Sunday, April 21, 2013

21-Apr-13: Charismatic, 'folksy' Egyptian politician incites followers to martyrdom

From Abu Ismail's presidential campaign [Image Source: Al Ahram]
Egypt's political landscape is dotted with people and issues that, from a reasonable distance, are  incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, when you share a neighbourhood 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, naturallyending the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treatysupports the veiling of women and their segregation from men in the workplace (according to the LA Times). He calls Iran a successful model of keeping your independence from the United States. And about the 9/11 massacres, he said
'Folksy' Salafist in Tahrir Square 2011 [Image Source]
"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 LA 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 millworkers 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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