The Sultan’s Shaikhs and Salafis

Update: Syria’s tame mufti Hassoun has said there is no truth to the news which I repeat below, that Buti, Hassoun and other clerics met with the minister of Awqaf and decided to cancel taraweeh prayers. I heard the false report from someone in Syria. Obviously a rumour was circulating.

When I lived in Syria in the 1990s people would speak very respectfully about Shaikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a Damascus-based cleric and a traditionalist. I could never quite understand why. I attended his mosque once after an American bombing run on sanctions-starved Iraq; on that occasion Buti blamed the deaths in Iraq on ‘a lack of love between the Muslims.’ Perhaps some of the congregation imagined this was a veiled criticism of the Arab leaders. People called al-Buti honest and fearless.

I had a conversation with someone who taught archeology at Damascus University. This academic arranged a debate on human origins, the scientific versus the religious view. The debate went very well until Shaikh Buti arrived, with entourage. The cleric encouraged noisy religious chanting until the debate had been entirely disrupted, at which point he declared ‘this is a victory for belief over unbelief’ and had himself carried away on the shoulders of his admirers. A great victory indeed.

Throughout the Syrian uprising, Buti has told Syria’s Muslims to trust the regime that is murdering them. He has repeatedly condemned peaceful demonstrations for dignity and rights. He has accused the protestors who set out from Friday mosques of not knowing how to pray. I accuse Buti of not knowing how to think, or feel, and of having no moral sense. Yesterday, following the most savage massacres yet perpetrated by the regime, Buti released a ‘fatwa’ cancelling the taraweeh prayers which are held every evening during Ramadan. The truth could not be clearer: this ‘honest, fearless’ cleric is even willing to cancel prayers when he is ordered to by the state. He is to religion what Dunya TV and Syria Comment are to objective reporting; what the shabeeha are to domestic security. Many of Syria’s Christian leaders, meanwhile, have taken the most unChristian step of joining in state propaganda against unarmed Syrian citizens even as these citizens – of all sects – are tortured, maimed and humiliated.

Buti is a traditionalist, someone so sunk in stale books that he fails to notice the real world in front of him. As such, he’s a lot better than the modernist Salafis who have recently proliferated in the hothouse made by Saudi money and rapid urbanisation, deracinated Muslims whose ugly, intolerant, rule-based version of religion strips away Islam’s history, philosophy, mysticism and morality. Salafists preach obedience to the ‘wali al-amr‘ – whoever is in power. As a result they contributed absolutely nothing to the struggle against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But now that Mubarak has fallen, Salafis seek to profit from the new situation. Last Friday, along with the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, they hijacked a rally in Tahreer Square, where they chanted against a secular, civil state and emitted such diplomatic slogans as ‘We’re all Osama.’ Given that people claiming allegiance to bin Laden have recently burnt and blown up Egyptian churches, such declarations of loyalty are far more intimidating to Egyptians than they are to foreign imperialists.

Religion as practised and understood by very many people in the Arab world today is, unfortunately, a hindrance to the revolutionary movement, either because it serves as a tool of power or because it is an expression of ignorance, arrogance and fear.

Tariq Ali wrote the poem below in response to the Brotherhood/ Salafi demonstration in Tahreer.

Patience exhausted

You emerged from the shadows

To tell us what was forbidden and why.

You spoke loudly and clearly,

Each chant a whiplash:

God is Great!

The laws of God transcend democracy!

Liberals and secularists are the scum of the earth!

Copts too!

And uncovered women!

And leftists, trapped on the wrong side of history,

Their rage impotent, their numbers miniscule!

We Brothers represent the will of God!

Who told you?

Why did you believe him?

Was it the will of God that your leaders collaborate with Mubarak?

What of your rivals at home who claim the same?

And your noisy neighbours, each with their preachers in tow?

The Sultans in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh?

The Ayatollahs in Qom and Karbala?

The godly warlords in the White House?

The Pope in the Vatican?

The Rabbis in the Jerusalem Synagogue?

Their God is great too, is he not?

The Book teaches us there is only one God,

Omnipotent, indivisible, all-seeing.

Why does He speak in so many different tongues and voices?

Is He trying to please all at the same time?

Both Israel and Palestine?

Both oppressor and oppressed?

Leave Him alone for the moment,

Tell us what else you believe in?

How will you deal with our exploiters

starting with those inside your ranks?

Does the sun belong to you alone?

Is your God a neoliberal?

Must the poor live off charity for ever?

Why are our people despairing?

How long will you chain their freedoms?

Whose side are you really on?
Tariq Ali

31 July 2011

3 thoughts on “The Sultan’s Shaikhs and Salafis”

  1. The uprising and overthrow was not a pure secular movement by Egyptian liberals. The whole world saw numerous images of mass prayers being conducted in Tahrir Square and chants of “God is Great” in Arabic. In essence it is this chant which epitomises the spirit of these protests as many protestors stopped considering the despot as God and almighty but instead they considered him as a mere mortal like everyone else. The removal of fear and the struggle for a just system, is essentially also intertwined with the spirit of Islam. For decades when there was no one to oppose Mubarak the Muslim brotherhood followers were being tortured, killed and locked up. They have the right to come out and rally for a better Egypt just as any other Egyptian whether secular or otherwise.

  2. They have a right, yes, and I have a right to criticise them, especially when they ally with power, as they are doing now and as they did under sadat. I’m not saying they (or the salafis, who received most of my venom) should be repressed. To a large extent repression has made them what they are. And I have no problem with the ‘Islamic spirit’ as you describe it. My problem is the attempt by reactionary political agents to instrumentalise that spirit.

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