Egypt mosque attack: Is Sufism a new target for terrorists in Sinai?

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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The magnitude of the attack that targeted worshippers in al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai is not only measured by the number of lives it claimed, estimated so far at 305, nor by the fact that it is the deadliest in Egypt’s modern history.

The rest of the details are equally disturbing. This is the first time a mosque is targeted, hence marking a clear departure from the sectarian agenda that characterized most recent attacks and also stirring away from the other traditional enemy represented by police and army forces. It does not, however, end at killing unarmed Muslim worshippers, since the association of that specific mosque to Sufism renders the issue more complicated and poses the inevitable question of whether a new war is just beginning.

Political analyst Mohannad Sabry argues that Sufis constitute a major threat to extremist groups like ISIS because they offer a totally different view of Islam, which makes them attractive for a considerable number of youths.

People gather at Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd northern Sinai, Egypt a day after attackers killed hundreds of worshippers, on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. (AP)
People gather at Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd northern Sinai, Egypt a day after attackers killed hundreds of worshippers, on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. (AP)

"The Sufis are succeeding in drawing hundreds of youths from the terrorist organization in a way the military hasn't been able to do," he said. “And I believe that the most important point, for ISIS, is to eliminate their ideological rival rather than a military rival.” Since the Sufi community in Sinai is among the strongest in the country, Sabry added, extremists will attempt to undermine their influence. “They also happen to be one of the most loyal communities to the Egyptian state,” he noted.

Despite his conviction that Sufis in Sinai cannot be easily broken, Sabry expressed his concern that that the Rawda Mosque attack would not be the last and, as horrendous as it was, not the most brutal. “If it's the beginning of a pattern it could be the beginning of a war against Sufis that could be much more terrifying”

Newsweek internal security and terrorism correspondent Jack Moore argued that for fanatic Islamists Sufis are not really different enemies against whom they wage war for sectarian reasons. “Sufi Islam is a mystical branch of the religion that worships saints and shrines, behavior that ISIS considers to be idolatrous,” he wrote. “In the same way that the group’s brutal jihadis view Egypt’s Coptic Christian community with hate, and revile the Shiites of Iran and Iraq, they detest the Sufi branch of Islam.”

Despite the unprecedented brutality of the Rawda Mosque attack, Moore said that it was not the first against Sufis in reference to the abduction and beheading of Sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz in November 2016 in the city of al-Arish. The blind 98-year-old Sufi leader was accused of practicing witchcraft. Attacks against Sufis, Moore added, have been quite common across the Arab and Muslim region since the emergence of ISIS. “Elsewhere in South Asia and Middle East, ISIS has attacked Sufis, their mosques, their shrines and their gatherings. In 2014, they destroyed several Sufi Muslim shrines and tombs in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor,” he explained.

“In February, an ISIS suicide bomber attacked one of the most revered Sufi shrines in the world, Sehwan Sharif, located in the southern Sindh Province of Pakistan, killing 80 people and wounding more than 250.”

Journalist Rabei al-Saadani saw the attack on al-Rawda Mosque as an implementation of earlier threats that should have alerted security forces. He cited the example of a statement ISIS published in January 2017 in its magazine Rumiyah in which the group slammed Sufism: “They venerate tombs, perform sacrificial slaughter for them, perform tawaf around them, and so on.” The Nabaa magazine, also affiliated to ISIS, published in October 2016 an interview with the head of ISIS self-proclaimed moral police and in which he said that the group would wage war against all forms of “idolatry” and “blasphemy” including Sufism.

victims rawdah supplied
victims rawdah supplied

He particularly mentioned al-Rawda mosque as one of the Sufi lodges and specified the names of other lodges affiliated to it and said the group would eradicate it “as soon as it conquers the areas hosting these lodges.” The interview revealed the group’s knowledge of the different Sufi orders, where their members are concentrated, and which places they frequent such as “lodges in the neighborhood of Abu Jarir and the areas of Tawil and Sabah.”

Al-Rawda Mosque is home to the Gaririya Sufi order, one of the largest in North Sinai. The Gaririya, an offshoot of the Bedouin al-Ahmadiya order, is named after its founder Sheikh Eid Abu Garir, who is considered the godfather of Sufism in the Sinai Peninsula and hails from the Sawarka tribe, the second largest in North Sinai. Gaririya is one of the official Sufi orders in Egypt and is registered under law number 118 for the year 1976.

The beheading of Sheikh Abu Heraz was preceded by the bombing of two Sufi shrines in North Sinai in August 2013: the shrine of Sheikh Selim Abu Garir in the village of Bir al-Abd, where al-Rawda Mosque is located, and the shrine of Sheikh Hamid in al-Maghara region. Several village residents said extremists threatened them a few days before the attack to kill them if they celebrate the prophet’s birthday, which falls this year on November 30, since it is considered an un-Islamic “novelty.”

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