"Shoot them in the heart … Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them . . . We must cleanse our Egypt from these riffraff … They shame us … They stink. This is how God has created them. They are hypocrites and seceders … Stand your ground. God is with you, and the Prophet Muhammad is with you, and the believers are with you … Numerous visions have attested that the Prophet is with you. May God destroy them, may God destroy them, may God destroy them. Amen!"
These are the words of Egypt's former Mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, speaking to an audience of the Egyptian military and police leadership. Ironically the person who presented him at that event suggested Gomaa was going to talk about Islam's "clemency". This audience included General Al-Sisi, Egypt's Defence Minister and its current de facto leader, as well as senior armed forces commanders and the Minister of the Interior along with his senior aides. It is not known how the video clip broadcast by Al-Jazeera showing Gomaa's speech to that audience was released and by whom. In all probability, this speech took place in the headquarters of the Egyptian Defence Ministry in Cairo before the carnage on 14 August by the Egyptian military against pro-President Morsi and "defenders of legitimacy" sit-ins in Cairo. This carnage left thousands dead, maimed and injured. After the massacre, there is no obvious context for Gomaa's speech.
Gomaa was appointed as Mufti, a religious scholar invested with state authority to issue official fatwas, by the deposed President Mubarak in 2003, a position that he maintained until 2013. During the January 2011 revolution, Gomaa condemned the protests, but he did not openly call for using lethal violence against them. Immediately after the July 2013 coup that ousted Egypt's first elected president, Gomaa emerged once again, eclipsing the current Mufti of Egypt (rumours had it that the latter opposed the coup) and even the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib, who was present at and blessed General Al-Sisi's announcement of his roadmap, including the immediate suspension of the constitution and the appointment of an interim president. Gomaa had established a reputation as an important scholar of "moderate" Islam, calling for dialogue with other religions, and issuing fatwas that supported the rights of women and minorities. Understandably, he enjoys much popularity among specific segments of the Egyptian society and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The collaboration of religious scholars with dictatorial regimes is well known in Egypt and everywhere in the Muslim world; indeed, political conservatism (in the sense of supporting powerful leaders irrespective of the necessary religious and moral commitments and opposing any serious challenge to power) was, with notable exceptions, part of Sunni Islam since early Islamic history. However, Gomaa's speech is still remarkably striking, not only in its explicitness in encouraging and legitimating mass murder by the state and not just justifying these ex post facto, but also because of its uncompromising and aggressive tone and, one could say, disgraceful language. Obviously, what Gomaa was doing in that speech was bestowing religious legitimacy on plans for the violent dispersal of the protesters to "clear the conscience" of the security forces before they embarked on their assault. And to do that, Gomaa used several strategies. He began with history, likening the protesters to the "hypocrites" who lived in Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and who sought to undermine Islam. Furthermore, he correlated them to a group of fanatic Muslims, called the Khawarij, meaning the "seceders", who, only a few decades after the Prophet's death, were among the earliest Muslim groups to use violence against fellow Muslims who disagreed with their understanding of Islam. He then described the security troops who would die while killing the protesters as martyrs whom God would bless in the heavens. Additionally, he asserted that God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the "believers" all support the cause of the security forces. Known for his association with one version or another of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Gomaa even went so far as to say that his visions – the dreams holy persons purportedly experience that are taken as a source of guidance to the right path and which could feature the Prophet Muhammad or dead saints – confirmed that the security forces are on the right side. Last but apparently not least, the protesters are filthy and unclean, and their odour is offensive. God had chosen to create them that way, Gomaa remarked.
Probably a few days later, the Egyptian security forces embarked on their Gomaa-sanctioned jihad, not only for the cause of Egypt or the cause of Islam, but even for the benefit of the environment. Live ammunition was used against the protesters, their tents were set ablaze, and the streets were cleansed of their bodies by bulldozers in the same day of the carnage. In another incident a few days later, a tear gas canister was thrown into a fully packed, unventilated police truck where detainees were left tied to each other for seven hours despite their cries. Expectedly, most of them were killed. Without the context described above, it may be truly difficult to comprehend the cruelty of this scene or to attribute it to regular police brutality.
Apparently appalled by the unexpected release of the video clip, Gomaa was quick to deny that he was not talking about the MB or the protesters and asserted that he meant the "terrorists in Sinai and elsewhere". Hardly anybody took these claims seriously given Gomaa's frequent references in his speech to President Morsi's lack of legitimacy. In fact, Gomaa has kept a low profile since that incident, and it is likely that he will not play a significant role in Egypt's future even if the current regime succeeds in holding onto power. For the current Egyptian leadership, it is not wise to solicit the support a religious scholar who probably "took it too far" when there are plenty of other scholars who still maintain a degree of credibility and are willing to play the traditional role of most Sunni scholars.
But the significance of this episode is deeper than Gomaa's status and future role, for it could indicate that the alliance between the Egyptian political military leadership and the religious establishment may be taking a serious turn, not just in regards to the relationship of religion and politics, and here it is not just Islam but Christianity as well given that Pope Tawadros II publicly blessed General Al-Sisi's coup, but also on the level of the religious and political discourse of Al-Azhar, namely, what could be said about political opponents using religious language in the process of justifying the state's dealing with the opposition.
The new Egyptian Constitution that is now under preparation by an appointed committee made up almost exclusively of "liberal" figures will determine the new relationship between the ruling military elite and "official Islam" in Egypt. In all likelihood, the old arrangement that gave a few concessions to the ulama of Al-Azhar in return for either their silence or occasional support for political issues when it was absolutely necessary will have to give way to a new relationship, where both sides become increasingly dependent on each other. The religious establishment will have to be unrelenting and explicit in its support for the regime and endorsement of its policies, whereas the military leadership will have to solicit the active partnership (and not just what can be called the old "positive marginalization") of the religious establishment and its services in justifying its policies prior, rather than after, putting them into effect. This is not to belittle the role that Al-Azhar has traditionally played, particularly since it lost a great deal of its legitimacy with the establishment of the republic in Egypt. However, the new position of Al-Azhar will be significantly more crucial as it will be a partner in the new coalition that will rule Egypt. In other words, Azhari scholars may now be willing to provide full religious support to maintain the present military regime, even if a civilian authority is put in the forefront, because its failure could have grave consequences on their very existence. At the same time, the military must also be aware that its need for an overt religious justification for its political agenda carries a price that it will have to pay to maintain the new coalition. It is worth mentioning at this juncture that General Al-Sisi has ordered that both the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Pope of Alexandria be given armoured vehicles, a step that is more than just symbolic.
On the level of discourse, it is remarkable that Al-Azhar – whose Committee of Distinguished Scholars Gomaa is a member – kept silent on the issue of incitement. Given Gomaa's own attempt to alter the interpretation of what he said, it could have been expected that Al-Azhar would distance itself from that interpretation by issuing a statement, for example, condemning any view that encourages the use of violence against protesters or describing fellow Muslims as "seceders" who "stink". But that was not the case. The total silence of Al-Azhar indicates that the use of such language in describing political opponents is now considered a valid option, and that using such language to justify state violence could take precedence over another discourse of Al-Azhar, where the modern values of human rights and political and religious freedoms are presented as genuinely Islamic. This was the discourse that was emphasized when the "Islamists" were in office in Egypt. Now, this discourse has to be marginalized, only to be recalled again when need be.
Azhari scholars will now engage in a number of self-fulfilling prophecies, including the traditional dicta of the sort that it is "better the devil we know" and "better a year under a tyrant than sixty years of strife". These views currently have a much more favourable milieu to gain wide currency and further popularity. This understanding of "the least evil" course of action, as Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyib remarked in his speech during the coup, was not inevitable, however. The way Azhari scholars seem to have conceptualized the changes that were going on in Egypt when President Morsi was in office must have confirmed to them not only that the alliance with the state was the safer bid if they wanted to maintain their privileges and consolidate their interests, but also that their traditional approach to politics was sound. Al-Azhar, as well as both the Salafis and the Sufis despite their many contradictions, has failed to break out of the vicious circle of the traditional conception of the relationship between religion and politics. The decision to take sides in the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood was both dictated by its traditional understanding while at the same time reconfirming this understanding. By siding with the state, Al-Azhar has failed to realize, or has chosen to disregard, the contradiction between its position and the discourse that its scholars propagated in the last few months prior to the coup (now we can add "for political reasons").
In other words, the fight against "politicizing religion" in Egypt, the main perpetrators of which were taken to be the Muslim Brotherhood, may prove even more detrimental after the coup to both politics and religion in Egypt and beyond. It is hardly conceivable that any genuine reforms could be initiated by traditional Azhari scholars. Ironically, this Azhari traditionalism may have contributed to providing a raison d'être for the emergence of "political Islam" in the 20th century to begin with; today, it will continue to do so, although the direction of the new trajectory of political Islam in Egypt is not yet clear.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.