Egypt's 'true and pure' sheikh leads Salafis against Brotherhood
SOBK EL AHAD, EGYPT // Here in a village nestled deep in the Nile Delta, the growing flock of religious leader Muhammad Said Raslan is a sign of the increasingly powerful opposition to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood from within the broader Islamist movement.
Sheikh Raslan is on the far right of the ultraconservatives known as Salafis. He believes good Muslims do not vote or get involved with politics because they should devote their lives to "true religion", meaning a deep understanding of the teachings of Islam unadulterated by "innovations" such as democracy and literature.
Before the 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak and set the country on a rocky path to democracy, Sheikh Raslan said it was wrong for Egyptians to rebel against the president - an unpopular view at the time that was criticised by some fellow Salafis.
Yet attendance at his Friday sermons has quadrupled to 4,000 since then, according to Sheikh Raslan's son, Abdallah.
"We thought attendance would be less after the revolution," he said. "But especially in the last few months, people are returning back to the true path. They realised that the allure of politics is a mirage."
Sitting in a pink-accented majilis filled with fake flowers, Abdallah Raslan, 27, said his father's steadfast rejection of politics was among his greatest draws for Egyptians as well as dozens of Salafis from around the world. The dilapidated village is also home to followers from the US, Kazakhstan, Japan and Russia, among other countries.
"He never deviates," Abdallah said. "He will not meet with any political leaders. He will not give interviews. He only gives sermons."
Sheikh Raslan's rigid beliefs have made him one of the most influential critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has risen in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising to become the most powerful political group in Egypt. Mohammed Morsi, a former top official of the Brotherhood, was elected as president in June and the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, won nearly half the seats in the first parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012.
In a video in September, Sheikh Raslan let loose a tirade that makes the frequent criticisms from political liberals of the Brotherhood pale in comparison.
"They sow corruption on the earth in the name of religion, they cause people to deviate from the creed in the name of Islam. What do they offer to people? Delusions and superstitions, since they are ignorant of the truth of what was brought by Mohammed, Peace be upon him," he said, according to a translation published on the North Africa blog Arabist.net.
Sheikh Raslan then directed his comments to the Egyptian people: "You're a nice, oblivious people that suffered great wrongs. You are about to receive the severest punishment in an age of corruption that claims to be transitory, even though it is more corrupt. Their marriage with the authorities will be like Christian marriage - without divorce. Those people, if they are able, will get into your pores and your minds, mingle with your blood, and take possession of the key posts of power in the country in such a way that they will only be able to be dislodged by spilling rivers of blood."
Since the uprising, Islamists of every stripe - from jihadists released from prison to the pragmatic and secretive Muslim Brotherhood - have flourished in the new Egypt. No longer the target of secret police, they have founded new political parties and their leaders have become regulars on television talk shows.
Implementing Sharia, or Islamic law, is a major discussion in politics - something unthinkable during the 60 years of autocratic rule under Mubarak and his predecessors. A sign of their influence is the new constitution, which contains religious phrasing and enshrines a role for senior scholars from Egypt's 1,000-year-old Al Azhar mosque and university in determining whether laws are Sharia-compliant.
But the new Islamist parties have also begun fracturing because of disagreements about strategy and whether it is appropriate to take part in a process that requires compromising their strict Sharia principles.
Many of the returnees to Sheikh Raslan's Sharqi mosque in Sobk El Ahad are former members of the Al Nour Party, the largest Salafist political party that is affiliated with the religious group called the Salafi Dawa in Alexandria.
The Al Nour Party surprised the political scene in 2012 when it emerged as the second most powerful party after the Freedom and Justice Party with nearly a quarter of the seats in parliament.
The parliament was dissolved last summer by the Supreme Constitutional Court and Al Nour has since begun fracturing because of disagreements about electoral strategy and meddling in the party from the Salafi Dawa. A group of members, including the former head of Al Nour, left the party and founded Al Watan last year.
Other members, disenchanted with the compromises - such as delaying the implementation of Sharia - that their parties were making with other political groups, have quietly rejoined more conservative Salafis such as Sheikh Raslan.
"We are in a difficult time," said Khaled Saeed, spokesman for the Salafist Front and member of a new Salafist party called Al Watan. "Salafists were not prepared psychologically for politics. There are disagreements everywhere."
The true test of whether the Salafis are still a powerful political bloc will come in new parliamentary elections scheduled for April, he said.
"After the elections, we will know the true consequences of the last two years, the fighting, the disagreements," he said.
Walking into the Sharqi mosque to attend one of Sheikh Raslan's daily lessons, Badr Abbas, 43, an engineer in Hurghada who rejects the very idea of participating in politics because it would detract from the true calling of Islam, described the simple allure of his leader's teachings: "Sheikh Muhammad only calls on us to follow God. So many sheikhs and politicians speak beautifully, but they do not practise good things in life. In fact, they do the opposite of what they say. He is true and pure."