Muslim Scholars and Autocrats (Part I)

Earlier this month, I wrote a long overdue post about the minority of prominent Muslim scholars who have been systematically co-opted as the religious face of autocracy since the beginning of the Arab Revolutions. In the not too distant future, I expect to write again on this topic in order to continue my critique of the disturbing world of this small group of pro-autocracy scholars. I hope this will engender a healthy discussion regarding the appropriate role of Muslim scholars in political matters.

In my last post, I highlighted the moral incoherence of scholars who support brutally repressive autocrats like Egyptian President Sisi, while condemning the brutality of a group like ISIS. Many of my readers thanked me for writing on this topic which, in the English language at least, has mostly been swept under the rug by Muslims for some years. But others expressed disquiet at my criticism of "great scholars" who so many Muslims look up to.

I have two general responses to this, and then I will go into a few specifics. Firstly, I wrote the piece in part to help people look beyond their admiration for individuals, when that admiration prevents them from seeing serious breaches of ethics, and indeed, laws, both Islamic and otherwise. Secondly, what I included in my last piece barely begins to scratch the surface of what this highly visible minority of pro-autocracy scholars have been up to. Thus let me turn to a few more examples of this now.

Gomaa justifying the Rabaa Massacre

In my last post, I made a reference to Gomaa's recorded message to the Egyptian Armed Forces, which may be viewed in full with English subtitles in two parts, here and here. The transcription is available here. This video was recorded after the Coup of July 3rd 2013, but prior the Rabaa Massacre of August 14th of the same year.

In his lecture, Gomaa also informs members of the armed forces that they are doing God's work; that they should not hesitate to kill those who oppose them; and insinuates that those who oppose them are "dogs of the Hellfire," whose killers are blessed by God. The extent to which Gomaa's words contributed to the abject horrors of the Rabaa Massacre is a matter of speculation. That he justified his actions and those of the army following the massacre is not. It is also worth bearing in mind that this is just one of the numerous pro-Coup speeches of religious incitement Gomaa made in the weeks after the Coup.

Jifri justifying Gomaa's stance

When news of Gomaa's message to the armed forces initially came out Gomaa's younger colleague, Ali al-Jifri, issued a statement on his Facebook page, on 21st August, saying that he had spoken to his Shaykh, and that Gomaa made clear that he had never given a fatwa permitting killing. A translation of Jifri's statement may be found here. Given what Gomaa says in his speech to the armed forces, Jifri's position appears untenable. In any case, it is clear that the Egyptian army did not hold back from killing hundreds of unarmed protestors in broad daylight shortly after Gomaa's speech. And Gomaa did not hesitate to defend their actions at length a few days later, under the pretext of self-defense.

Three days after Gomaa's televised defense, al-Jifri issued a slightly longer statement on Gomaa, which may be accessed in English translation here. In it, he maintains his earlier position saying that Gomaa's stance was entirely justified, and that he had not called for killing. In particular, Jifri states that the fuller recording of Gomaa's lecture exculpates him. The translation of the full lecture provided above should allow people to judge for themselves whether the statements of these Muslim scholars are reasonable. In my view, Jifri's position is once again untenable.

Activities in 2015

Since 2013, Gomaa, Jifri, and their small party of fellow travelers, have been engaging in their more routine scholarly and preaching activities. But alongside this, they have upheld their pro-Coup stance on numerous occasions. To give one of several possible examples, all four scholars mentioned in my previous piece along with Gomaa's student, Usama al-Sayyid, may be seen in the mainly military audience being addressed by Egyptian dictator Sisi early in 2015. At one point, Sisi gives thanks to Jifri's religious moderation, and Jifri stands to acknowledge his thanks. This kind of fraternizing is, arguably, a relatively minor infraction, but it contributes to a discernibly disturbing pattern of behavior.

More substantively, in February 2015, Jifri appeared alongside al-Sayyid on an Egyptian satellite channel presenting extensive explanations that could reasonably be construed as justifications for the Rabaa Massacre, interspersed with genuine grief at the loss of life there. His arguments depend heavily on the suggestion that the entire episode remains a murky one in which both sides were engaged in violence--an equivalence that independent reporting on the Massacre has roundly rejected. In his stance, Jifri appears completely unaware of the extensive, detailed, and scrupulously balanced report produced by Human Rights Watch, and which has been available on their website in Arabic as of August 2014. The English HRW report on the Rabaa Massacre may be read here. As I noted in my earlier post, the Egyptian Interior Ministry claimed only 15 weapons were found in Rabaa, while HRW places the death toll of protesters at likely over 1,000.

Jifri on Buti's assassination

Early in 2013, Jifri issued a statement on his English Facebook page regarding the tragic and widely condemned assassination of the pro-Assad Syrian cleric, Muhammad Sa'id Ramadan al-Buti. This scholar was widely respected by his colleagues for his learning, but virtually unanimously condemned for his adoption of a pro-Assad stance in the Syrian Civil War. After his assassination on 21st March 2013, Jifri stated: "Those who find this heinous crime palatable by reason of their difference with the Shaykh's stance are accomplices with the perpetrators and share in the sin of murder and aggressing upon the houses of Allah."

One wonders how this is different to those who find "palatable by reason of their difference with" them, the killing of hundreds of unarmed protestors. According to Jifri's logic, such people can also be considered "accomplices with the perpetrators and share in the sin of murder." The appearance of flagrant contradictions in the treatment of pro-autocracy and anti-autocracy individuals is what requires further clarification on the part of Gomaa, Jifri, and those who support them. Until this issue is put to rest through reasoned argument, the apparent moral turpitude at its heart stains more than just the individuals in question.