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Islam and Politics ( 13 Dec 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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SALAFIS IN DAMIETTA: Islamic fundamentalists have a real presence in society

By Ursula Lindsey

Dec 8, 2011

I spent a few days in the northern port city of Damietta earlier this week, for the run-offs. Damietta being the country's most-Islamist district (I think 90% of the votes went to Islamist parties), the main competition there was between Salafis and Muslim Brothers. I wrote a piece about inter-Islamist dynamics and the emergence of the ultra-conservative Salafis for The Daily Beast.

Damietta is a pleasant, calm, friendly town and it was a strange, fascinating, enervating experience to sit for hours in various party offices there with 1) Muslim Brothers disparaging Salafis as politically unqualified "preachers" and cooperators with the former regime now manipulating simple people through religion 2) Salafis disparaging Muslim Brothers as arrogant, sneaky and self-interested and insisting that they themselves are not extremists because (despite the fact that they can't bring themselves to print a niqabed woman's face on a poster and that they don't support democracy "if by that you mean rule of the people") they plan on gradually, "gently" persuading all of Egypt to become Saudi Arabia, without the use of physical force.

It's really easy to get freaked out by Salafis. There is something truly disturbing about the fact that these religious fundamentalists have entered electoral politics while withholding their support for basic democratic principles and human rights. I think it was probably a mistake to legalize these extremist parties (and a contradiction with Egyptian law, which forbids parties based on religion); it was also a mistake to hold elections before writing the constitution and establishing the framework of the future state and the rules of the game.

That said, Salafis have a real presence in society (they are much better implanted in mosques than the Muslim Brotherhood) and their ideology needs to be understood and confronted. Their rising to the surface of society, as it were, seems like a natural post-revolution process. And one encouraging sign is that most Salafis lost their run-offs (to Muslim Brothers). In think the negative media attention to some of their most ridiculous and odious statements may have had an impact on public opinion.

Ursula Lindsey is a writer who has been living in Cairo since 2003.

Reader Comments

This is one of the reasons why Salafis are acting like that and why they started to interfere inside Arab countries:

"Hamadi Redissi, author of the "Pact of Najd"

Professor of political science at the University of Tunis, the Tunisian intellectual Hamadi Redissi attempts to explain how Wahhabism, long regarded as a cult, if not a heresy (his followers desecrated Mecca in the nineteenth century) gradually reached and emerge as the new Islamic orthodoxy by oil wealth.

Hamadi Redissi is not hiding behind the words. He said that in the early nineteenth century, the Wahhabis took Mecca. They destroy the domes erected in the sacred enclosure, the tombs of Khadija, the Prophet's first wife, his uncle Abu Taleb, Hassan and Hussein and the tombs and mausoleums in the cemetery of Mala in Mecca. In Medina, in addition to the demolition of the tombs, the sanctuary containing the tomb of the Prophet is desecrated (however, it suffers no permanent damage). The treasures stocked in the Room were stolen.

Saud, the ancestor of the rulers that currently run Saudi Arabia, seized precious stones, bracelets, necklaces, donated by pilgrims since ancient times to their Prophet. It will take sixty camels to carry the plunder. Hamadi Redissi, author of the "Pact of Najd" (*) clearly raises the question: How, then, a warlike sect that killed, looted, plundered and desecrated the holy places could he obtain a certificate of good conduct granted by those who fought it?

On reading these lines, it's easy to understand that the Tunisian writer does not like too much the Wahhabis. However, the book is definitely not a pamphlet. Hamadi Redissi spent several years researching. He visited Saudi Arabia, he had access to sources of English, German, American. It tells exactly as Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), founder of a politico-religious movement, has sealed an alliance with an unwavering war leader, Ibn Saud, to the years 1744-1745. This is the famous "Pact of Najd." A Muslim version of the famous Christian alliance of the sword and the brush.

The aim of Ibn Abd al-Whahhab? Reform a religion "damaged" by the "false religion." In fact the preacher, the author presents as a minor character, managed to impose a radical Islam, fanatical, bigoted, austere, puritanical, reactionary, wherever Saud came to power. That is to say the whole of Saudi Arabia since 1932. Then, thanks to oil money, Wahhabism is out to conquer the Muslim world at the expense of traditional religiosity, much more open.

In Afghanistan, for example, Osama bin Laden and the Saudis have helped the Mujahedin the most backward, to the detriment especially of Commander Massoud. For Redissi Hamadi, the pact establishes Nadj two powers into one. They "sleep in the same bed," without knowing if they have the same dream. For many years, the Sunni tradition has defended with incredible virulence against Wahhabism. But what he calls "heresy" was rehabilitated through the sinews of war. "The Pact Nadj" said that Saudi Arabia now sets the agenda. It "brings up a traditional recruitment of traditional ulemas. It sponsors a plethora of institutions. "

In order: the World Islamic Congress, the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Muslim World League, World Assembly of Muslim Youth. Saudi Arabia now holds nearly 30% of the Arab financial envelope, feeding about fifty channels and as many newspapers. For the researcher Pascal Menoret, it is not Islam that has been "wahhabised" but Wahhabism has been a global spread. In short, is Saudi Arabia becomes the "Vatican" of Islam?

To the Pact Nadj, Hamadi Redissi adds the Covenant of Quincy, signed February 14, 1945 between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. In this pact, the Saudis share their oil against American military protection. The Quincy is a cruiser, one of the jewels of the U.S. Navy, which then wets in one of the lakes of the Suez Canal. The Tunisian writer reveals that the two heads of state have, in fact, relatively little talked about oil concessions. Ibn Saud was especially marked his total opposition to the establishment of the Jews of Palestine.

"What harm Arabs have they done to the Jews in Europe? These are the German Christians who stole their homes and their lives. Let the Germans pay! "Reportedly told the king of Saudi Arabia. At the time, Franklin Roosevelt seems convinced. It takes a triple commitment:

* Make the Rules of the Palestinian issue a priority of his government * Do nothing that is hostile to the interests of the Arabs * Taking no change in policy without the full consultation of both parties, Arab and Jewish.

But the U.S. president is going to die two months after this interview. And the triple engagement remained a dead letter. For its part, Saudi Arabia has never taken up arms against Israel, as stated by Ibn Saud to Franklin Roosevelt."

Book written in French -"

Dec 8, 2011 | Sandra Egypte

Ursula, I was under the impression that Salafis have historically rejected parliamentary politics. How are they justifying their current participation in the Egyptian elections?

Dec 9, 2011 at 7:40 AM | Todd

"It was also a mistake to hold elections before writing the constitution and establishing the framework of the future state and the rules of the game."

If so then who should have the authority to have done that? And more importantly what gives anyone the right to insist a community should be bound by values they don't choose? Is this some kind of 3rd phase neo-neo-colonialism you are suggesting?

Dec 9, 2011 Latifa

Absolutely right Latifa,

The majority is not moderate, and pretty much live in the 15th century. Instead to trying to promote democracy, the west should have been promoting pluralism, secularism and religious tolerance. We can only hope that Syria holds out againt this Islamist wave, so that the copts, secularists, atheists, and other kafirs have one last safe haven in the region.

Dec 9, 2011

I dont see how one can call any political entity "democratic" if before elections, foreign appointed apparatchiks of global neoliberalism first write the rules, ensuring that those same institutions cannot be affected by democratic will. One can see these influences in the text above, and in the preliminary constitutional principles. Private property, sustainable development, even secularism, defined broadly, under some EU writ, might include right of access to markets by foreign multinationals, limits on expropriation of frequently acquired Mubrark allies wealth, prohibition of a Zakat , tax on unused wealth, or simply Jim Crow blatant denial of voting rights to those who are religiously inspired.

A Republic with a constitution written by transnational NGOs and corporations is not a democracy. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

I truly hope people who advocate this approach consider the ramifications if the new neocolonial system fails again. Will not the response be even more radical , after the Salafis and MB undergo another decade of oppression (torture, imprisonment , I’m Crow) under a second liberal autocratic system?

My reference runs to the Boxer rebellion in China, after the multinationals of the day had made Shanghai an opium brothel under "free trade". The universal right to self determination evolved into a distorted and violent anti western ideology , a distinct possibility in egypt, if foreign repression of its culture and religion continues.

Dec 9, 2011 Bilal

A constitutional convention with these numbers should be really interesting. The Brothers are going to get to choose with whom they write the document.

If the Brothers have 46%, the Salafis 24%, the liberals 20%, and the fedjool 10%, then the Brothers should be able to get to two-thirds with either the Salafis or the liberals. (One hopes and presumes that it will take two-thirds to pass a document.) It seems like the Brothers would choose to write a constitution with the liberals, in order to safely ascend to power without interference from the military or the military's sometime-backers in the West.

They'll then get to take their hits from the Salafis in the next elections as traitors, but that seems like a safer bet for them than just writing an Islamist constitution right away and hoping to get it imposed without any interruption.

Assuming the Brothers are willing to write a relatively liberal constitution for now, the tell will be how easily amended they want it to be. It seems that the Brothers, expecting to consistently win elections for a while into the future, will want an easily amendable constitution, while the liberals will be pressing to lock in a fairly liberal and difficult to amend document right now. Basically, liberals will want an untouchable Bill of Rights type section, and the Brothers will want a document that locks in democratic procedures but doesn't confine their future power in any other way.

The Brothers will probably get most of what they want. How much they are willing to concede to the liberals will be a really interesting sign of whether their commitment to pluralistic-but-religious democracy is real or not. They could, conceivably, give away the store to liberals, and give them a much more liberal constitution than their electoral strength would admit, if the Brothers really do believe in Turkish and Tunisian style democracy-with-Islamic-parties. Or maybe they'll refuse, deal hard for a raw-democracy document, and their commitment to a pluralistic democracy will indeed turn out to be mostly rhetorical. A raw democracy, without constitutional protections for individuals and minorities, won't remain a place of legal equality for all for very long.

In any case, finding out who the Brothers really are, and how extensive is their disagreement with the Salafis, will be interesting. If the Brothers really do want to be Turkey, they're going to be in a looooong electoral showdown with the Salafis who want to be Saudi Arabia.

(Or am I the only person who believes the Brothers want to be Turkey?)

Dec 9, 2011   Paul

"There is something truly disturbing about the fact that these religious fundamentalists have entered electoral politics while withholding their support for basic democratic principles and human rights. I think it was probably a mistake to legalize these extremist parties (and a contradiction with Egyptian law, which forbids parties based on religion); it was also a mistake to hold elections before writing the constitution and establishing the framework of the future state and the rules of the game. "

Disturbing? Yes. But is this emergence in the region at all a surprise: in the context of the Zionist State that has been founded on so similar a premis?

Dec 11, 2011 John

Connolly comments upon the traditional history of secularism in the West which thinks of religious hegemony as intolerant, totalitarian, and abusive and secularism as defending “private freedom, pluralistic democracy, individual rights, public reason, and the primacy of the state.”[4] Connolly thinks this “story prevails” because “it paints the picture of a self-sufficient public realm fostering freedom and governance without recourse to a specific religious faith.”[5] For him secularism is not worthy of this portrait, especially since it cannot draw a clear line between the “private” and the “public.” John Rawls and Richard Rorty, to name only two, have sought to argue that religion and religious beliefs should be relegated to one’s private life, and that “public reason” should provide the parameters of the public sphere. Rawls desires this for the purpose of establishing “a stable overlapping consensus,” [6] while Rorty desires it because he thinks religion “is far more likely to end a conversation than to start an argument.”[7] For Connolly, each of these authors and secularism in general, assumes an easy and neat idea of what constitutes “religion.”

For Connolly, Deleuzian metaphysics can be used as a way of “reframing” the typical secular modus vivendi, especially as it is dialogue with Habermas, Kant, and Kierkegaard. By encouraging this kind of dialogue, Connolly thinks, “we augment academic models of secular discourse.”[8] A way of augmenting or reframing secular discourse is, once again, to admit the contestability of religious and non-religious beliefs when they enter the public sphere. Connolly sees how a fruitful connection can be made between different worldviews because (theistic and monotheistic) each of them “may contain an element of difference within itself from itself that tends to be blurred or obscured by the representations it makes of itself to others.”[9] Each worldview brought into the secular public sphere can at least connect by opposing the “straw-man” arguments that those who agree and disagree with them set up as accurate representations of their own beliefs.

William E. Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist (1999), review

more at author link critiquing Connolly

Dec 11, 2011 Why I am Not a Secularist WE Connaolly

It is important to remember when talking about "democratic principles" that "Western Democracies" are not democratic but republican in form . They owe a great deal in their construction to anti democratic principles. For example, the founding fathers of American "democracy" constructed the system of staggerred elections, separation of powers, and a constituional foundation , explicitly, openly, as anti-democratic safegaurds for people of wealth and priviidge. In its modern form, "western democracy" makes offshore corporations "people" with unlimited freedom of expression, meaning as interpreted by the courts, unlimited ability to finance political campaigns. Of course, this explains why banks committing fraud receive trillions in bailout money financed by cuts in public pensions , or why tiny financial lobbies allied with oil companies can construct an imperialistic foreign policy despite the opposition of a large majority of the voting, non corporate, people.

Islamists, OWS ers , and others who therefore oppose western democratic principles, ie transnational corporate republics, may be doing so on democratic social justice grounds, the exact opposite of what the Orwellian language of "democratic principles" conveys.

Dec 11, 2011 “democratic principles"

Source: The Daily Beast