The misuse of religion has become something of an art form in the Middle East. On the one hand many of the region’s autocrats and dictators, calling for greater secularism, warn of the dangers of mixing religion with politics, pointing to Daesh and the Muslim Brotherhood. One the other, the same dictators and autocrats conscript religion to advance some of the worst forms of repression.
Egypt’s former Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s support for 2013 coup that overthrew the government of democratically elected Mohamed Morsi is perhaps the most striking recent example of this deadly union between the region’s autocrats and religion. “Shoot them in the heart … Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them,” said Goma in what is believed to be a speech delivered to the Egyptian military and police leadership prior to the August 2013 Rabaa Al-Adawiya massacre.
Some 1,000 people were killed in what has been descried as the “the worst mass killing” in modern Egypt. Ali Goma’s chilling words, needless to say, generated the kind of frenzy that’s required for such blood-letting. The hatemongering of the cleric against his political opposition is worth quoting in full: “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!”
More recently, Egypt’s religious institutions were recruited in support of military intervention in Libya. Following President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s July announcement to deploy armed forces in support of rebel group led by General Khalifa Haftar against the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Cairo’s top official religious institutions offered resounding endorsements. Al-Azhar, one of the most respected religious institutions in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a statement in support of Al-Sisi’s military intervention. A second institution, Dar Al-Iftaa, which describes itself “among the pioneering foundations for fatwa”, urged Egyptians to back their president warning that any opposition would be considered haram, or forbidden, under Islamic law.
These examples are by no means rare. Across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has demonstrated a deft touch in the misuse and exploitation of religion to serve his own brand of authoritarianism. The 34-year-old de-facto ruler of the kingdom, popularly known as MBS, obtained a fatwa authorising the extra judicial killing of one of his critics. Details of what can be described as nothing less than religious sanctioned murder, were part of series of bombshell allegations made in a legal documents filed in the US last week.
In the yet to be proven claims, MBS is said to have ordered a hit squad to seek out and kill one of his former top intelligence official, Saad Al-Jabri, in Canada just 13 days after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The case filed by 62-year-old Al-Jabri, who is living in an undisclosed location in the Toronto region, has striking parallels with the murder of Khashoggi nearly two years ago in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Bin Salman is said to have personally orchestrated the attempted extrajudicial killing of Al-Jabri “to fulfil his murderous desire”. It’s alleged that the notorious “Tiger Squad” which killed Khashoggi was directed by the prince himself to assassinate Al-Jabri.
In a section describing how “Defendant bin Salman Obtains a Fatwa Endorsing the Extrajudicial Killing of Dr. Saad” the legal document claims that MBS convened a meeting with close advisers in or around May 2020, where they were overheard saying that he had obtained a fatwa for the killing of Al-Jabri. The fatwa that was issued justified the extrajudicial killing of the former intelligence czar. As a result of the fatwa, described as “the newest stage of a multi-year campaign of execution” Al-Jabri’s life “remains in dire peril to this day.”
Canadian sources reported yesterday that Al-Jabri has been placed under heightened security after it emerged that there was a new threat against his life. In the latest development in the case, the US District Court for Columbia issued a summons order for MBS over the failed assassination attempt of Al-Jabri. The same court also summoned 13 Saudi officials, including former Deputy Director of Intelligence Ahmed Al-Asiri and former adviser in the royal court Saud Al-Qahtani, for their involvement in Khashoggi’s assassination.
Such misuse of religion and religious institutions is nothing new. Throughout history and across faiths, the recruitment of religion has been a constant feature of empires. In more modern times autocrats and despots see in the manipulation of religion a powerful means to cement their position. Democracies too are not immune to such tendencies. Evangelical Christians groups, for example, mobilise support for the Republican party and for the state of Israel. The Zionist state also has its own very special brand of union between religion and state. Not only do its leaders cite biblical text to justify the finding of the state, religious narrative remains a powerful force in the ongoing takeover of Palestine by Jewish extremists and elected Israeli officials.
Across the Middle East, the urge to misuse religion has taken a unique form. The likes of MBS speak on the one hand of wanting to create a more secular country but at the same time have skilfully enlisted religion to justify their repressive policies in a manner that is unprecedented. Prominent clerics are often seen propping up regimes by declaring that protest is prohibited in Islam, or blaming the victims of colonialism and ethnic cleansing in what appears to be an attempt to divert attention from state sanctioned terror and human rights abuse.
The Middle East is in desperate need of space that allows for the free expression of religion as much as the free expression of ideas. For too long autocrats have co-opted religion to cement their power while at the same time using the fear of Islam to mobilise support across the West to silence critics and opposition. Their long time survival depends on this balance.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.