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Salafists court Washington

Salafists are trying to market themselves to the US. But can they explain, let alone justify, their stand on important issues like democracy and the rights of minorities?

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Saturday 1 Feb 2014
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Shortly before leaving Cairo on a trip to the US capital, Nader Bakkar, assistant to the president of the Salafist Nour Party, told a Saudi newspaper that his party “has destroyed claims by the Muslim Brotherhood for 80 years that Islam is the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It was another message to Washington that the forces of political Islam are varied and include many parties and camps, and are not exclusive to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since their creation over the past three years, Salafist parties have tried to make contact with Washington and spheres of influence there, despite deep differences on issues such as women’s rights, equal rights for minorities, the meaning of applying Islamic Sharia and relations with Israel.

The Nour Party is not the only Salafist group making an effort in Washington; some leaders of Al-Watan Party are also trying to introduce themselves in the US capital, to open communication channels with decision making circles and spheres of influence in the US, in the hope of building good relations with Washington.

The visit by the Nour representative is not the first and will not be the last, but the timing of this visit is very significant. It comes after the new Egyptian constitution was approved, which some view as a key milestone after the events of 3 July in which Nour was the sole representative of the political Islam current. It comes as no surprise that Nour Party leaders promoted the new constitution, although it did not include articles the party had insisted on in the 2012 Constitution — especially those pertaining to the state’s Islamic identity and the role and interpretation of Sharia.

The fact that the interim government blacklisted the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group a few weeks ago and is asking other countries to recognise the repercussions of this classification and not interact with the group or its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, is certain to impact the nature of this visit.

The visit is paralleled by intense efforts on the part of several Arab states in the US capital propagating that the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing more than one of many political Islam groups that include centrists, moderates, Salafists, fundamentalists, jihadists and radicals. Also, that it would be a mistake to assume the Muslim Brotherhood is the sole representative of moderate political Islam. This new campaign is linked to earlier efforts that began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After the US Congress formed an independent committee to investigate how, why and who carried out the attacks, the committee blamed Saudi Wahhabi ideology. Some US intellectual and think tank circles were convinced that lack of democracy, existing despotism and Washington’s support of these corrupt regimes were key catalysts in creating an environment that easily generates terrorists. Accordingly, some Arab states tried to use their influence and representatives in Washington to distort the record of the Muslim Brotherhood and taint it with terrorism as the “mother of all terrorist groups.”

There is a temporary lobby in Washington supported by several Arab embassies, including those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, attempting to link Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahiri to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ties between Egyptian Salafists and the Nour Party and Saudi Arabia will also influence this visit to further sabotage the Muslim Brotherhood’s image in Washington.

Those who believe that Washington plays a key role in all events taking place in Egypt view the visit as Washington’s way of preparing to replace the broken alliance between Obama’s administration and the Muslim Brotherhood with ties to Salafist movements, especially after recent developments in Egypt (the removal of President Morsi and designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation). Nonetheless, Salafists are facing a serious dilemma during their trip to Washington: the Muslim Brotherhood went there before them years ago to promote themselves as the real representatives of moderate Islam. This was broadly accepted in US and Western circles, especially after their victories in all free elections, not only in Egypt but across the Arab world.

No one knows how Salafists will market themselves in the West. Will they promote themselves as an alternative to violent political groups or an alternative to Al-Qaeda? Or will they accept being representatives of Islamic fundamentalism in its conservative form? How will they justify the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood from the political process in Egypt by Egyptian security agencies?

When they approach spheres of influence in Washington, Salafists will face an onslaught of attacks on their positions that are difficult to understand by American standards, and are difficult to explain by arguing “Egypt’s cultural character” or “the identity of Islamic societies." It is no secret that some Salafist leaders in the past rejected the “democratic process” altogether, and some of their leading clerics discourage political participation, whether through voting, nomination in elections or even protests. Some of them believe democracy is a means and tool that should only be used to apply Sharia.

Salafists must realise that "Islamic Sharia" is an adverse and negative phrase in most, if not all, US circles. The US political lexicon has no good definition or acceptable description for Sharia, although there are more than seven million Muslim Americans.

As for the issue of the Coptic minority, I do not believe Salafists have any convincing answers, whether to the people of Egypt or the rest of the world, to justify their strong and sectarian positions opposing the possibility of a Christian president or any Copt holding a senior position in the country, or why some of their senior clerics insist on imposing jizya (Islamic tax) on non-Muslims, and their extremist views against Shias.

The real dilemma, however, is Salafist rejection of political pluralism in its broader sense. The Salafist current has yet to give a clear answer, let alone a convincing one, on how to deal with "the Other" in terms of the definition of citizenship, political and non-political rights and duties of citizens irrespective of their faith, piety and gender.

Direct contact between Salafists and Washington serve US interests well; Washington can clearly declare it is open to all political currents in Egypt, especially ones they differ with intellectually and ideologically. This would deflect any accusations against the US that it is siding with one Egyptian current against another.

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