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Egypt: the new spokesman of Islam

By YAHYA SSEREMBA

Summary: Beyond giving drinking water to the pilgrims and maintaining the Sacred Mosque, Saudi Arabia has failed to provide leadership to the Muslim world. As the Muslim Brotherhood consolidates power in Egypt, the most populous and most powerful Arab country is moving to fill the vacuum. 

Author Biography: Yahya Sseremba is the publisher and editor of The Campus Journal news website.

As Muslims heighten protests against an American-made anti-Islam propaganda film, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil has called on Washington “to ensure insulting billions of people, one-and-a-half billion people and their beliefs, does not happen” again on US soil. In this demand Mr. Qadil was tacitly but clearly setting forth the role that his country has assigned itself in the new world order.

The world order that follows the Arab Spring comes with the gradual re-Islamisation of Egypt. The transcontinental country, like most of the House of Islam, had in the course of recent centuries become Muslim only in name. This spiritual turn down worsened in the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of three factors.  

The first factor was the decline and eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire, ending a worldwide Muslim government known as the Caliphate. As the Caliphate withered and weakened, the lands of Islam became vulnerable to outside influence and foreign invasion.

With foreign invasion and occupation came the second contaminant of Islam: alien systems, laws and habits. To resist this imperialism, thirdly, the Arabs – instead of seeking guidance in Islam – resorted to their narrow nationalistic ideas, and went ahead to form secular post-colonial governments defined more by their race than by their religion. They replaced the Islamic system with the designs of the people against whom they had fiercely fought to gain independence.

In a blind imitation of Europe the new Arab rulers, including those bitterly opposed to the West like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, reduced religion to a private affair that had no place in the public sphere. Their vision and ambition didn’t transcend their Arabism. “They,” as Sayyid Qutb puts it, “substituted for the banner of Islam that of factional bonds.”

In the midst of this deviation emerged the Muslim Brotherhood with the goal of not only expelling the colonialists, but most importantly cleansing the Muslim world of the un-Islamic legacy of colonialism. For the past eight decades this revivalist movement has been setting up branches and sensitizing people in various Muslim countries, hoping one day to seize power in these nations and unite them in view of restoring the Caliphate.

Though the organisation has ruled Sudan and the Gaza Strip since its offshoots seized power in 1989 and 2006, respectively, it has only become a force to reckon with following the Arab Spring, which has propelled it to power in Egypt and catapulted its affiliates and admirers in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia to positions of political influence.

As more tyrants fall in Arabia, there is a great possibility that branches of the Brotherhood would make it to government in more countries. Besides restoring the public role of religion at home, the new government in Egypt seeks to pursue an independent and universalist foreign policy that meets its Pan-Islamic aspirations. As it prepares to unite the Muslim world in the long run, Cairo will position itself as the guardian of Muslim interests in the short run.  

Despite her peace treaty with Israel, Egypt is not likely to take an indifferent stance in the face of relentless Jewish massacre of the Palestinians. The persistence of such atrocities could even lead to the termination of the treaty at an appropriate time. Being a great concern of Muslims worldwide, the plight of the Palestinian people cannot be ignored by a power that aspires to lead the Muslim world. Voices in the North African nation already calling for the review of the Camp David Accords are likely to amplify as soon as Israel wages another bloodbath.

Egypt’s observance of the Accords is largely sustained by the Unites States, which bribes the former in form of $16 billion annual aid. As relations between the two frenemies become increasingly uncertain, the future of the treaty equally plummets into uncertainty.  President Barrack Obama remarked last week that the United States no longer regarded Egypt an ally.

It is this nerve to stand up to the United States that gives Egypt the edge over Saudi Arabia in their contest for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. The largest Arab country, of course, will need to do more than confronting the detractors of Islam if it is to beat the rich Gulf monarchy in this leadership race. Saudi Arabia, since its inception in 1932, has been the de facto global Muslim leader by virtue of its custody of the two holy sites, including the Sacred House in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, and by virtue of being the birthplace of Islam.

In recent decades, following the affluence that came with oil, the Saudis have consolidated their influence by spreading their puritanical version of Islam – Salafism – through dispatching Saudi-trained sheikhs and funding religious schools all over the world. Today Salafism, once a fringe movement ignored as such, is little by little overrunning what many view as mainstream Islam.

Known in Uganda as the Tabligh Movement and derogated in the West as Wahabism, Salafism found a spiritual vacuum created by the failure of traditional scholars to educate the masses about the foundation of their religion. It found Muslims without Islam – Muslims entangled in acts of polytheism and heresy – and presented itself as a revivalist wave that embodied unpolluted Islam.

The term Salafism comes from the Arabic word Salaf, which means predecessors. The essence is to restore pure Islam as practiced by the righteous predecessors, and that is to say, the companions of the Prophet and their immediate successors. This conservative and assertive order is too literalist, too rigid and too paranoid about modernity. But it can also be dynamic, as witnessed recently in Egypt when it abandoned its long-held opposition to western politics and formed a political party that performed well in elections. 

Contrary to claims that Salafism espouses terrorism, there is nothing that condones irrational violence in the teachings of this denomination. It selectively draws most of its teachings from all of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, though it maintains a strong bias for the Hambali School. Salafism ridicules those who follow a single school to the letter as blind imitators who do not use their brains. (Traditionally Muslims follow any single of the four schools.)

Even though on some occasions Salafism may ignore the schools altogether, especially when it feels that the imams erred in their interpretations, most of its teachings can be traced in the four schools of thought. Thus whereas the movement is relatively new, its views are not without trace in classical Islam. Those who link it to terrorism are just Islamophopic, prejudiced or ignorant.

What can accurately be said about some Salafis is that they have little respect for Muslims who profess other versions of Islam and they have no respect at all for heretics like the Shiites. In fact, their passionate opposition to Shiasm has served Saudi Arabia very well in countering the influence of Shiite Iran.

With support from the House of Saud, Salafism has penetrated schools and mosques, and its message has sunk so deep in the mind of many an ordinary believer. The influence of the movement was put on display following the fall of President Mubarak when it suddenly formed the Al-Nour Party, contested elections and emerged as the largest in Parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Whoever still belittles Salafism as a peripheral player lives in the past. Mounting Western efforts to malign this popular society will be recognized for what they are – essentially anti-Islam efforts – and will come to naught.

The growing vitality of this strict interpretation of religion represents the continuing centrality of Saudi Arabia in shaping the affairs of the Muslim world.  To hold back the wave, Egypt will have to strengthen the role of the world’s leading center of Islamic learning, the Azhar.

At the moment Salafi universities in the Gulf churn out more graduates – and by extension wield more influence – than traditional universities like the Cairo-based Azhar. A revived and independent Azhar will fully reclaim its task of educating Muslims and checking the advance of simplistic interpretations of religion.

Cairo may also eliminate Riyadh’s competition by exporting the revolution. If this is too risky, time will still phase out the outdated and ageing monarchy. The people of Saudi Arabia will not tolerate absolute rule forever. Yet, any opening in the kingdom is likely to propel parties affiliated to or sympathetic with the Brotherhood to leadership, thereby consolidating Cairo’s lead.

Besides Saudi Arabia no other country seems to pose any formidable challenge to Egypt. Qatar, another rich Gulf state that is asserting itself by, for instance, participating recently in the bombardment of Gaddafi’s Libya and by attempting to coordinate talks between Hamas and Fatah and between the West and the Taliban, is another U.S. puppet that hardly appeals to the Muslim street.

While Turkey, which led the Muslims for hundreds of years and which is expressing renewed interest in shaping the affairs of the wider Middle East, is still grappling with an irreligious military that connives with an impious judiciary to harass veiled women.  This alone deprives Ankara of the moral authority to speak for Islam.

Besides, Turkey is not an Arab country. Though it managed to lead the Muslim world in the past, it did so when the Arabs were sick and weak. Today the Arabs are prosperous and ambitious, and they naturally have the upper hand in matters of the monotheistic faith.

The same non-Arab ‘shortcoming’ curtails Iran’s aspiration to speak for the religion. To make matters worse, the Iranians are Shiites, a small minority regarded by the mainstream Muslims – the Sunni – as heretical. This leaves Egypt in the lead.

And it would not be the first time Egypt is trying to provide leadership beyond its boarders. In the mid 20th Century, the country, though inspired by a secular ideology of nationalism, led the Arab world against the aggression of Israel and its western servants. With the signing of the Camp David Accords, however, Cairo became inactive, effectively passing on the leadership of the Arab and Muslim world to Riyadh.

But whereas Riyadh excelled in teaching and preaching the faith across the world, it willingly failed to defend the Muslims from Judeo-Christian bloodlust. If the Saudis didn’t have the guns, they had the oil they would have deployed to influence the policies of the persecutors. With more than 70 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, with about 50 percent of known gas reserves, and with more than 50 countries, the Muslims have enough resources to eradicate their poverty and to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. They only need leadership.

The leader the Muslim world needs today is not a mere pious preacher that the Saudis seem to offer; it’s a strategic fighter determined to end the tears rolling down the faces of the believers. The religious services that Saudi Arabia provides are commendable but not comparable to the fight that Egypt seeks to put up for Islam. The Qur’an says it best:

Do you consider the providing of drinking water to the pilgrims and the maintenance of the Sacred Mosque (at Makkah) as equal to the worth of those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and strive hard and fight in the Cause of Allah? They are not equal before Allah…(9:19)

 

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