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Interview with Ezzat al-Salamony of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya

Ezzat al-Salamony
Ezzat al-Salamony

This older interview, from August 2012, reflects a very different reality than the one Islamists experience in Egypt today. At the time they were in the ascendency; now, many of them scurry for cover. In preparation for a larger project on Islamist movements in general, however, Arab West Report only now is publishing this interview. Selected excerpts are below.

On his activity with the group in giving public lectures:

J: What is your history with the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah?

S: I joined the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah in 1979. I was at college during that time and thank God I worked with the Group and I used to preach on Fridays and give lessons. I was arrested in 1981. I am a member of the Guidance Council in Cairo, but regardless of my position, I serve as a Friday preacher and as a lecturer in conferences.

J: In a certain mosque?

S: Nowadays, I preach in many mosques. Of course before the revolution, we were totally prevented from preaching. There are two mosques here in al-Ma’ādi and another one in ‘Atabah, and on the fourth Friday of each month, I go to any mosque, for example in Helwan or sometimes outside Cairo, like in Suez or Alexandria, according to the desires of the people who want me to preach.

J: Are these mosques related to the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah? When you were prevented from preaching before the revolution, how could you have such relations with those mosques?

S: We have had relations for a very long time. I was prevented from preaching but not prevented from moving freely in society or from interacting with people. They would come to us to help them with their problems whether family issues or feuds between families and things like that. Instructions can be given to mosques not to let me preach in them, but I have great relations with society.

J: Are these mosques registered at the Endowments Ministry?

S: No, they are not. They are civil associations which house mosques. These associations resemble the Association of Religious Legitimacy [a longstanding Salafī non-governmental organization registered officially in Egypt and active since the early 20th Century].

J: Are they small, neighborhoodmosques?

S: No, they are large, but it depends on the civil association. There are many that have up to four mosques. They have permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs and they run their activities through associated mosques.

J: So they are legal?

S: Yes, but they are not supervised by the Endowments Ministry, which has no authority over them. The association and its administrative board supervises them and their expenses are submitted to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Now, the government has reestablished (or, is reestablishing) its supervision and tight control of all mosques, allowing only approved speakers to appear. It is unlikely al-Gama’a al-Islamiya is finding official favor, though there is no campaign against them publicly as like with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But should their members wind up in jail, Salamony has been there before:

J: You said that you had been arrested for a while. When was that?

S: I have been arrested more than once. The first time was during Sādāt’s September decisions in 1981. It lasted a year and a half. Then there were other arrest periods that lasted between two months to a year up until 1990. In October 1990, I was arrested and stayed in prison for 15 years until January 2006, during Mubārak’s time.

J: What was the reason for that last long arrest?

S: There were many arrests during that time. I was arrested because I was a suspect in the case of the assassination of Rif’āt al-Mahjūb, the head of the parliament. But the judge gave amnesty to all the suspects and he said about me, “I have found one suspect in this case with no charges at all; that is ‘Izzat al-Salamunī,” and then I was set free.

We left the court to go back to prison with an arrest warrant. During that period my administrative arrest was open, which means that I could go to the court and present a grievance, and then receive amnesty. After that I would have to go to the state security, stay there for a night or two, only to be arrested again with a new arrest warrant.

At the prison in Damanhour there was a fountain in the center of the village, so the prison vehicle used to take the prisoners – who supposedly had be given amnesty – and go around the fountain once or twice, then send them back to prison.

But the main reason for that arrest concerned my preaching. I was preaching freely in mosques and conferences and criticizing the former regime, the tyranny and the injustice that have been unmasked since the January 25 Revolution.

Salamony says the campaigns against al-Gama’a al-Islamiya were all politically motivated, and that he personally was not involved in any illegal activity or assassination attempts. Instead, as above, he equates his group’s efforts to those of the January 25 Revolution, and the efforts of the state to prevent such an outbreak:

J: When it comes to preaching, did you call for the revolution or for any illegal movements?

S: No, I only preached about stopping injustice and corruption, and also about giving Egyptians all their rights so that no one would be enslaved or prevented from having a respectable life.

J: Did you use any means that you regret using, or perhaps you say they was suitable at that time but not nowadays?

S: No, the means I used did not go beyond words and preaching. We also called for demonstrating against any act of injustice, but all of our practices were peaceful. But starting a demonstration during that time worried the former regime, because people were submissive to oppression. If people who had influence went to the streets it was a very dangerous thing for them.

Once when I was arrested and blindfolded, in 1989, I asked one of the policemen, “Why are you doing all of this: torturing, arrests, breaking into mosques, and people get killed, why?”

He answered, “Honestly, if we let you carrying on all your social activities, and your Islamic preaching for one year, you will reach out to people and win them over to your side. Then you will overpower us and will strike us fatally, with no weapons at all. I will not give you the chance. When I arrest some of you, beat you up, and when you go on demonstrations against us, you only scratch us, which we can handle. But we cannot let you strike us.”

This has been their philosophy: to prevent anyone other than them from having influence over people, or to break the barriers of fear and terror that people had within themselves. That is why they thought that the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah was dangerous.

But it was not just political activism that al-Gama’a al-Islamiya was engaged in. It was social and moral activism as well:

J: What is Hisbah?

S: Hisbah, according to Islamic Law, is the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. The image of this concept has been distorted to many people. Islamic law states that promoting virtue can only happen through virtue, and preventing vice can never be through vice. Although it is a very beautiful image, people try to deform it. If it is applied correctly, its great fruits would be seen clearly in society.

We have to warn people that some of the things they do are wrong and harmful such as smoking and drinking alcohol. I tell them that these things are bad for their health. But some acts require intervention, like if I am walking around and see some guys trying to kidnap a girl. Here, religion tells me to protect her, and that is exactly the prevention of vice.

The Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah practiced that guidance part within the limits of the Islamic law, and of course there were some mistakes as we are all human beings. Sometimes one may lose one’s temper, but we cannot blame our personal mistakes on the religious concepts.

He is keen to explain the ‘mistakes’. Elsewhere in the interview he describes how many occurred when the political leadership was in prison and could neither guide nor contain their youth. Escalation of attacks between the group and the police also contributed, he said.

J: What were your mistakes? You said you are just human beings who make mistakes.

S: Some of the youth misunderstood the concept of Hisbah and exceeded the limits. For example, if I saw someone committing a vice, I would go to that person and ask him politely to stop. But if I yelled at that person, I have committed vice. Religion only allows me to do what it takes to remove that vice.

J: To give an advice, for example.

S: Yes. I may only grab that person’s hand if it will remove the vice, but I am not allowed to slap that person on the face. So there are rules. Some youth would simply hit the person without giving him advice at all, which is religiously wrong. We have always warned our youth in mosques not to do such things. We have to confess these violations as we cannot prevent others from doing vice while we ourselves do it.

J: So now you know those mistakes, but during the 1970s and before your non-violent initiative, was Hisbah applied with few restrictions?

S: As leaders in the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah, we tried to put limits, but we could not following each and every member working here or there. But whenever we knew that a member of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah did something wrong, we told him that was wrong, from the beginning.

But as I said before they were young, and youth were the majority of our members. With all of their excitement and with their little knowledge about religion, some incidents happened frequently. But as soon as we knew about them, we always acted and stated what was wrong. If a member hit someone, which is religiously wrong, we would go to that person and apologize to him and even give him the right to avenge himself by hitting that person if he wanted to do so.

J: I have read that in public gatherings, some youth used chains to disband meetings of mixed genders. These things really happened, but you see them as violations?

S: Those violations happened indeed, but some of them were done by people who do not belong to the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah, but their mistakes were blamed on us. Others were done by us and we stated that, before the initiative, but we were trying to settle things down. Now, thanks to age, experience, and increased religious knowledge, there are almost no violations among our members.

J: I have also read about attacks on liquor stores owned by Copts.

S: It happened once or twice.

But this was not a policy, nor was it permitted, Salamony said. But note how in his explanation he includes terminology that is very offensive to Copts, yet still has a sense of toleration about it:

J: The author quoted from Shaykh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahmān stating that it is permitted to loot the Copt’s money. He issued a fatwa about that. Do you know anything about that?

S: This is totally untrue, and I heard Dr. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahmān with my own ears once – as I accompanied him in many of his tours and lectures, and been with him around the whole country – saying that Christians’ and Dhimmis’ blood is prohibited to be shed, and that our religious laws state that their money is forbidden to be looted.

Even if I think that someone is infidel, not a Muslim, this does not give me the right to loot his money or shed his blood. Doctrines should be totally separated from practical life. For example, some Christians think of others as non-believers and infidels, like the Orthodox who believe that if someone does not take communion in their church, then he is a non-believer. To them I am a non-believer.

Belief issues have to do with people’s hearts. When it comes to the practical side, in the Qur’ān, God says: “God does not forbid you from those who fight you not for religion nor drove your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them.”

From that we get that belief is one thing and how to treat people is something else. The money or blood of any human being living in the same country with me, or anywhere else in the world, is prohibited to looted or shed, as long as that person did not attack me or my religion.

in the late 1990s and early 2000s, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya began a non-violent initiative and published their change in policy along theological lines in The Revisions. This allowed many, but not all leaders to leave prison. Since then they have not called for violence, though some return to their social activism has been evidenced. But having assassinated President Sadat in 1981, and with several attempts on President Mubarak, the absolute nature of the rejection of violence is not clear:

J: I understand what you say and I sympathize with that explanation, but a couple of days ago I read that Tāriq al-Zumur commented on Sādāt’s assassin and said that he is a martyr. But how can he be a martyr, especially after your peaceful initiative and declaring that assassination is unacceptable?

S: Here, we have more than one side of the story. As I told you, to judge an issue, I have to consider its surrounding circumstances. Sādāt arrested people and criticized religious leaders like Hāfiz Salāmah that he was Suez’s lunatic. Sādāt said politics and religion should not be combined. The treaty of Camp David was also signed at that time. The general evaluation of the situation was that Sādāt was an enemy of religion and of Egypt.

That atmosphere pushed people like Khālid al-Islāmbulī and his followers to take an action. When I regard that issue now, it is not like when I regarded it at the time it happened. They were motivated by patriotism and religion with good intuition.

So when Tāriq al-Zumur said he was a martyr, he judged them according to their circumstances, which are different from ours. All the circumstances at that time showed that Sādāt was an enemy of religion. In order not to falsely accuse al-Islāmbulī, I must evaluate his situation according to the circumstances which led him to do so.

J: Why do you not just praise him and explain what he did without calling him a martyr as if it is a kind of justification?

S: In Islam, no one has the right to call someone a martyr or not, because only God knows who is a martyr and who is not. What we say is that we consider him to be a martyr, or pray for him to be one of the martyrs, according to his good intention. We pray for our brothers who have been murdered so that God would accept them as martyrs. But we cannot insure that a certain person is a martyr, because God is the only one who decides that.

Interesting to recall is that al-Gama’a al-Islamiya did not initially favor Mohamed Morsi for the presidency. After describing similarities and differences among the Islamist groups, he explained why:

J: I understand that there is a unity among you and that there is no competition among you as you have the same purpose. But the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah supported Abu al-Futuh during the presidential elections instead of supporting al-Shater and Muhammad Mursī, especially Mursī. Why was this?

S: It was the result of a certain view of reality. The leadership of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah at that time formed a general assembly to gather our 300 members, and over the course of the day we listened to the programs of Dr. Mursī, Dr. Al Awa, and Dr. ‘Abd al-Mun’im Abū al-Futūh. The discussion lasted for nearly 15 hours and the majority supported Dr. Abū al-Futūh’s program in the first round in a democratic way, though some supported others.

J: What were the most important points that made the majority choose Abū al-Futūh rather than Mursī?

S: The majority chose Abū al-Futūh because he was independent and was a part of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah in the past. He was thought to be friends with the liberals, unlike the Brotherhood as some people dislike them. We though he could gather the people around him better than any other candidate. The main point was to have unity within society. But in the second round, the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah chose Muhammad Mursī because at that time, the people categorized the candidates as representing the previous regime or the revolution. So the whole group chose Dr. Muhammad Mursī and their choice was based on a realistic study of the current situation at that time.

Even at the time of Islamist success, Salamony expressed doubts about the democratic outcome. But he was certain the people would not rise against them. Looking backwards his comments are poignant:

J: As a Muslim, you will do your best to deepen the roots of Islamic law in Egypt, but my question is what if the society is against you, you will continue your struggle against the people’s will?

S: That controversial assumption has no place in Egypt because the society has a religious nature, whether Muslim or Christian. If someone wants to change the identity or the nature of that society, we will face that change in a democratic way. Unfortunately, the Islamists are being judged in an unfair way.

They are accused of not accepting the other, which is not true. We accept the other but there is a difference between accepting the other and the other forcing himself upon us and that we must follow him or totally agree with him. I accept you when you stick to your opinion and I stick to mine. We can argue together and express our opinions to society. But what happens with Islamists is that they are being prevented from expressing themselves and even from speaking.

Now, when they have recently gained control, restrictions that are not forced upon anyone else are being forced upon them. So in that case, the democracy is not complete. They are talking about democracy but when it comes to us, it is being prohibited.

Please click here to read the full interview at Arab West Report.

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