Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

Who are Egypt’s Salafi-Jihadis?

Ahmed Ashoush, Salafi-Jihadi leader
Ahmed Ashoush, Salafi-Jihadi leader

From my article at Middle East Institute, analyzing Egypt’s Salafi-Jihadis, but from before the recent deposing of President Morsi:

The Egyptian Islamist Mohamed al-Zawahiri is most famous for being the brother of al-Qaeda front man Ayman, but his story is also a gripping one. Zawahiri was arrested in 1999 for his alleged participation in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. He spent 13 years in Cairo’s Tora prison, where he was tortured by the mukhabarat and did a five-year stint in solitary confinement. He was released in March 2012 when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who ruled after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, issued a general pardon for scores of political prisoners.

Just six months later, Zawahiri sent a message of peace when he offered to mediate a truce between the West and Islamists through his connections with al-Qaeda, promising cessation of global terrorist activity in exchange for non-interference in Muslim nations.

But Zawahiri’s doings aren’t limited to such an offer. As a leader of an Islamist organization called the Salafist-Jihadists, he is often in the public eye. Yet it is difficult to determine who he leads and what ideology the group espouses—and whether the United States and others should worry about the organization’s activities in post-uprising Egypt.

The group appears to thrive on such ambiguity. Ahmed Ashoush, a fellow leader, claims that the organization does not, in a sense, exist, as it has neither a leadership structure nor a membership count. “We know how wide our support is on the street,” he says, “but we don’t want to talk about it. We want you to see it, in the coming days, if God wills.”

As of yet, Egypt has not seen it. And as strong as the demonstrations in support of Morsi have been, they are far short of the ‘Islamic Revolution’ some predicted as a response to the Rebel Campaign collection of signatures for early elections.

Even so, this group of Islamists who graft ‘jihad’ onto their name bear watching for Egypt’s future. Please click here to read the rest of the article at Middle East Institute.

Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Who are the Salafi-Jihadis?

Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of the al-Qaeda leader
Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of the al-Qaeda leader

From my recent article in EgyptSource, following up on the last post of pictures:

Zawahiri is the leader of what has been dubbed the Salafi-Jihadis. Long associated with Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group, following his release from prison in March 2012 he has positioned himself to the right of the now politically engaged Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and traditional Salafis. But who does he represent?

“We are just Muslims, protesting the killing of civilians,” said Walid, one of about 400 demonstrating against French military activity in Mali. “We have no leadership and we don’t belong to al-Qaeda.”

‘Not belonging to al-Qaeda’ was a frequent refrain of protestors.

But there was plenty of sympathy, as well as conspiracy:

Ashraf, who declined to give his last name but consorted comfortably with al-Zawahiri, praised the Benghazi attack which killed the American ambassador, and said more of this nature was needed. But as to the nature of Salafi-Jihadis, he was circumspect.

“There is no such thing as Salafi-Jihadism,” he said. “This name is simply a creation of state security, used to divide Muslims.”

The Egyptian regime, he believes, has always conspired with the Americans to distort Islam. “Is there any Salafism without jihad?” he continued. “Who are the Salafis but the first generations of Muslims, and were these not engaged in jihad?”

By all appearances their numbers are few, but this may not matter much, and surely not all are visible:

Salafi-Jihadis appear to be less an organization than an idea. So while the idea of Islam violently reordering world relations – today focused on Mali – is unable to attract many, it does attract a dedicated few. For Zawahiri, this is enough.

“Over the centuries Muslims have been the victorious ones,” he said, “even when they have had small numbers.”

Please click here to read the full article on EgyptSource.


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To Name Our Son in Egypt

Come November 6, I will no longer be Abu Talaat Banat – the father of three girls. Though it is not so prevalent in Egypt, in good Arab fashion I will soon be Abu ….. – the father of the name of our first-born son.

So what name will we choose? The rule is that it must work in both Arabic and English, and we prefer as well there be a connection to Egypt. Of course, it has to sound nice and have a pleasant meaning as well. Here are the choices that have made the cut, in alphabetical order:

Alexander, Jeremiah, Matthew, Nathan/Nathaniel, Osama, and Thomas.

Allow us to share some of our rationale below. Please feel free to share your opinion or prediction at the end. Who knows, maybe it will sway us.


Arabic: Iskander – we really like the sound of this, and can imagine calling him ‘Iskander’ even around the house.

Egypt: Egypt’s second largest city – Alexandria – was named after Alexander the Great.

Bible: There are a couple Alexanders of ill repute in the Bible, but Alexander was also the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Cyrene, near modern Benghazi in Libya, was associated with Egypt in history. Church history connects this Alexander with St. Mark – the founder of the Coptic Church – as heralding from the same region.

Family/Friends: Alexander is my second brother’s middle name. As with all family connections to follow, we’re not sure if this would be a positive honoring or a negative stealing – in case he wanted to use his name for any future sons of his own. Alexandria is also my mother’s middle name.

Drawbacks: Though the name nobly means ‘defender of men’, the best known Alexander was hardly such. He was a man of war and creator of empire. Of course, much of Western civilization derives from his Hellenization of Europe and the Mediterranean, but bloodshed is not the best legacy to grant a son.

More trivially, though he was my favorite sitcom character growing up, Alex from ‘Family Ties’ is not the best role model either.


Arabic: Armia – It is a bit awkward in Arabic but is known in Egypt through the Coptic population. I think we would most likely call him ‘Jeremiah’ even among Egyptian friends.

Egypt: There is a Coptic bishop named Armia who is a member of the Holy Synod and was a secretary to Pope Shenouda.

But a greater connection comes through the Biblical prophet, who at the end of his life was carried captive to Egypt, where he presumably died, perhaps at the hands of his own people.

Bible: The book of Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament book. Jeremiah puts forward an example of faithfulness to a task even when failure is promised. His personal pathos is matched only by God’s faithfulness to him in return – through his presence, not through success.

Family/Friends: We have a few friends named Jeremy, but know of no one named Jeremiah. Perhaps this in itself is a plus.

Drawbacks: The Biblical Jeremiah is known as ‘the weeping prophet’. While the above description shows our appreciation for this aspect of his character, it also could be a difficult legacy to bequeath.


Arabic: Matta – Unlike many Arabic equivalents this is simple and easy for non-native speakers to pronounce.

Egypt: Matta al-Miskeen – Matthew the Poor – is a well-known and controversial Coptic monk. Now deceased, he was a prolific writer, fully Orthodox, but appreciated by Protestants. He also dared to criticize Pope Shenouda in his early years over the politicization of the papacy. I’ve always had a soft spot for sincere troublemakers.

Bible: The Gospel of Matthew is perhaps my favorite New Testament book, containing the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ choice of Matthew as a disciple, when he was from the hated Roman-collaborating tax collectors, is an inspiring act.

Family/Friends – Matthew is my father’s middle name.

Drawbacks: Our daughter Hannah complained a boy in her kindergarten class named Matthew was naughty.

Nathan / Nathaniel

Arabic: Nasaan / Nasana’eel – These are not particularly well known as names in Arabic, even among Christians, despite their Biblical origin.

Egypt: His martyrdom anniversary is celebrated on the first day of the Coptic New Year.

Bible: Nathan was an Old Testament prophet in the court of David who had the courage to rebuke his king and the wisdom to do so in a manner yielding his repentance.

Nathaniel is the alternate name for Bartholomew (in John’s Gospel), one of the twelve disciples, of whom Jesus said there was no guile.

Family/Friends: A few Nathans were friends from university days.

Drawbacks: Both Biblical characters provide good examples, but the pronouncement of being guileless was preceded by Nathaniel’s prejudice against Jesus’ hometown. Transparency is a virtue, but can lead to lack of tact. Picking straws, here, of course.


Arabic: Osama is Arabic, with no English equivalent. It is related to being exalted, as in the heavens, and is one of the words for ‘lion’. It is used by both Muslims and Christians. Does not Osama bin Jayson have a nice ring to it?

Egypt: Many of Osama bin Laden’s closest advisors were Egyptian, as is his successor in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Bible: No direct connection, but the choice of this name comes from the example of Isaiah, who named his son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means ‘quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil,’ and was connected to his prophetic ministry. Poor kid.

Yet the idea is that those who love us will also love our son. Those who love our son will love him in his entirety, including his name. Perhaps those who love him – and his name – will also come to love his notorious namesake and his imitators. At the very least we hope our son in this legacy can redeem a name, and perhaps even dent the association with a war on terror which has done so much harm to this world.

Family/Friends: A wise counselor and Muslim friend in Egypt is named Osama.

Drawbacks: These are obvious, really. Poor kid.


Arabic: Toma or Tomas – We get mixed up between the Arabic and the Coptic equivalent, but both are well known in Egypt and easy to pronounce.

Egypt: Bishop Thomas is a well-known bishop in the Coptic Church, beloved by both Orthodox and Protestants.

The Apostle Thomas is also beloved by Egyptians because he is the sole disciple believed to have witnessed the assumption of Mary into heaven.

Bible: Best known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ for failing to believe the report of Jesus’ resurrection, he is less known for his great courage. As opposition to Jesus was mounting, Thomas told the disciples, ‘Let us also go [to Jerusalem] that we might die with him.’

Family/Friends: Thomas is the middle name of my third brother. It is also the favorite choice of our daughters, who picked it themselves.

Drawbacks: The doubting heritage is not best, even though courage in the midst of doubt is admirable. Thomas also means ‘twin’, which is unfortunately (?) not the case with our son to be.

So, these are our choices. The middle name can make a difference, of course, which we have chosen but will not share at this time.

For review: Alexander, Jeremiah, Matthew, Nathan/Nathaniel, Osama, and Thomas.

The name may or may not follow the pattern of our daughters, but for reference they are:

  • Emma Hope
  • Hannah Mercy
  • Layla Peace

With Layla’s name we played a similar game on our blog. For a long while it was the most viewed post we have written, and remains the most commented.

Currently, the most viewed post is about the assault on the US Embassy in Cairo. What do you say we knock that one off its perch, and celebrate something more seemly? In any case, we hope you and your friends will have as much fun with this as we will.

We look forward to sharing the good news to come.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Dar al-Ifta’: The House of Fatwa

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti

The fatwa is commonly known in the West as a death sentence. Among Muslims, the fatwa can be among the most powerful tools of Islamic populism. On a third front, the fatwa is simply a bureaucratic function. Which definition encompasses reality?

Since the dawn of Islam the scholar has had a place of prominence, celebrated for his command of the Quran, the traditions, and mastery of the sharia. For this reason, the state has always wanted to remain on good terms with the scholars, and if possible, to co-opt or institutionalize them.

What makes a scholar? There is a threshold of necessary knowledge, without which any claimant would be exposed as a fraud. But scholars must also be linked to networks, or else they would simply sit at home issuing fatwas to themselves. It is these networks which are under redefinition in Egypt and much of the Arab world today.

For example, the Muslim Brotherhood has a mufti – the Arabic term for one who gives a fatwa. Is he legitimate? What about each and every Salafi preacher around whom the people congregate? If someone appears on television, is he fit to issue a fatwa?

Conversely, though the state conveys legitimacy on many aspects of society, does it also pertain to religious life? Islamic societies have historically treaded carefully here, wary of the corrupting possibility of power but keen to preserve the stability of the nation.

For centuries, in Egypt especially but also throughout the Sunni Muslim world, the Azhar established itself as the pinnacle of Islamic scholarship. Its graduates secured both popular and institutional credibility. Yet in 1961 President Nasser brought the prestigious university under state control.

The process to diversify – and perhaps dilute – the influence of the scholars was already long underway, however. In the 19th Century under British occupation the Dar al-Ifta’ was created to issue official fatwas. The institution survived the 1952 revolution and was used at times thereafter to obtain favorable rulings for controversial state policies.

As both Sheikh al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti are positions appointed by the president, many have criticized the venerable bodies as being little more than mouthpieces for the ruling regime. It has not been uncommon, however, for many criticisms to issue from scholars of either dubious representation or extremist trends. Is not the state the societal organ best fit to establish proper regulations and qualifications?

Ibrahim Nagm

Though not a justification, Dr. Ibrahim Nagm explains the functions of Dar al-Ifta’. Serving as senior advisor to the Grand Mufti, he seeks to make understandable the concept of ‘fatwa’, which has been sensationalized due to what he would say is its frequent misuse.

Nagm defines a fatwa as ‘non-binding religious advice given by a qualified scholar in response to a question asked by a member of the public’. He then proceeds to unpack the meaning of each key phrase.

Non-binding: A fatwa carried no legal authority or compulsion of implementation. This invalidates the popular idea that a fatwa is a summons to kill a particular individual, for example.

Qualified: Though anyone can give their religious opinion, only a certified scholar is permitted to issue a fatwa. Dar al-Ifta’ insists upon deep Islamic scholarship from a respectable university (such as al-Azhar), and then provides three additional years of training before accrediting anyone.

Question: A fatwa must be spontaneous, issued in response to a real life issue submitted by the public. It cannot be internally generated according to policy. Every day the Dar al-Ifta’ receives +500 personal fatwa requests and +2000 by phone in up to nine languages from around the world.

To handle these requests, the Dar al-Ifta’ has about 50 accredited scholars working in its administration, with an additional 50 scattered throughout Egypt.

Each fatwa issued conforms to the basic methodology of Islamic scholarship, which Nagm outlined as the following:

1)      Consult the Islamic sources: These include the Quran, the sunna, and the legacy of Islamic scholarship. Look for precedents and consider their application.

2)      Understand the person and the issue: Fatwas are expected to apply differently according to circumstances. The legal texts are incomplete without full knowledge of the problem.

3)      Issue the fatwa: To be done in a manner bridging tradition and reality.

As an example, Nagm described a request for a fatwa to see if it was permitted for a particular man to take a second wife. After consulting the sources, the indications were yes – it is permitted for a Muslim to marry up to four wives.

Yet after consulting the situation, the person requesting the fatwa was discovered to be residing in a non-Muslim nation which forbids polygamy. Bridging between the tradition and the reality, Dar al-Ifta’ issued a fatwa instructing the requester to submit to the laws of the country he lived in, and not marry again.

In another example a farmer requested a fatwa to permit or forbid the use of certain chemicals in the fertilization process. Nagm indicated clearly this was a matter beyond the competence of the institution. They referred the question to scientific specialists, who indicated the mentioned chemicals were harmful. Armed with this knowledge, it was a simple matter to issue the fatwa forbidding their use.

Returning to the question of Islamic legitimacy, Nagm does not answer the question, but does paint Dar al-Ifta’ as a thoroughly bureaucratic institution. Its methods are sound, but reflect the dry, thorough work of professionalism.

Professionalism is good, of course, but Nagm frequently contrasted it to academia, which is not enough. It is not scholarship that makes a mufti, but training.

Of course, training is also good. Nagm commented that Osama bin Laden was an engineer, and Ayman al-Zawahiri was a doctor. No matter how substantial their personal study of Islamic jurisprudence, they are not part of a credible, established network.

In terms of establishment, this is certain. But credibility is in the eye of the beholder. Dar al-Ifta’ walks the fine line between professional accountability and state submission. Yet this is no different from the family of Islamic scholars throughout history who have navigated the same challenge.

After all, though scholarship is immensely valuable, it puts no food on the table. It must market its knowledge somewhere. The public trusts the scholar, while marketing, to remain faithful ultimately to God.

That trust is his only credibility.

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