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Usaama al-Azami: How have the Arab Revolutions affected Western Muslims?

4 February 2020

In a forthcoming book, Islam and the Arab Revolutions, I explore the engagements of the ulama (Islamic scholars) both in favour of and opposed to the popular uprisings that began nearly a decade ago against autocracy in the Middle East. An understudied facet of these revolutions has been their impact on Western Muslims, a question that preoccupies the final chapter of my work. This Wednesday, I look forward to addressing some of my conclusions in a lecture at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK.

The key challenge that Western Muslims have faced in dealing with the fallout of the Arab revolutions has been the perceived or real complicity of certain respected ulama with counter-revolutionary forces in the Middle East. In my book, as in my lecture, I hope to focus primarily on how the ulama engaged with the 2013 Rabaa massacre in Egypt in which Egyptian forces likely killed well over a thousand unarmed protestors against the military coup of July that year. According to Human Rights Watch, the security forces appeared to deliberately target unarmed protestors with kill shots directed at the head, neck, and upper torso.

The coup that lead to the subsequent massacre had been facilitated by Shaykh al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Egyptian state’s highest ranking religious official. Subsequently, it would emerge that the massacres perpetrated by the security forces had been actively encouraged and subsequently celebrated by Ali Gomaa, one of Egypt’s most senior Islamic legal authorities. Gomaa had long been viewed as an influential religious authority beyond Egypt, many Western ulama having studied in his classes or having maintained cordial relations with him. However, not many of these Western ulama spoke out publicly against Gomaa’s complicity in the post-coup massacres, even after recordings emerged that included his enthusiastic endorsement of the armies behaviour and his exhortation that they “shoot to kill” protestors.

This was doubtless in part because certain Arab ulama who were popular in the West had actively defended Gomaa’s actions, claiming, contrary to the evidence, that he never endorsed killing unarmed protestors, and that the protestors were in fact, themselves, firing on security forces. This was, for example, claimed by a popular Yemeni scholar and student of Gomaa, Ali al-Jifri. Al-Jifri had been frequenting Western capitals for many years prior the Arab revolutions, sharing platforms with prominent Western ulama such as the notable American scholar Hamza Yusuf. The former had promoted this narrative about Gomaa in retreats he had participated in in the UK in the years after the massacre.

Perhaps it should not then surprise us that Hamza Yusuf appeared to defend Gomaa’s scholarly bona fides in the face of the criticism directed at the latter after the Rabaa massacre. Yusuf, despite being one of the West’s most influential Islamic scholars has never publicly commented on the Rabaa massacre to my knowledge. His own teacher, one of the most influential scholars in the Middle East, Abdullah bin Bayyah, has similarly held his tongue on the massacre. In his political activities however, Bin Bayyah joined forces with the financial and political backers of the coup by establishing a counter-revolutionary organisation, the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS), under the patronage of the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed nine months after the Rabaa massacre. Bin Bayyah may not have been aware, at the time, that Bin Zayed had personally encouraged the Egyptian military to crush the anti-coup protestors in Egypt in 2013 while promising them that the UAE would mitigate the negative fallout of any massacre.

Because he is Hamza Yusuf’s most noted teacher, Bin Bayyah’s activities also had implications for Western Muslims. Particularly noteworthy was his drawing Hamza Yusuf into Middle Eastern politics more directly. Yusuf would be appointed the vice president of the FPPMS which Bin Bayyah presided over. From this platform, Yusuf and Bin Bayyah would broadcast the UAE’s counter-revolutionary message of obedience to one’s rulers even if they are oppressive while remaining studiously silent over any repression perpetrated by Middle Eastern states that were allied to the UAE.

All of the scholars are part of the same Sunni denomination which is sometimes called Traditional Islam, and which I refer to as Neo-traditionalism. They have a large following in the West. They often portray themselves as representative of a tolerant and inclusive Islamic orthodoxy that epitomises the mainstream of Islamic thought. Through their willingness to work with repressive regimes, however, they have also shown themselves as willing to use intra-Sunni denominational disagreements as a sectarian weapon that legitimates either actively encouraging, papering over, or wilfully ignoring crimes committed in the name of Islam including mass murder. As a consequence, their religious and moral authority has been, I argue, severely compromised in the past decade.

There have, however, been other ulama, including from the same Neo-traditionalist denomination, who have spoken out against the crimes of the regnant regimes of the Middle East and the scholars who serve their interests. These scholars, I conclude, have helped preserve the integrity of the Islamic scholarly tradition into the post-Arab revolutionary context. It remains to be seen, however, how effective they are in confronting the activities of state-sponsored counter-revolutionary ulama in the long run.