The English translation of the July 3rd headline in the respected Egyptian daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm (Today’s Egyptian) was long and cumbersome, yet unmistakable:
“Ministry of Interior Calls Scholars to Train State Security Investigation Officers on Combating the Shiite Ideology” (1).
The translation of the translation: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is co-opting the scholars of Al-Azhar—its seminary considered to be the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam—to do his sectarian bidding. More disturbingly, Al-Azhar seems willing to comply.
Egypt is now home to approximately 150,000 of the more than one million Iraqis who fled or were driven out of their neighborhoods in the unending aftermath of the 2003 war. A significant number of those in Egypt, if not the majority, are Shiite Muslims. What apparently attracted the state’s attention to these new arrivals were applications submitted to the Ministry of Endowments asking permission to build mosques and other religious gathering places.
As reported in Al-Masry Al-Youm, Dr. Mohammed Abdel Moneim al-Barri, a prominent scholar and professor of Islamic Culture at Al-Azhar University, revealed that the Interior Ministry has called on him and other scholars to lecture and train state security officers on how to oppose the purported spread of Shiism in Egypt.
Al-Barri himself is known to have conspired with the government in the past, admitting to instructing security officials at the notorious Mazra’ Torah Prison on “the danger of Shiite ideology” to Egypt’s security (Mazra’ Torah Prison is where the country’s political prisoners are held. It once housed leading Egyptian human rights activist Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim and is currently where political dissident Dr. Ayman Noor remains incarcerated).
So why does Mubarak, the quintessential Arab dictator who has ruled Egypt under Emergency Law for the past 27 years, feel threatened by Iraqi Shiites?
In an April 2006 interview with the Arabic satellite channel Al-Arabiyya, Mubarak made the following controversial remark:
“Definitely Iran has influence on Shiites. Shiites are 65 per cent of the Iraqis…Most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in” (2).
Mubarak, like many Arab dictators, reflexively and ignorantly links Iraqi Shiites with Iran, and mistakenly worries they harbor ideas of revolution themselves. Arab Shiites as a whole are regarded as the proverbial “fifth column” in the Sunni-dominated Middle East.
Or is Mubarak’s real fear that they will simply not be subservient to the authority of the state? Perhaps they harbor similar ideas as those of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, who advocates a “one-person one-vote” system of government (in which more than one candidate is on the ballot)? Or Hezbollah, who has the habit of routinely questioning the legitimacy of the established political order?
To solicit Al-Azhar’s scholars to teach the security apparatus how to use religion to harass and intimidate Iraq’s Shiite refugees—and make no mistake that is the intent—is emblematic of the paranoia of a long-standing dictator. Maintaining the status quo and self-preservation are Mubarak’s only real concerns in governing.
Both the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, known as “Sheikh al-Azhar,” and the president of the University are positions appointed by the country’s president. Despite this, Al-Azhar’s acquiescence to and accommodation of Mubarak’s dictates, especially in light of its lofty status it holds in the eyes of the Muslim world, is disconcerting.
Al-Azhar was actually founded by Shiite Muslims of the Fatimid Dynasty, which ruled Egypt in the 10th century. It only changed to a Sunni center of learning after the conquest of Saladin in the 12th century. It came full circle in 1959 when a landmark and groundbreaking fatwa was issued by the renowned Sheikh al-Azhar, Mahmud Shaltut (3).
When asked about the permissibility of Muslims to follow the Shia (Jafari) school, Shaltut wrote:
“2) The Jafari school of thought, which is also known as al-Shia al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought.
“Muslims must know this, and ought to refrain from unjust prejudice to any particular school of thought [emphasis added] since the religion of God and His Divine Law was never restricted to a particular school of thought. Their jurists are accepted by Almighty God, and it is permissible to the [non-scholar] to follow them and to accord with their teaching whether in worship or transactions.”
The current head of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, has not commented on his distinguished institution’s collusion with the state’s security force, long known for torturing opponents and perceived opponents of the regime. Although Mubarak’s actions are consistent with his authoritarian rule, Al-Azhar’s complicity in them is most unsavory and unbecoming of such a great pillar of Islamic education.
Sadly, it appears that Mubarak and Al-Azhar are set to ensure that the harassment and sectarian persecution that caused millions of Iraqis to flee or be driven out of their country, will not end at Egypt’s border.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri (at) yahoo.com.
1) El-Khatib, Ahmed and Munir Adeeb. “Ministry of Interior Calls Scholars to Train State Security Investigation Officers on Combating the Shiite Ideology.” Al-Masry Al-Youm 3 July 2008
2) “Egypt’s Head Questions Shiites’ Loyalty.” The Associated Press 10 April 2006.