Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 September 2006
Issue No. 811
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fatwa fights

The war in Lebanon has given rise to a spate of controversial fatwas and, perhaps, a new religious discourse. Gihan Shahine reports

Anti-Israeli sentiments in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon seem to have found expression in the recent spate of fatwas (religious edicts) that are sparking more controversy and public debate than ever. Positive impressions of Hizbullah's resistance, combined with negative views towards Arab regimes that appeared to do nothing in the face of Israeli massacres of Lebanese civilians, have resulted in a new religious spin on topics that were otherwise discussed in mainly political and diplomatic contexts. The rise of Shiite leader Hassan Nasrallah's popularity in Egypt has also brought a Sunni versus Shiite discourse into the public sphere with unprecedented vigor.

The clearest example of all this, perhaps, was the controversy surrounding popular preacher Safwat Hegazi and the edict he issued during the war calling for "murdering any Israeli Jew anywhere in wartime". The fatwa quickly landed Hegazi in hot water; he now faces charges of "instigating murder".

Hegazi said he based his edict on the grounds that Israeli Jews are all "reservists in the Israeli army" who "kill women and children in Lebanon and Palestine", and thus should "not be left to enjoy peace and security anywhere in the world". Hegazi was quoted in the independent weekly Sowt Al-Umma saying that "knives, pistols or poison" can all be used to kill "Zionist Israelis" in Egypt; at the same time, the preacher advised against suicide bombings, so as "to spare innocents".

Hegazi told Sowt Al-Umma that if Islamic militant groups "represented a source of worry for the regime, then [the latter] should allow them to fight [on the Lebanese and Palestinian fronts]; if they win," he suggested, "then the victory is ours; and if they get killed, it would be a relief for the regime."

The edict immediately backfired. For one thing, Hegazi spent three days being interrogated by state security before being released Sunday. He has also been banned from delivering sermons in mosques. The Israeli Embassy in Cairo, meanwhile, complained that the fatwa posed a serious threat to Israeli civilians and tourists in Egypt.

Saying his fatwa was misquoted, Hegazi refuted the charges that were leveled against him, which included "instigating youths to kill Israelis, join outlawed groups, and adopt views aimed at toppling the current regime". He explained that the edict -- which he refused to retract -- only meant to target "extremist Jews who murder women, children and the elderly in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories".

The fatwa continues to inspire newspaper headlines, stirring hot debates on both the political and religious fronts. Some called it both "irresponsible" and "religiously unfounded", while others said they supported it on the grounds that it may point to the only way left to curb Israeli massacres.

One of the nay-sayers, Hussein Abdel-Razeq of the leftist Tagammu Party, argued that politics should steer clear of any religious discourse; he lambasted Hegazi's edict as "irresponsible", and called it "a crime that would only wreak havoc".

The rise of these kinds of fatwas, argued Gamal Qotb, a former deputy of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, are a reflection of the "rise of public frustration more than anything else". Qotb blames the "escalation of Israeli massacres against civilians and the silence of Arab regimes" for this frustration.

Qotb and other analysts -- even those who are vehemently against the edict -- said that pressing charges against Hegazi has only lent him more public credence and sympathy, while blowing the entire matter out of proportion at the same time. "No one would have given the fatwa much attention otherwise," Qotb said. Abdel-Razeq suggested that Hegazi's "argument should have been met with a counter-argument, and definitely not a security clampdown."

In fact, a counter-edict did emerge from Al-Azhar, an institution whose leading officials are widely seen as mouthpieces for the government. "Killing Jews on Egyptian territory would be a terrorist act," said Egypt's mufti, Ali Gomaa, who explained that any Israeli with an Egyptian visa in his passport had been granted "a safe-conduct pass by the authorities, which bans killing him even if there is a war between us and his country".

Another recent statement by a prominent preacher -- the Qatar-based Egyptian Youssef El-Qaradawi -- has also ignited a socio- political and religious war-of words. Speaking at the Egyptian Press Syndicate, El-Qaradawi warned against "the infiltration of the Shiite dogma into Egypt under the guise of Sufism". The comment immediately provoked a backlash from Egypt's Shiite community, who interpreted it as instigating a security clampdown on their co-religionists.

At the same time, El-Qaradawi also praised "hardline Shia believer" Hassan Nasrallah, who, he said, "was still far better than those staying idle" in the face of occupation. He slammed Arab regimes as falling into the latter category.

Prominent columnist Salama Ahmed Salama attributed El-Qaradawi's remarks and other recent fatwa fights to the "rising popularity of the Shiites as almost the only power standing in the face of US and Israeli threats in Lebanon, Iran, and even Iraq." This situation, Salama said, seems to have provoked a Sunni counter-rhetoric that "remains short of political insight, and sometimes causes chaos". In Salama's view, however, "Hizbullah is a political and military resistance movement that finds motivation in the Shia dogma, not the reverse. As such, its victory should not provide any justification for clerics to step in with a plethora of uncalculated edicts that may very well wreak havoc."

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