Smart versus dumb

Mohamed Salmawy
Tuesday 14 Dec 2021

Mohamed Salmawy assesses the weight of global choices

In politics, identifying one’s goal makes the difference between success and failure. If you do it carefully, you will accomplish your aim. If not, your only reward will be disappointment. I have always been amazed at how poorly Islamist groups choose their goals and how they never learn from repeated failure. The latest example of this is their attack on the famous Egyptian football player, Mohamed Salah, whom they accuse of ignoring Islamic strictures. Once again, their campaign backfired. Their malicious arrows rebounded off the overwhelming love football fans have for Salah, who has done so much to boost Egypt’s international standing. 

The same phenomenon occurred in 1994 when they attempted to assassinate Naguib Mahfouz. The internationally celebrated Egyptian novelist was popular not just because of his prolific literary output but also because of his warmth, kind-heartedness and closeness to the people. In fact, he epitomised some of the best qualities of the Egyptian character: modesty, self-esteem, quick-wittedness and sense of humour. Over time, Mahfouz became the conscience of the nation and, after being awarded the Nobel Prize, he became a source of national pride, like Mohamed Salah today. 

Mohamed Salah is a model for a whole generation of young footballers abroad, many of whom imitate him. Social media relays images of kids kneeling in prayer on the field, in emulation of their beloved football star. In a recent interview with a foreign journalist, he was asked whether he drank alcohol. He answered quite simply that he did not. His candour probably increased his popularity abroad where campaigns against the harms of alcohol have led many to kick the habit. But the brilliant minds that populate the Islamist trends imagined that they had found their long-sought means to strike their target whose star began to shine as the fascist darkness of the Muslim Brotherhood regime descended on Egypt. They lashed out against him for not speaking about how Islam prohibits alcohol and, while he was at it, how it also prohibits gambling and pork. It was as though they wanted to turn him into some kind of preacher or imam. What escaped those Islamists, of course, was that addressing audiences abroad is not the same as addressing audiences at home. It requires a different approach and mode of discourse. Salah understands this instinctively. People abroad appreciate his unaffected spontaneity and sincerity. They understand he is religious, but he does not come across as a fanatic and he does not push religion into non-religious occasions. 

Both Mohamed Salah and Naguib Mahfouz have done much to change the negative image of Arabs and Islam abroad. I speak of the image created by those very groups who parade their fanaticism, hatred, murder and violence under the banner of Islam. Without a doubt a large part of Mahfouz and Salah’s global success and the Egyptian people’s pride in them has to do with the fact that those two men are the antithesis of that image. That is why the Islamists’ attack on Salah, like that on Mahfouz a quarter of a century earlier, produced the opposite of their desired affect. It exposed their total insensitivity to people’s thoughts and feelings, which isolated them further. Then, as though to make things worse for themselves, they tried to exploit the popularity that the former footballer Mohamed Abu Treika once had before retiring. They thought they could undermine Salah’s standing through a contrived comparison with Abu Treika. Instead, they offered yet another proof of their stupidity. The people’s love for Abu Treika had nothing to do with his Muslim Brotherhood affiliation and they will probably continue to love him despite that affiliation. Be that as it may, the Islamist attempt to force people to choose between a former local player, popular as he may have been, and a current international player whose star continues to rise with every passing day boomeranged, causing another loss for Abu Treika. 

One of the hallmarks of the Islamists’ folly is that their choice of targets never falls on the enemies of the Arabs. They inevitably reserve all their spite and violence for the people of the Arab region. A quarter of a century ago, they used their guns or knives, as occurred with Naguib Mahfouz. Now that they are weak and spurned by the people, their main weapons are rumour-mongering and petty and misplaced digs, as with Mohamed Salah. Will they never learn from their failures?

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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