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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

The Implications of Charlie for Political Islam

Fadel Soliman
Fadel Soliman

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.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Islamism or Jihadism: A False Choice

Fadel Soliman
Fadel Soliman

In the year 1321 Muslim mobs, with tacit allowance from the Mamluk Sultan, destroyed 60 churches in Egypt and openly attacked Copts on the roads and in their homes. Incitement included accusations Christians supported the invading Mongols in their ‘coup’ attempt against the state.

According to UK-based Fadel Soliman, these days may soon return. Coptic support for President Sisi and his coup against the democratically elected Islamist presidency of Mohamed Morsi has resulted in a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ between religious adherents.

‘I am so worried about the future of Egypt,’ said Soliman, ‘especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.’

Soliman issued this comparison in the context of a larger argument about restoring hope to Muslim youth who own the dream of ruling by sharia. Too many, he laments, are attracted by the success of the so-called Islamic State following the ‘betrayal’ of the democratic dawn.

‘Either give the way to Muslim youth to try to reach their dreams through peaceful means,’ he told Lapido Media, ‘or they will definitely seek violent means. This is normal, this was expected to happen.’

Soliman is the Egyptian founder and director of Bridges Foundation, a UK-based NGO that aims to overcome misconceptions about Islam. His work has been praised by diverse figures such as Representative Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania and the liberal satirist Bassem Youssef of Egypt. He has consistently condemned terrorism and appealed to the Islamic State for the return of Alan Henning, later beheaded.

He is also an Islamist, arguing sharia law supports and enhances the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He wishes justice for Egypt, to which he has not returned since the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed.

Correct?

But the crucial question is – if his argument is correct will frustrated Islamists flock to a jihadist vision? And similarly, should policymakers encourage ‘moderate’ Islamists as a counterweight to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State?

The argument is very popular in academic circles, informing much of the enthusiasm of the initial Arab Spring. Khalil al-Anani of Georgetown University in Washington DC, writing in Foreign Affairs, speaks for many in his worry about a return to authoritarianism in Egypt.

‘Through its clampdown on political dissent, Cairo has created a fertile ground for ISIS and groups like it,’ he wrote,‘with the potential to recruit young people, Islamists, and moderates alike.’

Indeed, most Muslims in Egypt are religiously conservative. The 2013 Pew survey showed 74% want sharia to be the law of the land, with 56% believing Egypt’s current legal system is deficient. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties captured nearly three-quarters of the parliament in the 2012 elections. It would appear these numbers represent those are ripe for radicalisation.

But Soliman’s appraisal of Egyptian politics fails to account for the millions of Muslims and Christians who rejected the presidency of Morsi. Coup or not, the subsequent ‘yes’ votes for the constitution and Sisi’s presidency each exceeded the 13 million Morsi won in 2012.

These numbers do not negate the conviction of Islamists that they have been cheated out of gains fairly won. Their grievances have been buttressed by the 632 people killed at Rabaa, according to Egypt’s semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights. A minimum of 6,400 people have been detained for ‘rioting’, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Bigotry

But the assumption these frustrations will drive Islamists to violence is simply a form of bigotry, according to Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

‘I disagree with this line of argument,’ he said. ‘It is shallow and insulting to Muslims. It is the bigotry of low expectations.’

Where Soliman sees the path to violence as normal—despite his firm rejection—Tadros sees responsibility.

‘Violence is a choice,’ he said. ‘It is not an inevitable one. Just as some have chosen the path of terrorism, there are millions of men and women who have chosen not to become terrorists, not to kill their enemies.’

Estimates of Egyptians fighting in Syria and Iraq range between 5,000 and 8,000. Islamist movement expert Ahmed Ban of the Nile Center for Strategic Studies believes this makes up 20-30% of their fighting force.

These are significant numbers. But according to two recent polls, only three to four percent of Egyptians view the Islamic State in positive terms. Viewed in light of a population of 90 million, small percentages cause considerable worry. But Egyptians, including the mass of Islamists, are not rushing headlong into jihadism.

Soliman says that every time he criticizes the Islamic State his Facebook and Twitter feeds light up in protest.

But Khaled Dawoud of Egypt’s Constitution Party, writing for the Atlantic Council, says the majority of Egyptians in Syria and Iraq travelled there during the presidency of Morsi. It was not the failure of Islamism that boosted jihadism, but its success.

Egypt has instituted travel restrictions to Turkey to prevent the further flow of citizens to the Islamic State. Terrorism continues in the restless Sinai where the Islamic State has formed a local chapter. The threat is real.

Prioritising values

But even peaceful Islamists have a distinct illiberal agenda, writes Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in his acclaimed book Temptations of Power. The premise that democracy would moderate them did not prove true in Egypt. In an excerpt from the Atlantic he describes the conflict this makes for observers, but Egyptians bear the greater struggle.

‘The ensuing—and increasingly charged—debate over the role of religion in public life put Western analysts and policymakers in the uncomfortable position of having to prioritise some values they hold dear over others,’ he wrote.

In the ongoing debate about how to include Islamists in the political order, foreign governments and Egyptians will set their agenda according to particular interests and principles.

But the implicit threat of jihadism should not be given a place of priority. It is neither sufficiently true nor morally honorable.

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.

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Personal

Historic Public Dialogue

For the first time in the history of modern Egypt Muslims and Christians engaged in public dialogue at the popular level. On May 15 an evangelical pastor and a Muslim preacher discussed the topic: The Concept of Salvation in Christianity and Islam. Nearly 250 people crowded into the downtown lecture hall of the Sawy Culture Wheel on the banks of the Nile River in Cairo. They received a complete presentation, replete with Bible and Qur’anic verses, and were given ample time for questions and answers. An event with almost no precedent, it proceeded with both excitement and respect, in sharp contrast to general practices of inter-religious communication.

Representing the Christian position was Pastor Nagy Maurice of the largest evangelical church in Egypt and the Arab world, Qasr al-Dobara, located in the heart of downtown Cairo. Initiative for the seminar, however, came from the Muslim preacher Fadel Soliman, director of Bridges Foundation, an organization dedicated to the peaceful worldwide presentation of Islam, and long time leader of a mosque in New Jersey. Knowing the difficulty Islam has to gain a hearing in the Western world he did not want the same error repeated in Egypt. When first approached to lecture on this topic he insisted a Christian leader join him to speak about his faith. Perhaps normal in the West, the Sawy Culture Wheel agreed to take this risk.

An increasing religiosity among both Muslims and Christians has made the discussion of religion among the most sensitive topics in society. On the one hand, dialogue between top level religious dignitaries projects the image of national harmony, which correctly describes historic relations and official policy but downplays a growing sectarian tension. On the other hand satellite preachers from both religions frequently engage the opposing creed with polemics and occasional vitriol. The result is a wary culture that knows the topic can lead easily to troubles, and a government that desires to avoid these troubles at all costs.

Soliman first sought out a representative from the Coptic Orthodox Church, which composes 90-95% of the Christians in Egypt. His overtures were met with caution and then polite refusal, prompting his frustration. “They are missing an opportunity to speak of their faith. They have created in their minds a belief of persecution, and then act according to it.” Yet according to Sawsan Gabra, director of the Center for Arab West Understanding, “Orthodox would only welcome such an event if it were held in the church. They do not like public gatherings.” Indeed, there was no official Orthodox representation, even in the audience, reluctant to join an unsanctioned event. According to Sheikh Sa’d al-Din Fadel, director of religious programming at the Sawy Culture Wheel, though their events are published in advance, “We did not inform the authorities of this seminar, being unsure about their reaction.”

Each presenter was given twenty minutes to describe the position of his faith, and then five minutes for summation. The moderator emphasized this was a dialogue, not a debate, and pressed the need for respect upon the audience. Fadel estimated the crowd to be about 75% Muslim, but was likely more as it included over 100 Muslim women clothed in hijab, the head covering seen as normative by most Egyptian Muslims. By the time Maurice began his remarks the original chairs were all filled, and organizers were busy trying to accommodate the overflow, which spilled into the aisles making for standing room only.

The atmosphere was both expectant and curious, as people listened attentively to Maurice and Soliman present clearly the message of salvation as described in the divergent scriptures. Neither disparaged the beliefs of the other, and applause was given to all in the end. There was nary a disruption in the audience from either side.

During the question and answer period the majority of queries elicited further explanation about Christian theology. According to Mohamed Hassan, an Islamic Studies Masters student in the audience, this was appropriate. “Most people in Egypt are unable to discuss religion without it leading to trouble, because they are ignorant of the other’s beliefs. Today we started to break down this wall.” The normalization of religious dialogue is quietly but historically underway.