Egypt violence heightens concern about growing Salafi role

Salafis, who subscribe to a strict version of Islam, were blamed in weekend attacks against Christians in Cairo. Many Egyptians worry that extremists could play a greater role in post-Mubarak Egypt.

By , Correspondent

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    Egyptian Copts, one holding a banner with a picture of Jesus Christ, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, on Sunday, May 8. Christians and Muslims throwing rocks clashed in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200.
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    As many as 70,000 Egyptians belonging to the Salafi religious movement, which favors a strict interpretation of Islam, gathered April 1, for a convention at a mosque in Cairo.
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The deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians in Cairo this weekend have heightened already growing concern about the role of fundamentalist Muslims known as Salafis in post-revolution Egypt.

Salafis, who have no organized group or structure, have long shunned politics in Egypt. But since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, whose secular regime repressed Islamists and extremists of all stripes, Salafis have begun to vocally enter the political fray. The strident sectarian rhetoric and recent attacks on Christians has many Egyptians worried that extremist forces could find a greater role in the new Egypt.

“They don’t want Christians in Egypt. They want an Islamic state,” said a woman who gave her name as Mona at a Christian protest Monday against the weekend violence. Next to her, a woman in a Muslim hijab who held a wooden cross joined the protest in solidarity as chants against Salafis filled the air. “We are afraid for what will happen to us in the future when people like that are allowed to attack us and to be part of the new government,” says Mona, holding an image of Jesus aloft.

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What ended in fighting that killed 12 people in the Cairo district of Imbaba started Saturday when a group of Salafis gathered at St. Mina church, claiming that the church was holding a woman who had converted from Christianity to Islam, and demanding the church release her. Such claims of conversion and kidnapping have been a flash point for sectarian tension, with Salafis in particular seizing on them in the past year.

Salafi clerics express hatred toward Christians on TV

Salafism is an ultraconservative strain of Islam whose followers believe in emulating the first three generations of Muslims and reject any “innovation” of the religion that followed. Some wear traditional robes and grow long beards to emulate the prophet Muhammad and his companions.

They practice what they believe to be the purest form of Islam, and are primarily concerned with living their lives according to such teaching, and not with politics, says Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist groups at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He describes Egyptian Salafis as “in this middle place between jihadists like Osama bin Laden and political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Though both groups want to see Islamic law imposed, Salafis consider the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood followers as “innovators.” Al Qaeda’s members follow a form of Salafism, but Egyptian Salafi clerics say that unlike the global terrorist group they have renounced violence. Yet Salafi clerics on television have railed hatefully against Christianity, and in March a Christian man in Qena said Salafists cut off his ear after accusing him of renting an apartment to a prostitute.

Growing political role for Salafis?

Many Salafist leaders were against participating in Egypt’s uprising, which toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, though younger followers participated anyway. Now, Dr. Rashwan says, Egyptian Salafist thought is now evolving as more embrace participation in politics after the revolution. Increased interaction with society may have a moderating effect on some, he says. “They will now try to integrate themselves into the political theater. It will take time, but we will have positive change inside Salafism.”

While no one knows how many Salafist followers exist in Egypt, Rashwan says the numbers are not huge, and they will be only a marginal force on Egyptian politics. But that has not stopped some Egyptians from worrying.

At a Salafist protest in support of Osama bin Laden Friday, a young Egyptian named Ahmed who described himself as a liberal Muslim stood watching as several hundred people chanted against the US and held signs that said, “We are all bin Laden.”

“If they are going to play a role in our political system, I need to know how they think,” says Ahmed, explaining that he had come to try to understand the Salafis. Their numbers were small enough that he did not think they would come to power. But he worries nonetheless about the influence they might have. “They say they’re peaceful and then they do something violent,” he says.

In the crowd, a self-described Salafi who gave her name as Hanan said that bin Laden was a martyr and a hero who would never kill innocent people – she did not support violence, she added. She was glad the revolution had swept Mubarak from power, and is excited about political participation, she says. “But we want an Islamic government. We don’t want any more agents of America or Israel like Mubarak. We don’t want secularists.”

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