Egypt’s political landscape is dotted with people and issues that, from a reasonable distance, are incomprehensible.
Unfortunately, when you share a neighborhood with some of those people, you can’t always afford the luxury of trying to comprehend “root causes” and socio-demographic dynamics. The dangers are existential, not intellectual and so you need to first take defensive measures and then try to understand. People who fail to understand this tend – usually – to be those who live far from the threats, or think they do.
The Dubai-based Al Arabiya news site carries a report from Egypt today. It focuses on a televised sermon delivered Friday by Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a “holy man” and lawyer who is “the country’s most charismatic Salafist politician” and a front-running candidate in Egypt’s 2012 presidential election. He was reckoned to have a serious chance up until his electoral run was forcibly ended by the disclosure, denied by the candidate but subsequently confirmed by the Egyptian authorities, that his mother was a citizen of the United States. It appears he is still laboring to overcome that disgrace.
He favours lowering the legal age of marriage to puberty (for girls, of course); chopping off the hands of thieves, naturally; ending the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty; supports the veiling of women and their segregation from men in the workplace (according to the L.A. Times). He calls Iran a successful model of keeping your independence from the United States. And about the 9/11 massacres, he said
I am one of those who believe these events were fabricated from the outset as part of the global groundwork for the distortion of Islam’s image. I mean, this is part of a comprehensive global plan that includes a media aspect. [Interview on a 2004 Saudi TV program]
There’s an eye-popping selection of other public pronouncements of this person here.
On Friday, according to Al Arabiya, the ultra conservative Abu Ismail preached that
The only way to build a strong Egypt is to have tens of thousands fight and be “martyred” under the name of God, a prominent Salafist politician told worshipers during a televised sermon on Friday. “So what if a hundred or a thousand, or even ten thousands are martyred to build a long-prevailing nation,” Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a former presidential candidate, said. “There is no other plan but to be martyred.”
A lunatic, right? Yes, and/or a cynical manipulator. But that’s not necessarily the impression you would get from the mainstream Western media coverage he has enjoyed during this past year.
A handful of examples from just one source: the L.A. Times:
* Abu Ismail’s is “a robust voice in the fractious political Islam” of post Mubarak Egypt;
* He embodies “a new Egypt searching for a religiously resonant yet pragmatic brand of politics that can fix the nation’s deep economic and social problems“;
* “He’s a favorite on talk shows and internet videos, a charismatic speaker who can charm a university crowd as easily as he can raise cheers from mill workers in the provinces”;
* “He skims the edge of fundamentalism — he once suggested that he and Osama bin Laden shared the same ends, if not the means, to create an Islamic state — but connects with Egyptians’ everyday worries.
The Economist has said he is “committed to replicating the seventh-century ways of the Prophet Mohammed [and]could be the country’s next pharaoh.” More recently, it has also called him a man with “folksy charm putting the dour Mr. Morsi in the shade.” He’s a politician whose followers are “rowdy enthusiasts.”
There is no suggestion that Abu Ismail himself has any intention of embracing martyrdom. It’s a near certainty that his inspiration will bring less discerning Egyptians (aka rowdy enthusiasts) to that end. Martyrdom-minded religious fanatics have a bad reputation in this part of the world, so this “folksy” sermon is less than good news.
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About the Author: Frimet and Arnold Roth began writing and speaking publicly soon after the murder of their fifteen year-old daughter Malki Z"L in the Jerusalem Sbarro massacre, August 9, 2001 (Chaf Av, 5761). They have both been, and are, frequently interviewed for radio, television and the print media, including CNN, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, and others. Their blog This Ongoing War deals with the under-appreciated price of living in a society afflicted by terrorism which, they contend, means the entire world. Frimet is a native of Queens, NY while her husband was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. They brought their family to settle in Jerusalem in 1988. They co-founded the Malki Foundation in 2001 and are deeply involved in its work as volunteers. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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