Egypt's Violent Sectarianism on Rise

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As religious extremism and political instability grow in Egypt alongside a burgeoning Shiite population, the country’s mounting ire toward the minority sect was demonstrated in the massacre of four Egyptian Shiites.

Many are distancing themselves from Zawyat Abu Musalam and the events that occurred there Sunday [June 23]. They are washing their hands of the massacre that led to the deaths of four people, among them an Al-Azhar-trained cleric. They are viewing it as a transient event: condemning the perpetrators, yet, as the same time, insulting the victims. Few of them possess the audacity to disclose the identity of those responsible for this criminal turning point in Egypt’s modern history.

Zawyat Abu Musalam is no longer a mere village in Giza. It has become a tangible manifestation of the growing hysteria meant to curb the Egyptian people’s desire for a democratic pluralistic society, where all can enjoy unrestricted personal freedoms, at the core of which lies the freedom of religious belief.

Yesterday [June 24], the presidency, Al-Azhar, the grand mufti, and all Islamic parties condemned the “reprehensible” crime that occurred in Zawyat Abu Musalam.

The presidency stated, “The unfortunate incident was totally incompatible with the spirit of tolerance and respect which characterizes the Egyptian people, known for their moderation,” while it affirmed that “concerned state agencies have been directed to pursue and apprehend the perpetrators of this heinous crime.” Al-Azhar condemned “the bloody events that transpired in the village of Zawyat Abu Musalam,” and stressed that this criminal act was considered “one of the most vile and evil of sins forbidden by sharia, punishable by law, and barred by the Constitution.”

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Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam also denounced the crime, considering “such behavior to be uncharacteristic of the Egyptian people,” and saying that “Islam rejects such practices that defy normal human nature.”

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, Ahmad Aref, despite condemning the incident, described the victims as “having strange ideas.” On his Facebook page, Aref wrote: “We denounce the grave incident where four people espousing ideas alien to our society were tortured and killed in the Giza village of Zawyat Abu Musalam.” In a blatant distortion of the victims’ character, Aref added, “Aberrations must only be met with wise invitations to return to the true teachings of Islam, its righteous dissemination, and the filing of lawsuits when necessary.”

The murder of four Egyptian Shiites, among them Sheikh Hassan Shehata, once again exposed the fate of Egypt’s Shiites, the discrimination and maltreatment that they suffer from, particularly after the January 25 Revolution.

According to security agency reports, approximately 5,000 people (a quarter of Zawyat Abu Musalam’s population) took part in the crime.

It is well known that the number of Egyptian Shiites is greatly increasing, in parallel with serious efforts to bolster their effective presence inside Egyptian society, through the establishment of Shiite organizations, and the spreading of their ideology and culture. Supporters of this trend seek to pursue their goal of forming a political party that would speak on their behalf, represent them, and participate in the political transformation undergone by Egypt after the revolution, where dozens of new parties appeared, at the forefront of which have been religious (Sunni) Islamic ones.

One of the most prominent Shiites in Egypt, Ahmed Rasim al-Nafis, who is also president of the Al-Tahrir (Liberation) Party, described what occurred as a tragedy that confirms the absence of the rule of law. He added, “We hold President Mohammed Morsi’s regime responsible. He must save the state by enforcing the law not only on the perpetrators, but also on those instigators who accuse Shiites of being apostates.”

Egypt’s Shiites, who number around 30,000, are concentrated in certain areas of the country, such as the city of Zagazig, in Sharqiyah province, some villages of Gharbiyah and Aswan provinces, as well as some of Cairo’s neighborhoods. They have been greatly influenced by the ebb and flow of Egyptian-Iranian affairs, especially after the ascension of Morsi to power.

It is well known that Shiites are negatively and positively affected by the state of the relationship between the regimes in Egypt and Iran. The best example of this can be seen in the previous regime resorting to the arrest of Shiites whom it accused of spying for Iran, and their use as a bargaining chip to pressure the Iranian state.

Egyptian Shiite dreams of integration into the country’s society were quickly dispelled by incitement against them on the part of Salafist movements that consider Shiism to be a threat to Islam, whereby some Salafist clerics even described Shiites as being “more dangerous than Jews.”

The height of incitement perhaps occurred during the “Support for Syria” rally that was organized by Salafist and Islamist factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in the covered arena of the Cairo Stadium, and attended by President Mohammed Morsi. The  speeches — mostly given by Salafist preachers and leaders of Egyptian political Islamist factions — revolved around calls for incitement against the Shiites, to the point where Morsi described them as “rafidis” (defectors), in the course of his attack against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

Such calls added to ignorance about the Shiite faith, served as fodder that ignited the Zawyat Abu Musalam events and led to the death of four Egyptian Shiites headed by Sheikh Hassan Shehata, an Al-Azhar-trained cleric from a prominent Sunni Azhar family hailing from Sharqiyah province. He announced his conversion to Shiism in 1996, and was imprisoned for three months on charges of blasphemy, which made him the most prominent Shiite convert in Egypt. He had been arrested more than once by state security and charged of being a member of Shiite cells. Most recently in 2009, he was arrested along with 300 other Egyptian Shiites.

Shehata’s fame rose thanks to his presence in chat rooms on the Paltalk website, where he gave many lectures about converting from Sunni to Shiite Islam, his most famous one being a speech he gave in the Iranian city of Qom.

The murder of these four Shiite men threatens, once again, to open the doors for sectarian strife in Egypt. After a long history of strife between Muslims and Christians, strife between Sunnis and Shiites now seems possible for the first time ever, strife that simmers under the flames of support from political Islamist movements, and the silence of the state and security agencies.

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Found in: violence, shiite-sunni strife, shiite, sectarianism, religion, muslim brotherhood, iran, egyptian politics, egypt
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