Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

editorial: Legacy of the Hashshashin

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the 11th century, a splinter sect of the Shia Fatimids brought terror to Persia and the Levant. The Nazari Ismailis, also known as the Hashshashin (the word that became “assassins” in English), holed up in the mountains in Alma Ata and Lebanon.

The Nezari Ismailis sent young men on suicidal missions to attack top politicians. They murdered top officials of the Fatimid and Saljuk empires, including King Conrad I of Jerusalem, and many more.

The sect was finally defeated, decimated by the armies of the Mongols and the Mamluks, in the 12th and 13th centuries. Those who survived abandoned politics, focused on trade and prospered.

The story of the Nezari Ismailis was later repeated by other groups, with more or less the same ending. The pattern is familiar: an ambitious leader makes a bid for power, attracts the zealous to his cause, mounts an insurgence, inflicts some damage and is ultimately defeated.

Egypt has had its share of such movements in modern times. The Muslim Brotherhood, created in 1928, set up a Special Outfit to dispose of its foes and eventually grab power. Members of the Special Outfit fought against Zionist gangs in Palestine in 1948, just as members of the Nezari Ismailis fought against the Crusaders in the Levant in the 11th and 12th centuries.

After the 1952 revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Then they mounted another challenge, this time under the ultra-radical Sayyed Qotb, in 1965. Each time, they failed in their bid for power, were crushed and disappeared from the scene.

But other groups picked up where the Muslim Brotherhood left off. The Military College Islamist group, led by Salah Sariyah, planned to kill Anwar Al-Sadat in 1974. Another splinter group, the Takfir wa Hejra (also known as Denunciation and Migration), was led by Shokri Mostafa. Its followers killed Minister of Awqaf Mohamed Hussein Al-Dahabi in 1977. The Jihad group, founded by Omar Abdel Rahman and led by Abdel Salam Farag, killed President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981.

Each of these groups was destroyed but the violent ideas they espoused were picked up by other disgruntled zealots. So although we have always defeated the zealots, we haven’t been able to defeat the fanaticism that motivated them, or the sense of injustice that drew fresh recruits.

One thing that may help us understand this failure to stamp out fanaticism is that Muslim culture has traditionally focused on theology and science rather than politics. Muslim scholarship in politics is rather thin when compared to the considerable scholarship in history, law or the physical sciences.

We repulsed one fanatical group after another, and will ultimately win the war on the Islamic State (IS) group and like-minded outfits. But unless we find a new approach, the confrontation between governments and zealots will continue.

As long as the insurgents believe that their grievances can only be addressed through an apocalyptic life-and-death confrontation with the state, trouble will brew once again. And unless governments deprive the zealots of their recruitment opportunities, by ending injustice and repression, the same old story will come once more into play.

This vicious circle needs to end. And it will only end when everyone admits that politics, rather than warfare, is the best way forward.


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