2011
Salafi Sheikh Shaaban Darwish at his office in Giza, Egypt, April 5, 2011

The Salafi sheikh, whose Saudi headdress is a nod to prominent backers of puritan Islam, points to the proximity of the church as a sign of tolerance. He also welcomes the coming of democracy, just not the hypocritical, anti-Muslim kind he says is espoused by the West.

Darwish says democracy has some of the advantages of Islam, but he argues Islam is "the authentic commodity", and democracy an "alternative." Islam, he says, allows for a democracy that convinces Muslims and others "that Islam is the end and not the means."

Such beliefs are not surprising among a group that follows the ideas of the first three generations of Muslims some 1400 years ago. But as Salafis raise their political profile, they are also raising alarm among democracy advocates who sought to bring Muslims, Christians and secularists together on Tahrir Square.

Activists look to recent incidents that seem to undermine their efforts at pluralism. In Fayoum, south of Cairo, one person died in a clash between Salafi Muslims and the Christian owner of a liquor store. In Qena, Salafists attacked a Coptic man they accused of renting an apartment to a prostitute. They cut off his ear.

Darwish dismisses such incidents as the work of individuals and blames the media for making too much of them.

Besides, he says, Salafi ideology doesn't count cutting off an ear among its punishments.

In addition to fears of people coming under attack, some worry even Egypt's heritage would be in danger should Salafists have their way.

Darwish says he distinguishes between monuments and idols, and that the pyramids, for example, are safe.

He says Salafists wouldn't even physically destroy idols, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Rather, he says, they will "destroy them in people's minds, their culture and their hearts" through "right preaching."

The former government often justified the heavy hand of its security by pointing to the threat of extremists stoking sectarian divides. Such fears were not lessened when the overwhelming approval of last month's referendum was tied in part to the slogan "Islam is the answer."

Moreover, while much attention has been paid to upcoming presidential elections and the largely secular potential candidates, it is the parliamentary vote that will likely have a more deciding effect on the country's future. The next parliament will decide on a new constitution, and with it how secular or religious the new Egypt will be.

Just how well Salafists might do is unclear. There are few reliable opinion polls, so it is hard to know how wide their appeal is after decades of repression. The more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, despite also being harassed, has a well-established social and political network and some believe the two could join forces to give Islamists a prominent position in the next parliament.

But Mohamad Salah, the head of the London based el-Hayat newspaper and an observer of Islamic movements, thinks that unlikely.

Salah says it would be difficult for the Brotherhood to associate itself with any movement seen as extremist. He argues it has spent a long time denouncing radicalism and opening up its base to present a more voter-friendly movement.

He also does not believe Salafism is very widespread, although he points to changes in recent years that may have attracted some Egyptians.

He says the increase of satellite channels - in particular Saudi religious ones - as well as the spread of poverty and what he calls ignorance have all boosted the fundamentalists' ranks.

But those channels have brought something else - a greater window on the world.

That awareness is on display upstairs from the Sheikh's office.

Step out of the elevator - there are separate ones for men and women, with a recording of a travelers' prayer playing as the car ascends - and one enters a ceremony for women of the mosque. The celebrants have successfully memorized the Quran.

There is singing and laughing and for entertainment, a dead-on parody of Moammar Gadhafi and his recent, rambling "zenga zenga" speech.

These women are separate, but they are informed.

It's that kind of information - what is happening both at home and abroad - that helped spread the pro-democracy movement across the region and, in Egypt, for now, helped put an end to repression.

You May Like

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid