Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Fighting fanaticism with law

Takfir” — the act of pronouncing someone a heretic or blasphemer — is not just a rejection of the creed or faith of the “other” or those who differ. It is also a form of death sentence. Takfiris think that they are somehow duty bound to kill those that have been marked as heathens, infidels, blasphemers, affiliates to other religions and, generally, anyone who disagrees with their particular doctrine. In Egypt, for example, terrorists not only pronounce their takfiri judgements against Christian citizens of Egypt, they also pronounce them against fellow affiliates of Sunni Islam who do not conform with the takfiri world view.

Othman Bin Affan was one of the closest companions to the Prophet Mohamed. He married one of the Prophet’s daughters and when she died he married another of his daughters. This man, about whom the Prophet said that “even the angels feel shy in his presence”, was assassinated by people who accused him of heresy and then refused to allow his body to be buried in a Muslim graveyard. Othman Bin Affan was the third rightfully-guided Caliph and, as one of the companions of the Prophet, he had an authoritative voice in religious affairs. However, a group of avaricious and power-hungry men launched a slur campaign against him and accused him of heresy. They then blockaded his home, cut off his access to fresh water and, one day, stole into the house and stabbed him. When his wife, Naila, tried to defend him, one of the assassins severed her hand and, according to some sources, subjected her to moral offences.

The Caliph Othman was succeeded by Ali Bin Abi Taleb, a nephew of the Prophet whom the Prophet had raised in his own home. On the night of the Hijra, Ali famously risked his life by sleeping in Mohamed’s bed so as to thwart an assassination plot and enable Mohamed to escape to safety. Nevertheless, after Ali became the fourth rightfully-guided Caliph, he was treacherously assassinated by Abdel-Rahman Ibn Muljam who, together with his cohorts, held that Ali had erred from the Holy Book, charged him with blasphemy and killed him. The same would occur, in more horrible ways, to the grandson of the Prophet, Hussein Bin Ali. In short, when we hear a pronunciation of blasphemy and heresy we know that a project of murder and terrorism is at hand. The actual act of murder and terrorism may not necessarily be carried out by the person who pronounced the sentence, but he will have knowingly mobilised followers, whether militias or lone wolves, into translating his fatwa into a crime of murder.

Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman pronounced Naguib Mahfouz a heretic, leaving it to others to execute the sentence. The “blind sheikh” issued his fatwa after Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988. That sentence continued to hang over Mahfouz’s head until the assassination attempt against him outside his home in October 1994. The young man who tried to kill Mahfouz had never read a word the famous novelist had written. He was just following orders handed down by higher-ups in his group. A similar scenario occurred two years earlier, after the prominent writer, columnist and human rights activist Farag Foda was pronounced a blasphemer. On that occasion, however, the murderers succeeded.

Even if a fatwa is issued to retract a pronunciation of blasphemy, it is not considered valid unless it is issued by the person or agency that issued the fatwa to be annulled. Perhaps this is why Al-Azhar refuses to issue fatwas of blasphemy, even against IS, who are terrorists and murderers and should be brought to justice on that basis.

The bases for takfiri fatwas have lied latent in some ancient yellowing tomes that reflect the era and mentality of the Kharijites, a period we thought consigned to the darker corner of history and that we, scholars and researchers, followed with grief. But then, Islamism reared its head in the modern era, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its founder, Hassan Al-Banna, created the “Secret Organisation”, the underground paramilitary group responsible for carrying out assassinations and other acts of violence against those the Muslim Brotherhood leaders branded as blasphemers. Their train of assassinations extends from prime minister Ahmed Maher (1945), Appeals Court judge Ahmed Al-Khazindar (1948) and prime minister Mahmoud Al-Nuqrashi (1948) up to minister of awqaf (Religious Endowments) Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Al-Dhahabi (1977) and the attempted assassination against Egypt’s former grand mufti, Ali Gomaa (2016).

Egypt is engaged in an all-out drive against extremism and terrorism. The efforts on the part of the Egyptian military and security forces are complimented by social and community campaigns, artistic and intellectual efforts, and religious drives to combat extremist discourse. The campaign should also extend into the legal domain in the form of legislation to counter those who never tire of branding others — whether Muslim or non-Muslim Egyptians — as blasphemers and who continue to do so with impunity through satellite television and other media. We know who they are. They might not wear explosive belts or carry guns themselves, but their fatwas drive others to kill. Should we just ignore them?

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