Review: Will Salafists ever accept citizenship?

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 20 Mar 2014

A new study by Hasanein Tawfiq Ibrahim delves into Salafist discourse on citizenship and associated rights and freedoms, of which they largely remain suspicious


Al-Salafiyoon wa Al-Mowatana (The Salafists and Citizenship) by Hasanein Tawfiq Ibrahim, Strategic Studies Series — Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, Cairo, 2013. pp.46

This study has certain significance due to the rising role of the Salafist current with all its various movements and gatherings in political life, and more especially after 30 June 2013, the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood's president, and amid the current's stance on the constitution and the awaited candidacy of the head of the army for the presidency.

As is well known, despite this current's belonging to political Islam it maintained a role in political life amid the ouster of Mohamed Morsi. It participated in the roadmap and also the Committee of 50 tasked with drafting the country's new constitution. Its official position was to vote yes in the constitutional referendum. Now it is finally leaning towards supporting Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for the presidency and is expected to vote for him in the next presidential elections.

The Salafists and Citizenship deals with the role the Salafist current played from a specific angle — that is its stand on the principle of citizenship, which the author considers the essence of the political bond between the ruler and the ruled in the modern national democratic state, where "citizenship represents the source of rights and the focus of duties on an equal footing for all individuals who hold the state's nationality, without discrimination based on gender or religion or ethnicity or sect."

In this context, the objective of the study is to monitor, analyse and evaluate the status of citizenship in the vision, programmes and practices of five Salafist parties: namely, El-Nour, Al-Asala, Al-Fadhila, Al-Islah and Al-Watan. It is expected in the light of the intense crisis that engulfs the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered its most dangerous in the last 80 years, that its political role will shrink in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, the political role of the Salafists, especially the Salafist Call and its El-Nour Party, will expand.

The study argues that the Salafists and their various movements dismissed citizenship before the 2011 revolution, rejecting the basic elements and foundations of this principle. More important, their rejection originates from perspectives derived from Islamic jurisprudence and religious interpretation. The Salafists, for example, refuse the concept of the civil state utterly. Yasser Al-Borhamy, vice president of the Salafist Call, sees the concept as emerging in the West on the back of the separation of religion and state and considers that those trying to implant it in the constitution want to "set the sects of the nation on fire." Sheikh Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, spokesman of the Salafist Call, asserted that the term civil state equals the term secular state, which he rejects because it means separating religion and state.

The study argues that the ongoing debate in the political arena around the concepts of religious state and civil state can be attributed mainly to the prevalence of mutual misconceptions and rigid, closed intellectual visions.

In addition to dismissing the principle of citizenship, Salafists rejected democracy and its mechanisms, such as multi-party and regular elections. They even described these mechanisms as pagan and infidel. They discard the value system that forms the culture of democracy, like intellectual and political tolerance, religious pluralism, accepting the other, dialogue and co-existence. Yasser Al-Borhamy regards these terms as notorious, and basically a call for accepting atheism.

The author devotes a good part of the study to refuting Salafist claims through Islamic jurisprudential sources in the Holy Quran and Sunna (the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed). Salafists have contributed in inculcating political tyranny, based on dismissing the principle of citizenship and where they always asserted that obeying the Muslim ruler is imperative, and that no one should rebel against him. In this context, one Salafist sheikh issued a fatwa condemning Mohamed ElBaradei to death in December 2010, because he engaged in incitement against the legitimate ruler and contributed to creating disorder.

As for the Salafists' stand towards rights and public freedoms, this also implies dismissing of the principle of citizenship, since they forbid women from holding high public positions or being candidates in general elections. They also refuse the appointment of a Copt to the post of vice-president, in addition to undermining the importance of basic rights such as the right to peaceful demonstration and the right to strike. These stands constituted a source of support for Mubarak's regime, especially in the period preceding the 2011 revolution where Yasser Al-Borhamy issued a fatwa against participating in the 25 January 2011 demonstrations, affirming that "circumstances between Tunisia and Egypt are different."

Despite the aforementioned, the January revolution represented, the author argues, a turning point in the history of the Salafist movement, opening the door for them to be involved in political life, founding parties and contesting elections whereas earlier they rejected the concept entirely. The problem lies in that this swift transformation occurred without serious and real Islamic jurisprudential and intellectual revisions.

In this context, the author analyses Salafist programmes after the 2011 revolution. He concludes that the visions of Salafist parties on citizenship — inclusive of rights and public freedoms, which represent the core of citizenship — remain ambiguous and hazy. For example, they still refuse that a Copt or a woman be vice-president and deployed a discourse full of incitement and exclusion towards Shias in Egypt, which helped cause the death of four Shias and the wounding of dozens in a horrifying and unprecedented incident in early 2013.

Finally, the author sees it likely that the visions of some Salafist parties regarding citizenship may become more mature and balanced with ongoing participation in the political process, a necessary openness towards other currents and parties, and in dealing with Western governments. Last May, for example, a delegation from El-Nour Party made a European tour that included several secular countries. Nader Bakkar, head of media affairs in the party, stated that "the conflict shouldn't be between secularists and Islamists; it should rather be between democracy and dictatorship."

Anyway, there are two developments that the Salafist arena is likely to witness. The first is a re-sorting and reformation in the Salafist map, through splits, rivalries and mergers, especially in confronting the next parliamentary elections. This may spur development in Salafist discourse regarding the issues of citizenship and democracy.

The second development centres on the notion that Salafists' involvement in political life will lead to a shrinkage in bonds to religious authorities abroad, especially the conventional authorities in Saudi Arabia. This in turn opens the door to adopting more progressive stances on the issue of citizenship.

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