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EGYPT: Islamic Hardliners Becoming Aggressive

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Apr 15 2011 (IPS) - Shrines venerated for centuries by Sufi Muslims have come under attack as Islamic fundamentalists seek to purge the Egyptian landscape of “heretical” artifacts that do not conform to their strict interpretation of Islam.

A Sufi follower seeks blessings at the shrine of Sayyida Ruqqaya in Cairo. Credit: Cam McGrath

A Sufi follower seeks blessings at the shrine of Sayyida Ruqqaya in Cairo. Credit: Cam McGrath

Egyptian authorities say dozens of shrines sacred to Sufis – an esoteric branch of Islam – have been vandalised or destroyed in recent weeks by Salafists, an ultra-conservative sect that advocates a return to Islam as they believe it was practised during the religion’s earliest days.

The shrines were built to commemorate Muslim saints and have played an integral role in popular religious practice for centuries. Sufis visit the holy sites to honour the saints buried there and to seek their spiritual blessings and guidance. Some of the shrines are also considered sacred to Egypt’s minority Shia Muslim population.

Salafists, who adopt a literal interpretation of the religious texts, view the shrines as a form of heresy. Their strict interpretation of the Quran and Sunna (teachings of Prophet Mohammed) forbids seeking blessings from the deceased. They also object to the presence of shrines inside many of Egypt’s historic mosques, which they say defiles the sanctity of the mosques.

“The worship of shrines and saints is shirk (polytheism), and is forbidden in Islam,” says Mohamed Hussein, a member in a Salafist group. “Anyone who accepts this is not a true Muslim.”

The shrine attacks began last month in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a stronghold for both Salafi and Sufi groups. At least 16 of the city’s historic mosques have been targeted by Islamists, including the famed Mosque of Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursi, which contains the venerated tomb of a 13th century Andalusian sheikh.

In Qalioubia governorate, north of Cairo, local residents apprehended a man they said was a Salafist after he set fire to the wooden frame covering the shrine of Sidi Izz El-Din. Days earlier, a gang of bearded youth wielding crowbars and sledgehammers set upon the nearby shrine of Sidi Abdel Rahman. The attack was thwarted by townsfolk, who rallied to protect the sacred site and clashed with the assailants.

“The physical description and actions of the assailants suggest they were Salafists, but we cannot rule out counter-revolutionary forces seeking to heighten sectarian tensions between Sufis and Salafists,” a security source told IPS.

The repressive rule of former president Hosni Mubarak obscured the ideological conflicts between the various branches of Islam in Egypt, but since his ouster in February these differences have emerged from the shadows. While predominently Sunni, Egypt’s 72 million Muslims vary in how they interpret and apply the scriptures, with the liberal, esoteric Sufis on one side of the spectrum, and the ultra- orthodox Salafists on the other.

“We as Muslims, whether Sufis or Salafists, agree on the principles of Islam such as the Quran and the Sunna,” explains Sheikh Mohamed El-Shahawi, chairman of the International Sufi Council. “Our differences lie in the interpretation and implementation of the scriptures: Sufis have a relaxed approach, while the Salafists take a much more extreme one.”

El-Shahawi claims 14 million Egyptians are card-carrying members of the country’s 74 Sufi orders, while millions more have “Sufi tendencies” that include reverance of Muslim saints and a belief in shrine worship.

Salafists, by contrast, are estimated to number no more than a few hundred thousand. Yet their visibility has increased significantly in the two months since Mubarak’s ouster, which appears to have emboldened them to back their convictions with action.

Reports of Salafist moral vigilantism include an arson attack on the home of a woman of “ill-repute”, and a brawl between Islamists and vendors at a shop selling alcohol that left one man dead. Salafists also allegedly attacked a Christian landlord they accused of running a brothel. One of the assailants was reported to have cut off the landlord’s ear as punishment.

Sufi leaders charge that the rigid, puritanical ideology of Salafism has inspired radical militants willing to use violence to assert their convictions. They see parallels between the recent shrine attacks in Egypt and similar acts carried out by other hardline Islamist groups, including the Taliban’s demolition of two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, and a spate of deadly bombings at Sufi shrines in Pakistan.

Ibrahim Abdel Hafez, an expert on Sufi culture at the Higher Institute of Folk Arts, says tensions between Sufis and Salafists have existed for centuries, but relations have worsened during the last 25 years. He says the potential for sectarian strife is enormous given the number of shrines that dot the Egyptian countryside.

“In every village you’ll find at least one shrine for a local saint,” he says.

Efforts to reconcile differences between the two rival sects have faltered. At a conference last week, Sufi leaders refused to sign a reconciliation agreement after Salafi representatives rejected their demand to include an item stating that demolishing shrines was haram (forbidden by Islam).

In an earlier meeting, Salafist leaders denied any involvement in attacks on Sufi shrines. They accused the media of sensationalising the incidents – despite scant evidence and few suspects – to feed fears of Salafist extremism.

Sheikh Yasser Burhami, a prominent Salafist in Alexandria, said members of his sect would never attempt to remove these shrines by their own hand, but would instead educate the community about the gravity of shrine worship, “which is far from religion and nothing but myths.” He added that once the public was convinced of the error in its ways, Salafists would call upon a governing body or authority to dismantle the shrines.

A credibility gap has many Sufis bracing for more attacks.

“I would like to believe that (Salafists will seek legal channels), but we’ve seen many times before how they resort to violence when preaching fails,” says Mohamed Ahmed, caretaker of Sayyida Ruqqaya’s shrine in Cairo.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders said it would recruit volunteer watchmen to guard shrines, and vowed to rebuild those defaced or destroyed. One Sufi leader warned of a civil war “beyond imagination, should the destruction of shrines persist.”

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