Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

In Memoriam: Ezzat al-Salamony

Yesterday I received the unexpected news that Ezzat al-Salamony died … back in August. He was a leader in al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), designated a terrorist entity by the United States. Over the past few years I was able to interview him a couple of times.

According to al-Shuruk, Salamony died in the Tora Prison hospital, from an intestinal blockage. He had been jailed as part of the ‘Alliance to Support Legitimacy’ case.

Here is a picture of Salamony demonstrating in support of former President Morsi, proudly wearing a Rabaa sign.

Ezzat al-Salamony Rabaa
(from al-Shuruk)

Originally from Sohag in Upper Egypt, Salamony studied at al-Azhar Univerisity, graduating with a BA in Commerce. He joined the Islamic Group in 1979, served on its Shura Council in Cairo, and preached in mosques throughout the city, unaffiliated with the Ministry of Endowments.

He was married with three daughters. I do not know his age, though his youngest daughter was in college at the time.

As Salamony recounted, his first arrest came at the hand of President Sadat in 1981, lasting for a year and a half. Jailed repeatedly thereafter for short periods of time, he spent fifteen years in prison under President Mubarak, finally released in January 2006.

Salamony stated he was never involved in violence, though he admitted members of the Islamic Group committed ‘mistakes’ throughout this period. But on the whole he defended their record, stating they were much maligned by the regime and that most violence was defensive.

Our conversations ranged over many topics, including the history of the Islamic Group, the practice of hisba (commanding right and forbidding wrong), Islamist figures Morsi released from prison, the Innocence of Muslims film, and the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman.

I always found Salamony to be friendly, engaging, and eager to give a correct impression about Islam and the Islamic Group. Given his appearance and reputation, I was surprised he always arranged our meetings in a popular and upscale Nile River meeting area administered by the Egyptian military. He appeared to be a member, and we drank tea together.

I do not know if he was involved in violence following the fall of Morsi, though he certainly opposed what he considered to be a coup. We lost contact after this period.

But I was somewhat surprised also to find him prior to Morsi’s fall at a Salafi-Jihadi demonstration outside the French Embassy. He took the microphone and shouted:

“We tell these grandchildren of the Crusaders, we are the grandchildren of Saladin.”

“It is not right for the fields of battle to be in our lands, we must carry the battle into theirs.”

“We have the duty of jihad.”

Among the many chants that day was this, adapting the January 25 revolutionary cry: Al-Shaab, Ureed, Khilafa min Jadeed

“The people want a new caliphate.”

It was difficult to reconcile the peaceful, friendly character I encountered in the cafe with this one angrily shouting before a crowd. I understood that whatever kind of preacher he was, whether he employed violence or not, both then and now he was certainly a threat to the state.

Even so, his explanations of jihad and hisba were always nuanced, though his commitment to the eventual worldwide application of sharia was clear. I cannot imagine he would be in support of the current claimant to the caliphate, but I cannot be sure.

And now he is dead, so I cannot know.

The three years from January 25 to the last throes of popular pro-Rabaa resistance against President Sisi were a very strange time in Egypt. All constraints were thrown off, and every activist element of society took full advantage of the freedom available.

So it is hard to look back and evaluate Ezzat al-Salamony. Was he a long misunderstood Islamist finally anticipating success? Was he a conman deceiving a naive American into sympathy?

God – and likely the Egyptian intelligence – only knows, and now he will judge. May Ezzat al-Salamony rest in peace.

Ezzat Salamony
Ezzat al-Salamony

This article was originally published at Arab West Report.


Creating a Protestant Islam?


A friend of mine, a politically liberal Muslim with little attachment to religion, has often accused the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to create a Protestant type of Islam. It is a little difficult to catch the connections, as well as to tell if he believes such a transformation would be good or bad for Egypt. He certainly thinks Brotherhood control of this situation would be bad, but I’m less sure as concerns the greater idea.

This article in The Immanent Frame helps explain what might have been happening along these lines, before the overthrow of Morsi.

First, the context of Islam in Egypt:

In this respect, the law and court rulings do not recognize the existence of a congregation of Muslims who can worship—that is, engage in formal rites—outside the bounds of the state. This legal status seems to be a vestige of the Islamic caliphate (دولة المسلمين, “state of Muslims”), where the congregation of Muslims was conceived as a politico-religious entity, as it first took shape under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad. While this conception often accrues to the power and advantage of Muslims in the aggregate, it restricts the religious freedom of Muslim groups or individuals who do not wish to align themselves to the political or religious orientation of the political authority.

Post-Morsi, the state has been working diligently to reassert control over the system of mosques, seeking to eliminate divergent Muslim Brotherhood voices. Incidentally, the article states Morsi’s government treated unorthodox voices similarly, continuing the policy of preventing Shi’ite or some extreme Sufi trends from operating local mosques.

But the Muslim Brotherhood also wanted to cement its control over mosques already within its influence, and gain control over mosques that were not. To do so it revived an old government practice of establishing boards to administer mosque affairs, appointed by the state, but with no influence on its religious discourse or choice of imam. The government started this program in the 1980s for the practical reason of its limited resources for direct control, but abandoned it altogether a decade later due to arising conflicts and competition.

When the Brotherhood government assumed control of the Ministry of Endowments, reviving the role of the mosque boards was on the agenda of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political arm. Minister Talaat Afifi issued a decree reconstituting the boards under the name “mosque development boards,” giving them prerogatives similar to those of the old boards. The boards still had no influence over religious and preaching activity, which remained the exclusive purview of the ministry, but, controversially, the boards were to be elected.

In doing so, the Brotherhood established a system in which they could not be accused of appointing their cronies to administer mosques, but instead take advantage of their powerful network through which ‘the people’ would exercise control. But, who are the constituent ‘people’?

But how to determine which Muslims possessed the right to vote in elections for this or that board? The official decree stipulated that “a general assembly of mosque patrons” be created from among registered residents of the neighborhood in which the mosque was located, as well as those who applied to the ministry-appointed imam to affirm that they were regular attendees and registered as members of the general assembly.

Of course this move created a great deal of controversy and opposition, notably from the existing system of imams who saw the risk of their power diminishing. But there was a great religious objection as well, not tied to politics:

The decree also raised the hackles of imams and scholars who believed that it would give rise to local “churches” in Islam; churches have a discrete membership and members have certain prerogatives.

The decision to elect mosque development boards did not resolve the problem or mitigate conflicts, but only inflamed them further, partly because the idea was grafted on to a centralized administrative order and partly because it ran up against the idea of “every mosque for every Muslim”—a central tenet of Islam—making it “every mosque for every Muslim in this neighborhood.”

Morsi’s government suspended the decision to elect boards, and after his overthrow even the appointed boards were dissolved and reconstituted with traditional Azhar scholars and local patrons opposed to the Brotherhood. Politics is a determining factor, certainly, but the philosophical decision seems to have been correct, or at least consistent with traditional reasoning:

There is a traditional Islamic discourse that takes pride in the fact that there is no central religious authority in Islam—no church, no priesthood, no clerical class to govern the religious (and certainly not political) lives of Muslims. This discourse is well grounded in doctrine and Islamic jurisprudence, which indeed contain no reference to the specific shape of Muslims’ religious communities or clerical prerogatives. Historical practice also holds no precedents.

But to return to the central question about whether or not such a Protestantizing of Islam would be ‘good’ for Egypt:

The problem is that Islamic doctrine, jurisprudence, and historical practice do, in fact, both assume and fundamentally rely on the existence of a single Muslim polity with authority over Muslims’ religious affairs and the religious scholar class. The alternative is to abandon the Muslim state for a modern nation-state that fully embraces the concept of citizenship, which would entail the disappearance of political authority over religious affairs and open the door to religious freedom. Otherwise, the modern state will continue to draw on this legacy of religious authority inherited from the caliphate.

In engineering its policies for managing Islam, the state proceeds from the belief that Muslims’ religious unity is part and parcel of preserving political unity and the patriotic line, and it legally suppresses any activity or attempt on the part of Muslim groups or individuals to freely worship outside the bounds of the centralized state administration or beyond the scope of a centralized, religious orthodoxy described as “proper religion.”

Here in Egypt the Coptic Orthodox Church behaves similarly. A Christian is at home, theoretically, in one church building as he is in another. A man appointed deacon may show up in any church, don his robe, and join in serving communion. There is the thought in Christianity that the priest should only serve this communion to one who is in good standing – requiring local relationships to know – but this does not seem to be practiced. Instead, the confessional relationship may occur with a priest from any church, diocese, or monastery. The judgment of receiving communion is usually left to the conscience of the believer.

In majority Christian lands where the Protestant Church is established in relationship with the government, perhaps there is a parallel as well. But in America as well as Egypt the pattern is toward local independence with varying levels of denominational cooperation. The multitude of Protestant denominations certainly contributes, which is a phenomena not generally mirrored in Islam.

But Islam exhibits great diversity, certainly cultural diversity in its many international expressions. What it does not generally do is sanction this diversity as an option for local communities of Muslims. Outside the Muslim world it certainly exists, as mosques are established for minorities along lines of freedom given to churches, and generally funded by the community or by donations from abroad. Such freedom, however, is not extended by many Muslim states to their majority Muslim populations. In this, it seems, they follow not necessarily the rule of Muhammad, but the ideal practice of the faith current during his time.

And perhaps they dare not do otherwise, for equally historical reasons. After Muhammad the early caliphal period and afterwards witnessed an explosion of Muslim diversity that nearly tore the nascent state apart. Many of these movements were political in orientation, no matter how much religious piety and practice played a role. It took all the skill of ‘the rightly guided caliphs’ to hold things together, and the task fell to later jurists to shape sharia so as to allow a degree of diversity to law schools while maintaining the overall unity of the faith. It also fell to later caliphs to secure the support of scholars to maintain legitimacy for their rule. These processes evidence elements of manipulation and duplicity alongside sincere devotion to faith, a legacy that continues in the mosque-state relationship to this day.

Can it be developed differently along Protestant lines? Should it be? Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood tried, and as in many of their efforts, failed. In a neutral environment, if such freedom existed, Muslim Brotherhood groups would gain control over certain mosques in certain neighborhoods – maybe many. But would the success of allowing full local control of mosques contribute to a greater climate of freedom, or simply initiate a religio-political anarchy that would tear government and society apart?

As with most experiments, all that awaits is the trying. Will Egypt, or similar nations succeeding the caliphal system, dare take the risk? Or is the very idea inimical to Islam altogether?

Please feel free to weigh in with your own ideas and experiences.

Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

The Goal of the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is a difficult subject to tackle. Some of this is the fault of others – there appears to be significant bias against them in many quarters. Some of this is their own fault – they are a closed organization accountable to no government oversight.

Some of it is due to the nature of their task. Their goal – to be examined below – is currently being pursued in the arena of politics. It is the nature of politics to appeal to as many as possible, presenting one’s ideas in as amenable a form as possible. The general public is left wondering what is real and what is spin, though usually most politicians can be pegged somewhere along a definitive spectrum.

This is true of the Brotherhood as well, which has fully embraced the vagaries, if not the hypocrisy, of the political game. After the revolution they appeared as centrists, seeking to unite all political powers in cooperation with the military’s transition plan. Though unity broke down, their strategy was successful as they won the lion’s share of seats in the parliament.

As the first round of presidential elections approached, they turned to their base. They gathered conservative Salafi scholars around them and spoke of sharia law, while their handlers rallied the crowds with chants against Israel and the establishment of the caliphate. Again, they were successful, as a splintered electoral field yielded just enough votes to advance to the run-off elections.

Now, with the final round of elections only days away, the Brotherhood positions itself as a revolutionary force. Running against the ‘old regime’ candidate of Ahmed Shafik, they are mostly assuming the support of conservative, non-political Muslims while trying to assuage the substantial non-regime, non-MB electorate they will be inclusive in government and faithful to the nation. Time will soon tell if they will be successful again.

Yet despite these changing postures and the confusion it engenders, almost everyone understands the Muslim Brotherhood to be a conservative, religious entity seeking greater integration of Islam into the fabric of society and government.

The difficulty is in establishing what this means. Detractors make them out to be fascists, while promoters paint them as democrats. Brotherhood rhetoric – tailored to the audience – can lend credence to either extreme.

Therefore, the best solution is to examine what the Brotherhood says to itself. Earlier I partially translated and analyzed a book distributed by the Brotherhood which assembles excerpts from the speeches of Hassan al-Banna, the group’s founder. More recently I came across the transcript of an address given by Khairat al-Shater, the MB’s chief financier and one-time presidential candidate. The video and translation are available online.

This speech was delivered in Alexandria on April 21, 2011, significantly before current political machinations yet after revolutionary euphoria had settled. Much of the speech concerns issues of internal organization and the importance of unity and obedience. It describes a group battered by security during the previous decades, which now has finally been able to rebuild itself. Now that the democratic moment has arrived, the group must double its effort to maintain cohesion and discipline, so as to accomplish the goal of Nahda – renaissance.

This is now the Brotherhood’s presidential slogan: Renaissance… the Will of the People.

Before exploring this goal in more detail it is useful to examine why this internal cohesion is so necessary. On the one hand, Shater compares it to party discipline found in every political movement:

‘[Political] parties always talk about partisan commitment, which is synonymous with obedience; meaning that people hear and execute the party’s policy and commit to its instructions, so the analogous term we have for partisan commitment is obedience.’

Yet it is clear that Shater does not see the political arm of the Brotherhood – the Freedom and Justice Party – as an end in itself:

‘The party is a vessel born of the Western idea which has a particular nature within particular limitations; it is designed and conceived, as manifested by everything from its philosophy to its methods, for the political process which is only one part of the greater Nahda project in politics, economy, society, education, morals, values, behavior, children, women, the elderly, the young.’

Stated even more clearly:

‘It is an instrument or a vessel for the deliberation of power in the political space, an instrument for [engaging in] the conflict for the sake of obtaining power.’

Yet obtaining political power is not necessarily the end goal:

‘Our one and only concern is for there to be a government that is faithful to the method of our Lord Almighty, a government keen on establishing the lives of people on the basis of Islamic reference, whether it be us or someone else. We are different from other parties; the issue is not that we ourselves need to govern as some think.’

So while the party is only an instrument, the group – the Brotherhood itself – is the focus. Interestingly, though, it also is only an instrument:

‘The Gama’a [group – the Muslim Brotherhood] is thus an instrument and not a long-term goal. It is an instrument or means to Islamize life in its entirety and institute religion.’

In this line of thought the Brotherhood is conceived as a vanguard, but Shater is clear the responsibility for renaissance is not theirs alone, it is upon all:

‘When we talk about developing the Ummah’s [nation, in collectivity of Muslims] Nahda on the basis of Islamic Reference, we don’t mean that the Muslim Brothers are the Ummah’s representatives in developing the Nahda, but rather that they think, plan, spread awareness, and market the idea. The entire Ummah participates in developing its Nahda because the responsibility falls on the shoulder of the Ummah as a whole.’

Therefore, while the Muslim Brotherhood seeks power in order to implement this renaissance, it does not imply the monopolization of power. Current political events may or may not argue otherwise, but establishment of a dictatorship is not part of the essential Brotherhood program:

‘[We desire the revolution] to guarantee that the current government or any future government commits to the interests of the people, to building a stable political life including peaceful rotation of power, independence of the judiciary, rule of law, security, and attempts to develop the country and people and fix [their] problems.’

Yet while these aims are democratic and for the good of the nation, the group as an instrument is clearly a vanguard, derived not from useful political philosophy but from God’s method in establishing Islam, exclusively along this vision:

‘The Muslim Brotherhood’s method is that of the Prophet’s, and thus we say that the Muslim who is connected to the Gama’a and the method must believe and realize that he is on the right path and that he must not be on a path other than this one. One of the fundamental prerequisites to develop the Brother within the Gama’a is to realize that you are on the right path and that you must not be on a path other than this one.’

This vision is also necessary:

‘We say Islam disappeared from life, thus preachers of the Ikhwan [Brotherhood] undertook the work of restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people, and they believed that this would only come by way of the strong Gama’a … Whoever studies the jurisprudence of instituting religion as established by our master the prophet will find that the instrument which our he used was the Gama’a.’

The stakes are high, for without this group religion itself cannot exist:

‘Omar Bin Al-Khattab [the second caliph in Islam], which some scholars attribute to the prophet himself, stated, “There is no religion without a Gama’a, no Gama’a without an Imam [leader], and no Imam without obedience.”’

Therefore, as seen above, the goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to ‘restore Islam’. Here is how Shater states it clearly, at the opening of his address:

‘You all know that our main and overall mission as Muslim Brothers is to empower God’s religion on Earth, to organize our life and the lives of people on the basis of Islam, to establish the Nahda of the Ummah and its civilization on the basis of Islam, and to subjugate the people to God on Earth.’

The word ‘subjugate’ should not imply compulsion, for Shater says at the end of his speech:

‘Every human is free in his choice because a Gama’a is based on voluntary commitment. We chose this path; no one forced it upon us, and if our Lord Almighty said, “No compulsion is there in religion,” then definitely there is no compulsion in the Muslim Brotherhood’s method.’

But subjugation does have a clear worldwide connotation. It is achieved through the concept of Ustathia, best translated as ‘professorship’.

‘Therefore, the path was clear, thus the Rashidun [rightly-guided] Caliphs continued the stage of the Global State of Islam, and so its domain expanded, and the Persian and Roman (Byzantine) States fell as the new state of Islam emerged on the global level. This state arrived after some time to the point where it became the strongest state in existence, and therefore Ustathia was actualized in reality.’

The crisis for Muslims came centuries later:

‘The last form of the Islamic Caliphate was the Ottoman government, but last century, it first lost the state of Ustathia which had been present but in a weak form. Hence we lost Ustathia and then after this the caliphate itself collapsed.’

The Muslim Brotherhood is a patient organization, and it recognizes that preparatory work must be done in stages. Yet the end goal is clear:

‘As Ikhwan we have spent a long time working on the individual, walking along this line, working on the household, working on society. So we are now developing the Muslim individual and God willing we will continue. We are developing the Muslim household and God willing we will continue. We are developing the Muslim society and God willing we will continue. We are preparing for the stage of Islamic government after this because it is what follows the stage of society.’

While nothing Shater mentions in his speech demands the use of military force, his analogy to the Prophet allows it, seeking application of Ustathia outside the realm of the peoples of Islam:

‘We have reviewed the stages from the Individual to Ustathiya, but where are we now along these stages? I mean are we now at the stage of the Individual, Household, Society, Government, Global Islamic State or Ustathiya? To answer this question we look at our situation and our history. His Eminence the Prophet, before he met his creator, had already made headway for the Muslim Gama’a under his leadership, regarding the household, individual, and society stages, and he established the Islamic state in Medina. He then began to expand this state to cover the Arabian Peninsula, and then began the launch of the Global State of Islam; and the evidence is that Ghzawat [raid] Mo’tah took place in his time, and we all know that Mo’tah is in Jordan and not in the Arabian Peninsula.’

Shater does not speak in detail of what Ustathia would imply if realized. It seems fair, however, to translate the concept as ‘leadership of the world’. A few final comments are necessary in conclusion, therefore.

It must be remembered that while this speech was given to Brotherhood members, these ideas are discussed publically. As seen in the video above, popular preacher Safwat Hegazi interpreted this vision as anticipating a march of millions of martyrs to Jerusalem to establish the United Arab States.

Yet when asked about the idea of caliphate by Western audiences, the Brotherhood refers to ideas like the European Union or the gradual economic integration of Islamic nations. Asked specifically about Hegazi, they emphasize he is not a Brother, does not speak for the group, is not based in reality, and in any case they have enough to worry about in Egypt.

But there is no denial; the dream is simply pushed back a hundred years or more.

It is not a matter of timing since God is on their side. Long or short, they follow the path of the Prophet and will in the end be victorious.

For non-Muslims, then, or non-Brotherhood Muslims, what should the response be? It is hard to gauge.

There is no reason a nation should be prevented from integrating their religion into the fabric of society if this is the will of their people.

Furthermore, there is no reason sovereign states should be prevented from consolidation if this is the will of their people.

Then, when a civilization establishes itself it is fully natural for it to seek a place of primacy in leadership and the promotion of principle consistent with its interests.

In each of these aspects Western nations, indeed Western civilization, can see itself reflected. If it criticizes the Brotherhood, does the pot call the kettle black?

Recognizing this reality, there are three areas worthy of discussion in which to take caution concerning the Brotherhood.

First, though a sensitive topic, Islam itself must be considered – at least in the sense the Brotherhood interprets it. Do the values of Islam in their entirety, since the Brotherhood calls for full implementation, befit the world and the principles of human rights?

Second, this consideration begs the following. Is the Brotherhood a worthy vanguard? By embracing the duplicity of politics do they show themselves as true Muslims or as frauds and manipulators? This is essentially a question for Muslims within their lands of influence.

Third, whether or not Islam is a power for good in this world, the discourse of the Brotherhood reinforces the narrative of a clash of civilizations. They are clearly engaged in a civilizational struggle in which Islam must obtain worldwide leadership. Many in the West are very guilty of the same; the question is if all must desist.

The above is rendered in hopeful education about the Muslim Brotherhood’s purpose. Loud cries from many are issued with little consideration to be fair toward their intentions. Others fail to consider these matters at all, either from ignorance, complicity, or dismissal.

Neither attitude serves the public. I am hopeful this article honors their words and contributes to the better discussion of proper domestic and international response.


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