13 March 2011
Sheikh Hassaan the pacifier
It was the Islamist figure Sheikh Muhammad Hassaan—famous for his ultra-conservative views and his negative attitude towards Christians—who dominated the scene in Sole, Etfeeh, last Wednesday, in an attempt to bring peace to the village.
On the Egyptian TV talk show Masr Ennaharda (Egypt Today) last Wednesday evening Sheikh Hassaan talked about the initiative he took to meet the people of Etfeeh. The move, he said, had been approved by Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
In a large meeting attended by several Islamic clerics as well as the Coptic figures Rami Lakah of the Wafd political party and George Ishaq of Kifaya activist movement, Sheikh Hassaan, who is widely popular especially with the young, addressed a large number of the Sole villagers of all ages.
Words of Allah
“I wish to highlight,” Sheikh Hassaan said on TV, “that the only way to pacify the young villagers was through the words of Allah and His Prophet Muhammad. This was the only means to get through to them and calm them down, since they were in a fury that could have led them to burn down the whole place.
“I told them,” Sheikh Hassaan said, “that Islam does not sanction the establishment of a mosque or holding prayers on usurped land. The Prophet himself had once said that ‘whoever seized land or demolished a building, or usurped anything without right, I will be against him on the Last Day’. Who wants to be against the Prophet Muhammad?”
He reminded the crowd of a story that goes back to the early days of Islam when the military leader Amr Ibn al-Aas wished to expand the mosque he had built onto a land that belonged to a Christian woman, but the Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab ordered Ibn al-Aas to demolish the extension and give back the land to its owner.
Speaking to the Muslim men of Sole, Sheikh Hassaan said, “You accepted God’s judgment; promise me not to go against His law and His Prophet’s sunna (his customs and the way he lived)”. The attendants promised to listen and to obey. He said, I will read to you the opinions and fatawi (legal opinions) of 20 prominent Islamic scholars whom I consulted on the matter.
First: Muslim Coptic problems must be radically and justly solved by dedicated efforts, not by cosmetic measures such as the customary shaking hands by Muslim and Coptic clerics, or by holding the cross close to the crescent. These are mere painkillers that swiftly become ineffective.
Second: Calling upon Muslims and Copts to work for public interest, not for individual or special interests, to overcome the current crisis.
Third: Not asking for help from outside countries because it inflames sectarian conflict.
Fourth: Abiding by the rulings of the judiciary, especially during the current sensitive stage.
Fifth: Preventing political extortion by both Muslims and Copts to achieve political or sectarian benefits.
Sixth: The Copts of Sole should return to their homes immediately, since they were not forced to leave their village in the first place.
Seventh: Rebuilding the Sole church according to God’s law and to the decision of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces.
Eighth: Everyone involved must be held accountable. Collective punishment in return for individual offence is not acceptable.
Sheikh Hassaan said that the entire world will judge Islam according to how Muslims behave. He warned against sectarian conflict and said that Islam had conquered Egypt 14 centuries ago but never treated Copts badly.
Sheikh Hassaan reiterated a claim made by the Muslim villagers that, when they broke into the church, they found lists with the names of all the Muslims in the village. “I saw them with my own eyes,” he said. The villagers believe that these lists were used in acts of witchcraft against them. This is why, they claim, they had pulled down what remained of the church after they torched it.
Wednesday’s initiative, however, was not the end of the hostilities, according to Sheikh Hassaan. “I will back within 48 hours,” he said, for another meeting with the villagers. The military have promised, he stressed, that not a single brick will be laid to rebuild the demolished church until then. “I would also like to sit with a group of wise Christians,” he said, “to reach an agreement that satisfies all parties.”
The question which begs an answer is why the political parties, rights groups, and civil society institutions appeared to have deserted the Sole scene and relinquished the ground to an Islamist figure—Sheikh Muhammad Hassan?
Fighting fire with fire
Strategic expert Emad Gad explains the matter off by claiming the ruling Military Council decided to answer the Salafis—who dominate Sole—with the same salafi extremist thought. “Sheikh Muhammad Hassaan’s fanatic thought,” Mr Gad told Watani, “is known to all, it is broadcast on satellite TV and propagated on the Internet. I believe that the Military Council was advised to resort to this long-established conventional technique of fighting fire with fire.”
Salafis had notoriously been State Security Intelligence protégés, which, according to Mr Gad, proves the old regime is still round and about. “To delegate one of the symbols of extremism in Egypt to deal with an extremist-bred predicament disturbs me,” he said. “We should all collaborate to seriously counter Salafis by the rule of law. Pro-25 January revolutionaries are strongly striving for a civil State.”
The million-person demonstration
For his part, writer and activist Nabil Sharafeddin told Watani that exploiting religious figures to fight religious violence was but one in a series of erroneous moves to treat the ailment, and is a replay of the scenarios adopted during the Mubarak era. It is like treating a cancer with painkillers, he said.
“The Sole incident has proved that, where the handling of sectarian violence is concerned, matters are going from bad to worse,” Mr Sharafeddin said. “How could a person who is notoriously against Copts and is a prominent leader of Salafi thought have been allowed to handle the Sole crisis?” he asked, in shock.
Civil society institutions, Mr Sharafeddin said, are engrossed with other agendas—admittedly important ones—such as state security and corruption, but overlook the vital issue of the national unity and solidarity. He stressed that the sectarian issue should be handled with transparency and candour, the only way that could lead to reconciliation.
This time, however, the Copts did not stand by helplessly. Mr Sharafeddin applauded their positive activism, even if it went against the wishes of the Church, he said. “Rights are not granted,” he said, “they are demanded, fought for, and grasped in the end.”
Just as Mr Gad did, Mr Sharafeddin had high hopes that civil society is well and alive, and can stand up to the Islamists.
Consulting the clerics
According to Abdel Rehim Ali, a specialised researcher of Islamist movements, Sheikh Hassaan’s stress that the decision the SCAF took to rebuild the church was based on Islamic law and the decision of prominent Islamic scholars, should not go unnoticed.”
“This system of obtaining the approval of Islamic scholars before issuing a political decision is called Wilayat al-Faqih (or the rule of the Islamic scholar) and is applied in Iran.” Mr Ali said. “If applied in Egypt, it will be very dangerous.”
“What if the problem was not about demolishing and rebuilding a church? What if it was about Copts trying to build a church and we applied the same system of referring the application to the Islamic scholars to check its legitimacy in Islamic law? Wilayat al-Faqih is very dangerous; it may lead to annulling the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, preventing Copts from building churches or even residing in specific areas such as the Cairo districts of al-Sayeda Zeinab and al-Hussien, both of which include many Islamic monuments.
Those who listen carefully to Sheikh Hassaan say that from now on we will judge by God’s law, Mr Ali said, will realise that we are heading straight to a religious State.