Can Egypt’s Muslim Establishment neutralize the anti-Establishment Jihadist narrative?

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Below I have translated a February 13th article in Alaph newspaper titled “Daesh and the Muslim Brotherhood Call Upon Their Followers to Kill the Sheikh of Al-Azhar.”

It highlights the extent to which the political violence associated with Jihadist movements everywhere in the Muslim World is best understood using this paradigm:

Establishment versus Anti-Establishment 

The basic divides as relates to  Egypt in particular:

(Group A) Establishment Islam:

Al-Azhar University is the epitome of the Muslim Establishment in Egypt.  It is the training institute for the vast majority of the clerics who end up preaching at mosques throughout the country. And the second position mentioned throughout the article, the “Mufti of the Republic” is considered the highest-ranking cleric.

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The Sheikh (President) of Al-Azhar and the Mufti are not “tools” of the Government as some of their critics – both Jihadists and hard-core Leftists often allege. They have massive prestige in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. However, it is true that nobody gets appointed to these very high-level religious posts unless they are seen as  “Company Men” by the Government.

Most importantly, those Egyptians who are most content with the social-cultural-economic status quo will tend to be most supportive of this  “Establishment Islam.”

(Group B) Extreme Anti-Establishment Islamism:

It goes without saying that Daesh, ISIS,  and other Jihadist groups etc are the epitome of the extreme Anti-Establishment.

It’s  not just card carrying members though who fall within this group. There are also several million passive sympathizers with Daesh or with Jihadist groups in Egypt. They are unlikely to act on those sympathies because the social consequences would be too high for them or their families, but they are there, in the shadows.  And nobody has any idea who they are. Will they ever act on their sympathies in the future if an opportune moment arises? Nobody knows.

(Group C) Some Vague  and Hard to Clarify Point in the Middle:

The Muslim Brotherhood is a direct competitor to the Al-Azhar establishment and falls in the Anti-Establishment category to a large extent. Although to be fair to the Muslim Brotherhood, as a caveat, I should mention that the Alaph article is written from an inherently anti-Ikhwan perspective and the evidence cited against them in the article below should be treated with a strong degree of healthy skepticism.

That being said, without question, individual members of the Ikhwan have shifted over to the Jihadi world-view in recent years. So if officially as a group the MB structure would be closer to the Establishment (their goal is in fact to be the Establishment), some ex-Ikhwanis have become Jihadis, and many who remain officially as Brotherhood members are in fact Jihadist sympathizers.

It is not a neat “either/or” situation as is sometimes portrayed by academics.  An individual can have a foot in/sympathies with both camps, and can easily switch back and forth depending upon whatever circumstance may arise.

To the article…

My translation with some commentary at the end.


Daesh and the Muslim Brotherhood Call Upon Their Members to Kill the Sheikh of Al-Azhar

Cairo – Consistent with the typical strategy of terrorist organizations to kill and liquidate their opposition, the “Daesh” terrorist organization released a video recording, imploring its followers to carry out assassinations against several members of the Muslim Ulema, in particular, Dr. Ahmed Tayyeb, the head of  Al-Azhar.

The tape was released by the Daesh-affiliated media office of the “Ninevah Province” and shared on social media. It listed the names of several of the Ulema from Egypt and the Gulf, accusing them of apostasy. The tape, which took the name “Spies not Ulema,” featured recordings of previous statements by these clerics against Daesh, calling them [Daesh] “the Evil Ulema.”

The recordings made the accusation that the Fatwas of these [establishment] clerics were the cause of the war against the [Daesh] Organization, and described the killings of the [establishment] Ulema as a “great good and benefit to all.” It called upon its members to carry out assasinations against them when the opportunity arises, whether by way of shooting with a gun, or by slitting their throats. Among the names listed in the recording were Dr. Ali Guma’a, former Mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Mohammed Hassan, in addition to other clerics and preachers.

However, the Daesh organization is not the only one in Egypt making such threats against Egyptian religious figures. The Brotherhood terrorist organization called upon its members to target and seek retribution against the Ulema claiming that they are misleading the people with their Fatwas. A page was published on a social media site called “Association of Muslim Ulama Against the Coup (Europe) ” with information about Dr. Ahmed Tayyeb, the head of Al-Azhar, and Dr. Ali-Gum’aa, former Mufti of the Republic, and Dr. Osama al-Azhari, advisor to the President of the Republic. The site included their home addresses, their places of birth, and several fatwas they issued, plus their political views. Also published was their phone numbers and followers were called upon to get in touch and harrass them.

Previous Crimes

Terrorist groups have already attempted to carry out the killings of the [establishment] clerics in Egypt. On 22 March 2015, the house of Mohammed Mukhtar Gomaa, minister of Religious Endowments, located in the Beni Suef province, south of Cairo, was the target of a terrorist attack. He was not home at the time and therefore was not harmed.

In August 2016, Dr. Ali Gumaa, former Mufti, was the target of a failed assassination attempt by terrorist organizations. While leaving his home in 6 October City,  and headed towards the nearby Fadel Mosque to give a sermon, unknown assailants fired a gun in his direction. However, the security gaurds tasked with protecting him, returned fire, forcing them to flee, without injuring the Mufti, although one of the gaurds had his foot injured.

Protection Plans

The threat by terrorist organizations to liquidate religious clerics has caused the Ministry of the Interior to rethink its plans for protecting the leaders of Al-Azhar and its Ulema. According to announcements from Al-Azhar security, The Interior has begun protecting the building, and the office of Dr. Ahmed Tayyeb, head of Al-Azhar.  They have decided to ban cars from entering the area to meet with the Sheikh. They have also provided an alternative site to the [sports] playing field in the vicinity of the Al-Azhar campus. In addition, bomb sniffing dogs make regular rounds and other tactics are used.

According to security reports, the Ministry of the Interior decided to assign two high-level security gauds to Dr. Tayyeb, and provide his convoy with 2 four wheel drive vehicles.

As for the security arrangements for the Minister of Endowments, the Interior Ministry assigned him a 4 wheel drive car, with 3 armed guards to protect against any future threats. They also decided to increase the number of guards for clerics holding leadership positions throughout Egypt, such as Dr. Sowki Alaam, Mufti of the Republic, and Dr. Ali Gomma, the former Mutfi, and several members of the High Azhar commission.

Ikhwan Violence:

Al-Azhar, via the 2nd meeting of the High Council of Islamic studies, published a report titled “Protitutes and Khawaraj”, discussing the position of Shariah [Islamic Law] towards terrorist groups such as the Brotherhood and others such as Ansar Beet Al-Maqqaddis and the Daesh Organization, which advocate violence, and are not committed to the principle of obedience to the Wali Al-Amar [ruler]. It reaffirmed that there are organizations that don’t believe in the parts from the scriptures advocating Unity, in order to strive to take over power, or other partisan motivations, and using religion as a cover to hide other motivations. These have been around since the furthest times. Al-Azhar states that those who take up arms, and kill themselves, those are the fighters concerning whom Allah said “the recompense of those who fight Allah and his messenger, and seek to make corruption in the land, is that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from alternate sides or that they be banished from the land; that is their disgrace in this world and in the Hereafter they will have a great torment.” Based on this, the ruler is free to choose any of the the punishments listened in the verse for whoever takes up arms and kills civilians, keeping in mind that what is meant by banishment is exile from the land of Islam to the lands of Polytheism.

A Dangerous Matter

 Dr. Shawki Abdel Latif, a member of the Association of Al-Azhar graduates, confirmed that that the Muslim Brotherhood organization wants to get rid of Dr. Tayyeb, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, given his position as one of the strongest supporters of Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi during the Revolution of 30 July. He noted that Egyptian clerics were exposed to attacks and liquidations by armed terrorist groups, although thanks be to Allah they fortunately failed. But this certainly doesn’t mean that these clerics wouldn’t be exposed to attacks in the future. Therefore, the matter requires close watch by security forces.

Dr. Abdel Latif stated to Alaph that Al-Azhar is being called upon to urgently rethink matters on the issue of Excommunicating (Takfir) Daesh and those affiliated terrorist groups, following their publicizing of threats to kill religious clerics. They have to be overcome decisively,” reiterating that their the act of killing other Muslims is a far graver matter than [merely] being outside of the Muslim fold.”

Security Control:

In this context, General Nasr Musa, a security expert, told Alaph that “the Interior Ministry is capable of guarding Egypt’s religious clerics, and in recent days measures have been strengthened to protect the leaders of Al-Azhar, especially Dr. Ahmed Tayyeb.

He pointed out that the Ministry of the Interior takes these threats seriously, especially given that the war on terrorism is a Long-Game. And the Muslim Brotherhood wants to get rid of the Al-Azhar clerics, given that they were one of the reasons for the fall of the Brotherhood, and the Sheikh of Azhar fiercly resisted the numerous attempts by former President Morsi and his supporters to gain control over Azhar.

My Commentary

(1)  To actively”Takfir” Daesh or not?

This is a very important point in the 3rd paragraph from the bottom. Official Muslim clerics in the Middle East are extremely reluctant to clearly declare groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS outside the fold. They do not do it even if it’s commonly assumed they do on PC American university campuses. Will they in the future if they start taking out Egypt’s high-level clerics?  That would be a huge development.

(2)  Will the Establishment vs Anti-Establishment brawl grow worse?

Nobody knows what the future holds.  But my inclination is that Establishment-Anti-Establishment tension described in the above article is likely to get much more violent. What we see in this article is merely a reflection of the Zero-Sum nature  of Egyptian society, given the limited number of economic resources (jobs, status) available and such a large number of people.  A huge number of Egyptians can not and will not be content under any circumstances because of that. Therefore, the “demand” for anti-Establishment Islamist narratives is growing and probably has to grow.

At the other extreme – say Qatar – we never read about people from that country joining Jihadist groups for a very simple reason. The basic reason is because  of the fact that they only have 300,000 people with massive wealth to spread around. When a secretary makes $75,000/per year, as is the case in Qatar, nothing is Zero Sum.  Therefore, Establishment Islam is sufficient to take care of everyone. There is no “demand” for anti-Establishment Islamist narratives.


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4 thoughts on “Can Egypt’s Muslim Establishment neutralize the anti-Establishment Jihadist narrative?

  1. Azhar has given its reasons for not declaring IS “kaffir” and they are very good: we have enough problems with takfirism as it is without a major theological authority endorsing it. No Muslim should have the ability to declare another Muslim non-Muslim. One would hope Azhar will extend this to hesba cases. It has however condemned IS and called it deviant etc.
    IS is not inventing stuff in Islam, it is using interpretations of the Quran and Sunna that are either marginal or rarely acted upon by normal people. And of course it is frequently ramming these interpretations into the minds of its recruits that have very little religious knowledge for the most part.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nathan

      Great points – Thanks for sharing this insight on the Takfir issue. One wonders if there is a certain point that a group could cross inside Egypt and get themselves officially Takfired. It would have to be something truly massive.


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