What is the message of Charlie Hebdo concerning political Islam? It must be allowed to compete and win power, lest these tragedies be repeated.
Of course, the political messages made out of terrorism are many. Some say greater security measures are needed. Others call for limitations on Muslim immigration. Some call for curbs on freedom of speech. Others demonize Islam as a whole.
But there is a powerful argument that states the flare-up of terroristic violence is tied to the grievances of Muslim people around the world. These could be the sufferings of the Palestinians, or the innocent victims of drone strikes. But one of the most animating interpretations of grievance comes in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood at the hand of military authorities in Egypt.
Evaluation of this argument is beyond the scope of this article. But understanding the perspective is necessary to best appreciate the mindset of the segment of Islamists who insist they are committed to the peaceful pursuit of power. In this case the spokesman will be Fadel Soliman.
Soliman is the founder and director of Bridges Foundation, who following the September 11 tragedy wished to bring peoples together by correcting misunderstandings of Islam. An Egyptian, he created a Cairo branch in 2005 under the auspices of then-Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, and enjoyed wide favor in both countries, winning endorsements also by congressmen and military leaders in the US.
But over the course of the Arab Spring his position of favor with the government changed. Soliman was an active participant in the revolution, but was also among the protestors at the pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya, where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed in the bloody dispersal. He has not returned to Egypt since.
In December he published a video in which the above perspective on political Islam is established. He is horrified by the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, but more so by the attraction Muslim youth are beginning to show. Millions, he said, own the dream of ruling by sharia.
When the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated power could come through peaceful, democratic methods, they flocked to his support. But following the coup, he states, the world has witnessed an unprecedented recruitment of jihadists to Syria and Iraq. The worst, he predicts, is yet to come.
This message is given as part of a video series organized by the Munathera (Debate) Initiative, asking, “There won’t be change without…” Soliman’s answer is, “…the renewal of hope for peaceful change.” But Soliman can offer no specifics on what to do to renew this hope. He remarked about the strength of protests in the streets, and noted the violence in Syria only began when the army split. Tactics, however, are for the leaders, and he is part of no Islamist organization.
But he is an observer and knows his community. He compared the situation to a pipe with two spigots. If one is plugged up (political Islam), the water will definitely come out the other (jihadist Islam).
He did have a message for the church, however, given in Christmas felicitations offered to the leaders of Christians against the Coup. Copts should think for themselves and stop following the political dictates of the church. He believed violence is coming given the choices made to support Sisi.
“I am so worried about the future of Egypt,” said Soliman, “especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.”
Soliman noted parallels to Mamluk Egypt when some Copts, he said, cooperated with the ‘coup’ attempt of the invading Mongols. Some viewed this as treachery, and in 1321 mobs took it out on the community as a whole, destroying churches and looting homes. Historian Phillip Jenkins says the government, after initially trying to suppress the riots, eventually looked the other way. Soliman said many Muslims today view Christian support of the coup as similar treachery.
But is this an accurate description? Copts have lauded the current climate as one in which Copts have never received such appreciation from state and society together. Muslims in the millions also backed Sisi, but many Islamists focus on Christian participation.
Soliman is clear he is not making a threat, he is describing his fear. But he speaks powerfully about the need for justice for those who have shed blood, and is convinced about the best method revealed to man.
“Sharia means absolute justice for everyone,” he said, noting his previous efforts to locate the UN Declaration of Human Rights in its contents. “So if I see a world of injustice its application is my dream.
“It is my right as a Muslim and as an Islamist to see sharia prevailing. It is my right, whether I am right or wrong.”
As mentioned above, ‘right or wrong’ is beyond the scope of this article. But right or wrong in his assessment of Egypt, right or wrong in his judgment of sharia, his vision is right in the eyes of millions.
Will these copycat Charlie Hebdo? Should the threat yield greater allowance to political Islam? Does it warrant greater curtailment? This is only one of the political debates in its aftermath, but Egypt is the ongoing laboratory.
This article was first published on Arab West Report.