Slaughter in Egypt may signal civil war within Islam
The heinous attack that slaughtered at least 235 worshippers in a northern Sinai mosque in Egypt today could be a new and chilling twist in a nascent civil war within Islam in many locations around the world.
It may signal similar atrocities in African and Asian countries with Muslims who disagree with the extremist teachings of some hardline sects of Saudi Arabia’s Salafi and Wahhabi schools.
Although no one has yet claimed responsibility, the terrorist crime has hallmarks of a well-planned commando operation by trained warriors affiliated to Islamic State or Al Qaeda. Both are inspired by jihadist versions of Salafist Islam.
The murders took place at a mosque revered by the Sufi sect of Muslims as birthplace of Sheikh Eid al-Jariri, considered a founder of Sufism in the Sinai Peninsula.
Salafists and Wahhabis treat Sufi Muslims as heretics worse than the Shia Muslims of Iran and elsewhere because Sufis emphasize mysticism and revelation over hardline doctrine.
India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia have large populations of Sufis while Pakistan has large groups of Shia and other Muslim sects like Ahmadi and Ismaili, also despised as heretics by Saudi Salafism.
Successive Egyptian governments since the 1970s have regularly used brutal tactics to suppress tribal discontent in the Sinai, which is a harsh desert where people live close to destitution.
Various economic development plans have not been implemented deepening the hatred of Sinai’s Bedouin tribes for Cairo and its police and military forces.
Small angry groups in the Sinai tribes have been radicalized by IS in recent years as part of its competition with al Qaeda, which radicalized some tribes in Yemen but failed to sink roots in Sinai.
An enraged Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian President, promised today to crush the terrorists with “brute force”. But he does not have many options since he has already intensified brute force in the last three years to no avail, as did his predecessors.
All that brutality resulted in an even more brutal terrorism, which today reached apogee. Now, he may ask President Donald Trump for more Apache helicopters and newer weapons to kill more suspected terrorists.
Inevitably, those attacks with more lethal American weapons will kill more civilians as collateral damage. That would further radicalize already furious tribals, who may not care for Salafist jihadism but might eagerly follow battle-hardened IS leaders escaping from Syria. Obtaining vengeance against Sisi’s forces would demand at least that.
IS has a hard core of fanatical warriors who are closely monitored by IS theologians for ideological purity. It protects the true believers to expand its influence and uses all other sympathizers as cannon fodder.
US-led victories against IS in Syria and Iraq have triggered a dispersal of those true believers to the neighborhood like Egypt, and further afield to North and Central Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia.
When IS announced its Caliphate, American and other Western analysts saw that only as a grab for territory because their thought process is steeped in Westphalian theses about territorial integrity.
But true believers of both IS and al Qaeda see a Caliphate as far more than territory. For them, a territory is an Emirate. The Caliphate is the publicly announced intention of extending beliefs, regardless of how harsh they might be, to as many people as possible wherever they live.
A Caliphate has many Emirates and other entities bound by a community of beliefs, usually called the Ummah. The binding thread is a common desire to live this earthly life in austerity according to Islam’s toughest doctrines as a stepping stone to a wonderful after-life.
In this sense, the Caliphate is a spiritual mission with or without control over a fixed territory. Trump’s destruction of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria may reinforce this non-temporal mission. The true believers of IS will not crawl into caves to lick their wounds and wait to be snuffed out by defeat.
The Sinai attack against Sufis and numerous earlier attacks on Shia and other moderate Muslim communities in the Middle East and South Asia may signal the determination of those true believers to contain and destroy moderate Muslim opposition. That would amount to civil war among Muslim sects, which could destabilize many states in Asia and Africa.
The moderate non-Salafist Muslims are soft targets. They are unprotected because separate US and Russian wars on terrorism are focused only on IS, al Qaeda and similar jihadists.
Most of those moderates live not in Europe or America, where Muslim communities are tiny, but in India where all Islam, whether Sunni or Shia, has a strong mystical bent because of centuries of intermixture with Hinduism.
Killing moderate Muslims in communities like those in India during prayers in overcrowded mosques would be easy for fighters who survived bombs rained on them for years by US airpower.
The horrors of civil wars among Muslims in heavily populated poorer countries do not bear thinking. Yet, they are on the cards because brute force, whether by Sisi or the US and Russia, fires up fanaticism regardless of how many fanatics are killed.