The Economist

Relations between religion and state

A bad week for Salafists



LAST Friday a big crowd filled much of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for strict imposition of shari’a law. The mostly cheerful protesters, many of them bearded or fully veiled and bussed in from the provinces, want Egypt’s under-construction constitution to declare the country an Islamic state, based on divinely revealed rather than man-made laws. Such demands are not new, but the debate over relations between religion and state had been muted during Egypt’s six decades of gloved military dictatorship. It is now, testily, out in the open.

Puritanical Salafists denounce their detractors as secular "extremists", foreign agents or infidels. But plenty of Egyptians, among them pious Muslims, doubt the wisdom or practicality of using shari’a, a scanty and contested body of divine or long-sanctified rulings, to order the complexities of modern life. To them, the hard-core Islamists are simply a dangerous and uncouth rabble.

The match between the two sides is pretty even just now. Egypt's poor and deeply conservative majority looks favourably on Islamic law, in a wishful-thinking sort of way. Yet even the Muslim Brotherhood, which happens to be the party of the current president and is by far the strongest player in the political arena, is wary of pushing things too far, too soon and so, perhaps, alienating too many.

To the dismay of the Salafists, the debate has tipped this week to the advantage of their doubters. The fault, as so often, lies with a radical few whose excessive zeal hands ammunition to their enemies. One kind of ammunition is outrage, such as the anger provoked by news that Salafists in the provincial city of Mersa Matruh had allegedly kidnapped a 14-year-old Coptic Christian girl and obliged her to convert. Or that roused by three recent incidents in which fully veiled women, including a school teacher in a classroom, aggressively snipped off the exposed locks of unveiled women. There was righteous indignation, too, at news from Saudi Arabia, a country regarded as Salafist Central, where Fayhan al Ghamdi, a little-known preacher who has sermonised on television about family values, was accused this week of beating his five-year-old daughter to death, ostensibly due to doubts over her chastity.

An even more powerful weapon is ridicule. A prime-time chat show on Egypt’s Dream TV carried a heated debate this week in which a Salafist radical, Morgan al Gohari, faced off against a milder-mannered Tunisian Islamist. Mr Gohari elicited gasps and guffaws, and a torrent of internet jokes, by insisting that the Sphinx and pyramids should be smashed because they are ‘idols’. The Tunisian sheikh objected, noting that not even the Muslim conquerors of Egypt 14 centuries ago had seen fit to destroy its ancient treasures, and that no-one worshipped any statues these days. Mr Gohari calmly riposted that this was only because early Muslims lacked today’s powerful explosives.

At least such debates are still possible in Egypt. Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s General Mufti, the country’s top official religious scholar, this week issued a fatwa banning contact with foreign satellite channels. They are biased, he declared, and their aim is to spread chaos and schisms among Muslims. Saudi citizens with complaints should send them in writing to officials, said Sheikh al-Sheikh, not air them abroad.

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