Center for Strategic Communication

[Editor’s Note: Jihadica is pleased to welcome Cole Bunzel to its lineup. Cole is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, which has become one of the world’s leading incubators of scholars of the jihadi movement.]

Last week, resurfaced videos of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi making anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist remarks stoked vigorous debate in American media. A week earlier, another resurfaced video of Morsi, this time making apparently anti-Islamic remarks, highlighted a quite different debate taking place in the realm of jihadi media: Is Muhammad Morsi a kafir (unbeliever)?

In a recent fatwa, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, the influential Mauritanian Jihadi-Salafi ideologue, betrayed a remarkable level of caution in taking up this question. His fatwa, along with his other writings on takfir (excommunication) of Morsi, is a revealing political statement. It has less to do with the theology of faith than with Jihadi-Salafi strategy in post-Arab Spring Egypt.

Al-Shinqiti’s fatwa

Al-Shinqiti, a member of the Shari‘a Council of the  website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad and currently its only acting mufti, responded on January 6 to a question over the potentially incriminating video mentioned above. The questioner, a Dagestani student living in Egypt, linked to the 2011 clip in which Morsi said in an interview: “there is no difference/dispute between the Islamic creed and the Christian creed” (ma-fish khilaf bayn al-‘aqidah al-islamiyyah wa-l-‘aqidah al-masihiyyah). Morsi was speaking about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral coalition allying with the Salafi Nur Party, and made this comment only to say that the Brotherhood would even consider allying with Christians. As one of his supporters wrote in an online forum, by the word khilaf (“difference/dispute”) Morsi clearly meant mashakil and sira‘at (“problems” and “struggles”). He was not blurring the lines between Islam and Christianity.

Without mentioning this context, however, the questioner states that he interprets the comment as clear evidence of kufr (unbelief), and that he thereby excommunicates Morsi. Yet his companions have reprimanded him, saying, “who among the shaykhs has pronounced takfir on Dr. Morsi?” Looking for validation, he asks al-Shinqiti directly, “Ought we to pronounce takfir on Dr. Morsi for this statement?” The Dagestani could not have been happy with the equivocal response.

The default judgment, al-Shinqiti notes, is that Morsi’s statement is indicative of kufr, unless the speaker intended another meaning. Certainly, he expects, Morsi’s Brotherhood allies will interpret his words to mean something else. This is the only attention al-Shinqiti pays to the video.

It is when he addresses the question “Ought we to excommunicate Morsi?” in broader terms that al-Shinqiti makes his revealing remarks. He does not give a direct yes or no answer. Rather he points to two reasons why calling Morsi a kafir is difficult in practical terms. These are “the two obstacles”  (al-mani‘ayn) to takfir that “people in our age have introduced” and that shield some from rightful accusations of kufr. The first obstacle is being the leader or president of a country. Society, and particularly the ‘ulama’ (recognized religious authorities), never designate a ruler a kafir unless he is first deposed, he says. For example, only when revolution threatened Qaddafi did fatwas pronouncing him a kafir proliferate. The second obstacle is being affiliated with “the Islamists” (al-Islamiyyin) such as the Muslim Brotherhood. As long as one is attached to such a group, according to al-Shinqiti, then he is immune from takfir; it does not matter what horrible acts of unbelief he may commit. Worst of all, society will consider an extremist anyone rightfully accusing him of kufr.

In al-Shinqiti’s view, Morsi enjoys the ultimate in immunity from takfir insofar as society is concerned. As he states: “both obstacles combine in him…he is a president and he is an Islamist! So how can you expect the people to excommunicate him?”

Al-Shinqiti styles himself here a takfir realist. Near the end of his fatwa he tells his petitioner not to bother discussing excommunication of certain individuals with his opponents. For doing so only gives them the opportunity to deploy their “fabricated obstacles” and to avoid speaking about “general creedal principles.” He should only discuss particular takfirs “if necessity calls for it.”

In the meantime, he underscores, Salafi-Jihadis ought to focus on da‘wah (preaching) and explicating their creedal and legal principles for a general audience. The “battle” today, he says, is making these principles clear and warning against deviation from them.

Jihadi-Salafi strategy in Egypt

Concerning Jihadi-Salafi strategy in Egypt, al-Shinqiti’s counsel is consistent with what he has advised in previous fatwas: namely, to avoid confrontation with other Muslims and to focus on preaching. After Morsi assumed office in June 2012, al-Shinqiti wrote that while Jihadi-Salafis must dissociate from the Muslim Brotherhood government and refrain from showing it loyalty, they nevertheless should limit confrontation to what is “beneficial.” A quick clash with the new government, he wrote, would be antithetical to Jihadi-Salafi strategy, which ought to take advantage of the politically freer environment of post-Mubarak Egypt to preach and “spread our message” among Egyptian Muslims.

Yet al-Shinqiti did not believe that the permissive environment would obtain forever. Soon enough the Brotherhood would clamp down on and arrest jihadis just as the Hamas government did in Gaza. In al-Shinqiti’s strategic vision, then, the peaceful period of Jihadi-Salafi preaching in Egypt would be an interlude—a mere tactical pause. Ultimately there would be a clash with the Brotherhood. In December 2012, in a fatwa discussing the Egyptian draft constitution (which is now law), the Mauritanian wrote that Jihadi-Salafis would be “delusional” to think they could establish an Islamic state without a clash with the secularist Muslim Brothers. Morsi, as he saw it, was on a path toward shirk (polytheism), especially after promoting a constitution that enshrines democracy.

Al-Shinqiti’s apparent reluctance to designate Morsi a kafir should be read in the context of this envisioned tactical interlude, in which Egypt’s relative political freedom, however long it lasts, justifies avoiding confrontation with the Brotherhood government. Elsewhere al-Shinqiti has drawn the conclusion that Morsi is indeed a kafir, but he did so indirectly as if not to agitate against the government. After Morsi’s election to the presidency, he wrote that “any ruler adopting the system of democracy is ruling contrary to what God has revealed, and he is an apostate.”

Whether Jihadi-Salafis in Egypt heed al-Shinqiti’s advice to avoid confrontation, and to eschew express takfir of Morsi, is another question. Yet some seem to be following this very course. Ahmad ‘Ashoush, a former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and leader of the newly founded Egyptian group Al-Tali‘ah al-Salafiyyah al-Mujahidah Ansar al-Shari‘ah, seems to agree with al-Shinqiti that takfir is appropriate but should be discreet. This stealth takfir shows jihadis in Egypt to be concerned with their image, which they do not want marred by reckless violence. How long the practice lasts may well be, as al-Shinqiti predicts, only as long as Jihadi-Salafis escape repression.