Maher Gabra is an independent writer, speaker and commentator on the Middle East based in Washington, DC. He is originally from Egypt and was actively involved in both the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the protests that toppled President Muhammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.
He has been featured on major media news outlets including Al-Jazeera and Huffington Post and has worked for think tanks including the Gatestone Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He is on Twitter.
Clarion Project: What did the Muslim Brotherhood do to help jihadis while they were in power in Egypt?
Maher Gabra: First of all, they allowed hate speech towards other minorities. They enabled more radical figures to talk more openly about their hateful ideas. For example, in June 2013, Islamist President Muhammad Morsi, gathered his Islamist supporters in Cairo Stadium to support “the Syrian revolution.”
During this conference, two prominent Salafi Sheikhs (Sheikh Mohammed Abd Al-Maksoud and Shiekh Muhammed Hassan) gave very hateful speeches against Shiites. A few days later, four Shiites, including the Shiite religious leader Sheikh Hassan Shehata, were brutally beaten to death in El-Giza. Although the speeches were delivered in the presence of Morsi, he never commented on or rejected the hateful rhetoric.
That among many other activities signaled the normalization of radical ideas. At another national event, the anniversary of the 1973 October 6th war with Israel, he invited Tarek Al Zomor, one of the killers of the Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat (assassinated in 1981), who led the war, then the peace process with Israel, in a clear message to honor jihadists.
Secondly, Morsi freed convicted terrorists from prison by issuing presidential pardons. While Morsi was in power, he issued nine presidential pardons plus instituted a pardon law. He pardoned hundreds of people from prison, among them dozens of convicted terrorists.These included Ahmad Salama Mabrouk, who later became a leader in the Egyptian group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdes, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. He also freed one of the killers of Farag Fouda, a prominent secular writer and thinker, who was killed in 1992 by Al Jamaa Al-Islamiya.
Thirdly, Mohammed Morsi promised on his inauguration day that he would do his best to release the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abd Al-Rahman from American prison, where he was serving a life sentence after he was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case. (The Blind Sheikh died earlier this year.)
Fourthly, current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said that on June 21, 2013 in a closed meeting that a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (he was referring to Khayrat Al-Shater) threatened him for 40 minutes that thousands of foreign fighters would come to Egypt to fight the Egyptian armed forces on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist president. [Sisi was head of the Egyptian army at the time.]
A similar threat was made by one of the Islamist figures who supported Morsi, Sheikh Waheed Abd Al-Salam Bali, on video in front of a gathering of Morsi supporters in December 2012. Bali said that Al-Shatter prepared thousands of fighters to attack the Egyptian Armed Forces and the police once Morsi’s legitimacy became at risk.
Mohamed Al-Beltagy, who is one of the top leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood, made a statement that confirmed the same threat while he was leading the July 2013 Rabaa sit-in held in support of Morsi. When asked about the terror attacks that were happening in Sinai just after Morsi’s ouster, he said, “We don’t control what is happening on the ground. However, the attacks would stop immediately once Al-Sisi ends the military coup and returns Morsi to power.”
The statement at least suggests that the Brotherhood gave jihadists political legitimacy to do what they did, if not actually coordinated with them.
Clarion: In what ways did the Muslim Brotherhood support the persecution of Coptic Christians while in power and immediately afterward?
Gabra: Safwat Hegazy was one of the top Islamic figures who supported the Brotherhood. He also was a top leader in the Rabaa sit-in. He would refer to Christians as key players in ousting Morsi, and he threatened violence publicly against Christians before June 30, 2013, the one-year anniversary of Mohamed Morsi’s inauguration as president, and the date set by organizers for mass demonstrations demanding Morsi’s resignation.
Hegazy said if you Christians align with the Morsi opposition, you will pay a heavy price. Christians paid a heavy price; during the next few days after the Rabaa sit-in dispersal, Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters burned, destroyed and attacked dozens of churches.
Assem Abdel-Maged was a leader of the Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyah who was convicted and imprisoned for several terrorist incidents, including the assassination of Anwar Al-Sadat. He used to support and defend the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi. He said on the main stage during the Rabaa sit-in that the church and Christians were behind the removal of Morsi from power, and that what was happening is a war against Islam by Christianity. Other speakers at the Rabaa sit-in echoed the same sentiments.
The message that many leaders of the Brotherhood and other Islamists were saying from the stage was also that those who support Morsi are the true good Muslims who want sharia law and the re-establishment of a caliphate and those who oppose Morsi are Christians and infidel secular people who are not true Muslims.
In this documentary, you can witness more of this dangerous rhetoric.
Clarion: How does the Muslim Brotherhood’s message differ when they are speaking to their own supporters versus speaking to the West?
Gabra: There is a big difference between what they say in English when they meet with Western politicians, and what they believe in and say in Arabic.
For example, they used to write in English asking for U.S. support to maintain the democratically-elected president in power, while at the same time they were telling their supporters that they defend Islam in the war against it and that those who support Morsi are defending Islam and sharia, and those who oppose him are against Islam and sharia. One of the chants often heard at pro-Morsi rallies was “Islam is coming, Quran will rule.”
Other chants were “Islamic, Islamic (referring to Egypt), against the will of Christianity” or “Islamic, Islamic (referring to Egypt), against the will of secularism.”
Another example is that notable Muslim Brotherhood officials used to come to Washington claiming that they believe in and advocate for human rights and pluralistic democracy. However, for a role model, they look to Sayyid Qutb, a very influential Muslim scholar who leads the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 60s. His books are required reading as part of the long process to join the organization.
Qutb is the godfather of many of today’s terrorist organizations, and his books such as “Milestones on the Road” are a bible to many jihadi groups. Qutb argued that democracy is against Islam and that anything other than following Islamic rule and sharia law is prohibited by Islam.
Interestingly, Mohammed Morsi said during a TV program in August 2009, three years before he became the president of Egypt, “I was searching for Islam and I found it in what Qutb wrote.”
One another obvious example is when there was a protest in September 2012 in front of the American Embassy in Cairo. The Brotherhood was tweeting on their official Arabic Twitter account almost completely the opposite message they were tweeting on the official English account. They were saying in Arabic things to incite the protesters to continue their protest surrounding the American Embassy, while in English showing solidarity with the American embassy. Then, the American embassy replied with a tweet saying that we read your Arabic feed, too.
Unfortunately, they depend on the goodwill and sometimes the ignorance of people in Western countries. A tactic often used by Islamists is to present very tolerant interpretations of Islam when they meet Westerners while preaching very intolerant ones to their supporters.
Just try to Google the word jihad in English and Arabic, as an example. When I did, most of the English content was about self-struggle against sins, while the Arabic ones were mostly about using violence. The first result in Arabic after Wikipedia one is from the famous site Islam Q&A, a site run by the prominent Saudi Sheikh Muhammad Saalih Al-Munajjid. The web page search result talks about different forms of jihad, with one of them being fighting non-Muslims to spread Islam.
Clarion: What are the similarities and differences between the ideologies of the different Islamist groups in Egypt?
Gabra: That’s a very broad question that needs a book if not books to answer. However, Islamists in Egypt, in general, have the same goal, which is establishing an Islamic state and enforcing sharia law. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists work to gradually achieve these goals through political means and proselytizing. Terrorist organizations such as ISIS try to achieve the same goals through violence and brutality. Thus, while these various groups may employ significantly different tactics, unfortunately, they all believe in this utopian dream of restoring a caliphate.
There are certainly differences between the perspectives advanced by ISIS about building a true Muslim society and those of the Brotherhood. There are even different perspectives inside the Muslim Brotherhood itself. A lot could be said detailing the distinctions between each group’s understanding of what sharia is, what the Islamic State means, and what a true Muslim society should look like, but that would need a much bigger space.
Some analysts argue that the Brotherhood is not a violent organization and can’t be compared to a terrorist organization such as ISIS or Al Qaeda. But this view doesn’t address such questions as:
If the Brotherhood is a peaceful political group, why have they never renounced the writings and ideas of Sayyid Qutb and still look to him as a chief ideologue?
Why does the Muslim Brotherhood support Hamas, which is a terrorist organization?
Why are there so many terrorist figures who come out of the Muslim Brotherhood such as Ayman Al Zawahiri, Abdallah Azzam, Omar Abd Elrahman, the leaders of Al Jamaa Al-Islamiyah, and many others? Is that just a coincidence? How do they explain the open call for jihad by the Muslims Brotherhood in January 2015?
Also, the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a violent organization glosses over the November 2012 torture of peaceful protesters (opponents of Morsi) in front of Al-Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo by the Brotherhood members and supporters in November 2012. These occurrences among many others need to be considered to understand the similarities between the Brotherhood and openly terrorist organizations.
Clarion: We hear a lot about extremists but little about more peaceful interpretations of Islam. Where are the scholars who support peace and tolerance in Egypt?
Gabra: In fact, there are many tolerant voices, and they were always Islamic scholars who advocated for tolerant and peaceful interpretations of Islam. Unfortunately, they have always been under persecution. They were either jailed, killed or threatened to be killed. Some had to leave their home countries to protect their lives and many were forced to leave.
One famous example is Islam Behery, an Islamic researcher who used to present a TV program called With Islam to promote tolerant and peaceful Islam. He received an MA in Islamic studies in the UK.
In my view, he is the most influential Islamic reformer in Egypt at the moment. His show was followed by millions of Muslims all over the Arab world. He also challenged many of the extreme views of mainstream religious institutions such as Al-Azhar. For instance, he argued that Islam doesn’t preach the killing of ex-Muslims for leaving Islam, known as apostasy. Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb said in a TV interview that people who leave Islam and declare this in public should be given three days to repent, and if they don’t repent within that time period, they should be killed.
Morsi asserted the same view when he was asked about the right to leave Islam when he was running during the 2012 presidential elections.
As a result, in 2015, Behery was accused of blasphemy and sent to five years in prison. He appealed the verdict. In December 2015, the court accepted his appeal and sent him to one year in jail instead of five. Forty days before he was supposed to end this one year term, President Al-Sisi pardoned him among others. After he was freed, he continued the fight against radical beliefs.
Another example is Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah Nasr, an Azhari sheikh who also challenged the radical views of Al-Azhar. For instance, he argued that Islam doesn’t preach amputation the hands of thieves. As a result of his remarks, he was accused of blasphemy and sent to prison for 13 years. Sheikh Nasr has Hepatitis C, and he needs medical attention. I am afraid that he might die in prison.
Other reformers had to leave the country, such as Dr. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who had to flee to Europe after a court ordered him to divorce his wife against both of their wills. The court said he was no longer a Muslim and that he couldn’t continue to be married to a Muslim woman. He was deemed by the court to have lost his status as a Muslim on account of what he wrote in his Ph.D. thesis. He argued that that Quran is not the literal words of Allah, that it is a cultural product of the seventh century, and therefore the Quran could be understood in a flexible way that aligns with modern values.
One other example I’ll mention here is Dr. Farag Fouda, who wrote many books advocating for a secular state in Egypt, a state that separates religion from politics. He debated Al Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali, a famous Al-Azhar sheikh. He was declared an apostate by some of Al-Azhar scholars, then two young members of Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya killed Dr. Fouda in June 1992. One of the people who coordinated his killing, Abu Al-‘Ela Abd Rabbo, was pardoned and released from prison by Mohammed Morsi. Rabbo then traveled to Syria to fight against the Al-Assad regime and was killed there.
There are other reformers who live outside Egypt, that still make a difference. An important example is Dr. Tawfik Hamid. Dr. Hamid was a member of Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyah when he was in his undergrad medicine school in Cairo university, then he left the radical group and dedicated his life to challenging extremism. He wrote a whole interpretation of the Quran, the interpretation’s page on Facebook has over 2.2 million followers.
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser is another example. He has a program on The Blaze radio under the name “Reform This!” Asra Nomani, Raheel Raza, Maajid Nawaz are working relentlessly to challenge extremism from inside the faith. However, those voices mostly lack financial support, as well as protection from death threats and troubles.
These are only a few examples of what Islamic reformers face on a daily basis. Muslim history is filled with many other figures who faced similar fates. Reformers cannot accomplish their mission as long as they are under the threat of being sent to prison or being killed by terror groups.
As long as blasphemy and apostasy laws are in place, and as long as reformers lack the support and protection of the free world, reforming interpretations of Islam will only be a nice idea. The free world needs to step up and support reformers through many concrete steps such as pressuring Muslim governments to remove or amend blasphemy and apostasy laws and protecting and supporting Muslim reformers who live in the West.
Otherwise, terrorism will never end.