Counter Islamists and Islam: The new religious opposition

AMR ABDALLAH DALSH REUTERS A girl walks past a Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution” near a polling station … Continued



A girl walks past a Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution” near a polling station during the second day of parliamentary elections at the village of Kafr el-Moseilha, the hometown former president Hosni Mubarak, in the Nile delta province of Menoufia 80 km (50 miles) north of Cairo December 14, 2011.

“They can do good and they can do bad – but they’re just Muslims. They are not Islam.”

And with that, the man summed up his talk about the different Islamist movements in Egypt. His talk had been intense – perhaps better described as virulent. Such sentiments distinguishing Islamism from Islam is hardly unique – liberal and non-religious forces within predominantly religious conservative societies in the Muslim world have been making that argument for a while now.

But this man was hardly a secularist. He was a graduate of the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the pre-eminent Islamic educational institution of the world – and he was delivering his talk as the Friday sermon in one of the most prestigious mosques of Cairo. In short, he was a counter-Islamist religious authority.

It was fascinating to listen to the talk for many reasons. For one, the preacher was very clear in his essentially political diatribe – something that could not have been thought of a little over a year ago in Cairo. But more than that – the preacher was evidently representative of a large swathe of the religious establishment in Egypt. That establishment that regards religious interpretation as being the domain of academic specialists, or ‘the learned’ (‘ulama), rather than put into the hands of political activists who would corrupt God’s religion for petty political gain.

“Who are these people that claim to speak on behalf of Islam? They are taxi-drivers and bus drivers – having a long beard is not a substitute for the learning that the learned specialist of religion is obligated to have.”

In post January 25 Egypt, pretty much the entire non-Islamist political establishment is keen for the Azhar University and its scholars to take control of Islamic interpretations. Its not hard to see why – in the absence of a specialist institution, the loudest and most populist voices drown out other voices. In today’s Egypt, those voices belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis – groups that the non-Islamist political establishment seeks to keep in check.

Much of this tension flared up in recent weeks. Islamists of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis decided to dominate the constitutional assembly that is responsible for drafting Egypt’s new constitution. The Azhar University was bitterly disappointed that the constitutional document it had so painstakingly worked to build consensus around, including Islamists of different stripes and non-Islamists and others from civil society, was not the structure that the constitutional assembly had chosen to use. But it was particularly affronted by the fact that the assembly had decided to reserve one seat for the Azhar University, and one seat for the Coptic Church – as though the two institutions were equal –and equally insignificant.

“I’ve reached a stage in my life that I’m cautious of anyone who claims religion gives them a monopoly on power. The Muslim Brotherhood will soon learn that what they covet, may bring them down.”

The author of the above quote belongs to a Western civil society movement outside of Egypt with its intellectual roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, but many share his sentiment. Others within the broader Islamist movement have become severely disillusioned with the current leadership of the MB in particular – a leadership which has broken several political pledges over the past year with rather poor explanations. Not least of which was the running of a presidential candidate, against numerous promises to the contrary. For Kamal el-Helbawy, the former MB spokesman in Europe, that was the final straw. A committed Islamist, he refused to stay in the MB after that, saying, “I cannot stand in the ranks of people who turned their back on the revolution.”

It is early to tell where all this will lead – but it is significant to watch.

In that Friday sermon mentioned above, the Azhar graduate asked his congregation to pray for the rectification of their inward states. The subtext was clear: The Islamists might call for an ‘Islamic state,’ but the sheik sought for his congregants to reform their inner states to become Islamic. As the leadership of MB in particular, but of the newly political Salafi groups as well, seek to increasingly manifest their Islamism on the level of public policy, they will find opposition from an expected quarter: deeply religious, but non-Islamist, Muslims.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Cairo-based expert on the MENA region, with experience at Gallup, the Brookings Institution & Warwick University. Twitter: @hahellyer

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  • xexon

    This is a healthy move for Islam. And it reminds me of what happened in Christianity centuries ago when people had finally had enough of an overbearing church and decided to push back.

    It resulted in stopping the Catholic drive to try and take over the world in the name of Jesus. And it allowed freedom of expression and democratic voting to flourish.


  • ccnl1

    And the safe and easy solution:

    From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi————–

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using “The 77 Branches of Islamic “faith” a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true “faith” (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings.” i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    “1. Belief in Allah”

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    “2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence.”

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the “Gi-b G-nab” (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the “akas” for Allah should be included if you continue to be a “crea-tionist”.

    “3. To believe in the existence of angels.”

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No “pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies” ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and “tin–ker be-lls”. Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    “4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore.”

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT e

  • Rongoklunk

    We get smarter all the time, and are aware that no gods exist. The ancients knew almost nothing about the world they inhabited…and invented gods for everything. But we know better now. Gods live in the imagination, where anything can exist; they give comfort to the fearful. The fact that there are thousands of gods that nobody ever saw, says that they were invented. It is so much easier to believe this – than to persuade yourselves that they actually exist. Grow up people. Gods are mythical by definition.

  • Kingofkings1

    “They can do good and they can do bad – but they’re just _____”.
    You can say that about any religion or ideology

  • DigitalQuaker

    Epic Fail

  • ccnl1

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)


    Moderate Moslems are like moderate Republicans – mythical.