Coptic Christians and Israelis are hardly the only people in this neck of the woods with cause to worry about the emboldenment of Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt following the collapse of the Mubarak regime. As far as the Islamists are concerned, Sufi Muslims are no less an enemy.
If this is news to you, that’s hardly a surprise. Sufis have been victimized by their fanatical Muslim brethren for years, but Muslim-on-Muslim violence — at least the kind that does not directly threaten a dictator’s regime — has never interested the international media to any great extent. The continued inatttention is curious, as there does appear to be some interest out there in finding that allegedly rare flower, the moderate Muslim. It’s unclear to what extent Sufi Muslims qualify for this designation — the eagerness in some precincts to perceive them as cuddly, Western-friendly Muslims in diametric opposition to their bonkers Wahhabist coreligionists is a serious oversimplification — but Sufism is characterized by an allegorical rather than a literal interpretation of the Koran, and has been receptive to positive influence by other religions. In the eyes of the Islamists, therefore, Sufis are insufficiently devout at best and traitors to Islam at worst. The Islamist message to them matches their message to Christians and Jews: shape up, submit at once to our tenth-century version of Islam, or die, infidel.
Among their other assorted outreach activities, fanatical Islamists favor rampaging through Sufi holy places, a tactic with an antecedent in the destruction by the Taliban of the giant Buddhist shrines of Afghanistan in 2001. The desecration and destruction of Sufi shrines, and concurrent attacks on Sufis themselves, have been going on at least since 2005, when Islamists set off a bomb at the shrine of the 17th century Sufi Bari Imam in Islamabad. That attack killed eighteen people. Islamists have slaughtered Sufi villagers with rockets in Peshawar and assaulted the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti, a revered South Asian Sufi, at Ajmer Sharif in India. The list of terrorist attacks on Sufis goes on, particularly in Peshawar, which is home to many shrines of Sufi mystics.
Now that Mubarak is out of the picture, Egypt is the new front in the Islamist war on Sufis. Stephen Suleyman Schwartz — himself a convert to Sufi Islam and founder of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC — discusses this trend in a recent article inNewsgram:
In Egypt, Islamist radicals had, recently, mainly targeted Coptic Christians, but anti-Sufi aggression commenced with depredations in Alexandria, in which the Sufis account for one in eight of city-dwellers, and Sufi shrines and mosques are prominent landmarks. Indeed, the city’s most famous mosque, named for and sheltering the tomb of Al-Mursi Abu’l Abbas, a Spanish-born 13th century Sufi, was one of the first sites reportedly invaded by extremists. Radicals also have tried to seize control of the Qaed Ibrahim mosque in Alexandria, which was the scene of mass demonstrations against the Mubarak government coordinated with those at Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Schwartz makes an important and surprising point about resistance to “radical agitation among Muslims from the Balkans to Indonesia”:
[O]rdinary Muslims, often living in a rural, village environment, are a bulwark against the radicals. This view is counter-intuitive to many non-Muslims, especially in the West, who presume that radicalism is a product of poverty and insufficient development…radical Islam [in fact] appeals to an educated elite that has had no time for religion but which, feeling a nostalgia for faith amid their busy lives, respond to the appeal of a stripped-down Islam, denuded of its spiritual and local customs, that requires little application and, above all, is “not their father’s Islam.”
The Sufis in Egypt are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Schwartz notes that the Sufis of Alexandria have begun to organize committees to protect their shrines, and Sufi leaders are attempting to put together a political party to oppose the Wahhabist jihadi ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps more to the point, Professor Ahmed Al-Sayeh of Al-Azhar University, the “supreme academic institution for Sunni Muslims,” is procuring a machine gun to be used to protect Sufi shrines along the Nile.