THE BLOG
12/17/2015 01:03 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2016

How Not to Disown 'Islamist' Terrorism

One of the tragic ironies of some of the Muslim scholarly responses to ISIS is that they are tainted by association with notable supporters of the bloody 2013 Egyptian coup. Four important figures are the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa; his successor, Shawki Allam; Gomaa's devoted student, Habib Ali al-Jifri; and the Head of the Azhar University, Ahmed el-Tayeb. All four scholars were, to differing degrees complicit in the massacre at Rabaa in August 2013, and the unprecedented repression that has followed the Egyptian Coup of that year.

Scholars for the Rabaa Massacre

In a 188-page investigative report, Human Rights Watch describes the Rabaa Massacre as "one of the world's largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history." At least 1,000 were likely killed with extensive premeditated planning on the part of the Egyptian security forces. Hundreds were "killed by bullets to their heads, necks, and chests." HRW notes that the Egyptian Interior Ministry's position was that 15 guns were found in Rabaa, adding that, if the figure is accurate, it "indicates that few protesters were armed and further corroborates the extensive evidence Human Rights Watch compiled that police gunned down hundreds of unarmed protesters."

Of the four scholars mentioned above, Gomaa characterized Rabaa as an armed rebellion, and vigorously defended, in religious terms, the security forces' mass killings in a two hour televised interview from the days after the massacre. Gomaa's interview was made available on his official YouTube page ten days after the clearing of Rabaa, where it remains as of the publication of this piece.

A week after the massacre, Gomaa's successor as Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, called for Western states not to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs. Gomaa's steadfast student, Habib Ali al-Jifri, initially denied reports that Gomaa had given a fatwa to the security services justifying mass killings; but subsequently stated, in light of Gomaa's interview, that he had only given the fatwa against armed protestors. This would suggest that both al-Jifri and Gomaa consider the presence of 15 armed individuals among thousands of protestors to justify the mass murder witnessed at Rabaa.

Support SISI, condemn ISIS

Two of the above four scholars are feted on the best-known website of Muslim scholars who have condemned ISIS. On www.lettertobaghdadi.com, which presents and translates a critical open letter written by Muslim scholars worldwide to the self-proclaimed 'Caliph' of the so-called 'Islamic State', visitors are encouraged to "join the world's top Islamic leaders & scholars in endorsing the open letter." There, a slide show has Shawki Allam and Ali Gomaa as the second and third scholars respectively, among a total of eleven. Both scholars gain particular prominence as part of the Egyptian religious establishment that has at its heart the Azhar University.

Earlier this year, this institution was the subject of a nostalgically complimentary profile in Foreign Affairs as the potential answer to ISIS. The authors of the piece speak of past centuries when the Azhar's authority commanded respect, but note that its reputation has been compromised by association with the state. Aside from presenting an unhelpfully tendentious picture of the formation of Islamic orthodoxy, the piece undersells the Azhar's own contribution to the creation of ISIS. It was the pro-Mubarak anti-Brotherhood head of the Azhar, after all, who provided religious legitimacy to the anti-democratic Egyptian coup that reinstituted military rule and ushered in the most "autocratic and repressive [era] in the country's history." That extreme repression contributes to greater terrorism and feeds into the narratives of groups like ISIS is a truism among terrorism experts. In response to the article, Chicago University professor, Ahmed El Shamsy, characterized it as, "neo-traditionalist hogwash [that is] either innocent of history or guilty of propaganda."

Neo-traditionalist hogwash?

One of the authors of the Foreign Affairs piece, H. A. Hellyer, then wrote in a similar vein last month in the Financial Times. This time, the article builds on another shibboleth of Islamic neo-traditionalism, the claim that certain features of the religious tradition celebrated by Islamic scholars at institutions like the Azhar are lacking among reform movements such as Wahhabism. These, Hellyer claims, are the traditional practices of scholarly transmission through chains of teachers (asanid) and the authorization to transmit knowledge (ijazat).

The problem with such a perspective is that it is both historically inaccurate, and does not address the admittedly complex problem at hand. As for the historical inaccuracy, it should be noted that the students of Wahhabism's eponym, Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab, also transmitted knowledge through asanid and ijazat down to the present. With respect to the complexity of the problem, this is illustrated by the fact that the Azhar-affiliated scholars mentioned above have not been prevented by their asanid and ijazat from aiding and abetting an extremely violent and repressive state. Indeed, the now dead American with links to Al-Qaeda, Anwar al-Awlaki, possessed impressive asanid and ijazat. They did not prevent him from promoting Al-Qaeda's ideology.

UAE-backed Islam

A fair point that Hellyer makes rather obliquely is that the "war of ideas" against ISIS is unlikely to be won by scholars whose lack of moral integrity is so apparent to outside observers. A number of such scholars have been called on not only by the Egyptian state, but also the UAE in their project of developing organizations and institutions, ostensibly for the purpose of countering ISIS and its ilk. Hellyer takes a rather benevolent view of such state efforts in his piece; but given the UAE's recent scandalous foreign policy escapades, a more realist perspective seems appropriate.

The UAE, with the help of the Shaykh al-Azhar and prominent Mauritanian scholar, Abdallah Bin Bayyah has established the Council of Muslim Elders, and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. But as University of Toronto law professor, Mohammad Fadel, has noted, the Council's remit appears to be the promotion of autocracy in the name of Islam. Certainly, given his record, the Shaykh al-Azhar's involvement with both the Council and the Forum suggests as much. Such efforts are unlikely to provide a credible counter-narrative to groups like ISIS. Indeed, such institutions are likely to be viewed as stooges of autocratic regimes bent on using all available means to maintain their regional hegemony.

Of moral incoherence

While ISIS' pedigree may owe more to Wahhabism than to other historic forms of Sunnism, Muslim scholars need to own up to the fact that their own so-called traditional representatives and institutions are complicit in the extreme repression and mass murder that has contributed to the meteoric rise of ISIS. When these so-called traditional scholars are leading the charge against ISIS, clearly Muslims have a serious moral quandary on their hands. And while this represents just one of the contributing factors in the rise of ISIS, the moral incoherence of some of the religion's supposed leading lights places the reputation of the entire tradition in peril.