Will God have mercy on Morsi?
For people on the Salafi-jihadi spectrum the answer is far from obvious, and the debate around it is revealing of some broader trends within the movement.
By Hazem Eseifan and Peter Cross
On June 18, the sixth instalment of an occasional series entitled “the Student Asks and the Sheikh Answers” was released in PDF form via Telegram. As always since the series began in January of this year, the “sheikh” in question is Abu Ubayda Youssef al-Annabi, head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s “Council of Notables” and the group’s leading theoretician, and the “student” asking the questions is a Palestinian named Nail bin Ghazi Mosran, a Salafist sheikh in Gaza.¹ The document itself is not dated and does not carry any official logos of AQMI or of its media organ, Al-Andalus.
The question asked here is “Can we pray God to have mercy on Dr Mohamed Morsi?”, Egypt’s first democratically elected president in the wake of the Arab spring and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. After being toppled by a military coup in July 2013, Morsi died in a courtroom in Cairo on June 17 this year. To understand the question, one should remember that “seeking God’s mercy” for a deceased person (by using the invocation rahimahu Allah, literally “May God have mercy on him”, the Muslim equivalent of RIP) is reserved for Muslims according to mainstream Salafi doctrine. It is a serious sin, in the eyes of Salafists, to say “May God have mercy on him” if the deceased person was not Muslim. In effect the Palestinian sheikh is asking whether Morsi can be considered a Muslim by Salafi doctrine?
But why would anybody doubt Morsi’s faith? Because he is a Muslim Brother, a group that Salafis regard with suspicion, and because he compromised himself by being elected to rule Egypt. For hard-line Salafism democracy is nothing short of heresy, since accepting elections and popular legitimacy is tantamount to accepting “the law of people” over the law of God.
Annabi answers (emphasis in the original):
The man [Morsi] died a victim of great injustice in the hands of his tyrannical jailers, so how can we not implore God’s mercy for him? Whatever he did during his presidency, he was trying to do his best as he understood it. This, God willing, will shield him from accusations of kufr [unbelief] and sin.
Believe me, the least we can do for this leader is to seek God’s mercy for him. And if we could avenge him, we certainly would.
This position by Annabi is to a certain extent pragmatic. After his fall, imprisonment (since 2013) and now death, Morsi has become a hero and a martyr to the broader Islamist movement, and it would have been impolitic for one of AQMI’s leading lights to condemn him as a heretic.
But there is also a broader point here, insofar as Al-Qaeda — and AQMI especially — has been trying these past few years to “soften” its image. Several AQMI and Al-Qaeda leaders have released introspective documents analysing the reasons for the “failures” of the jihadist movement, and one of the main reasons given is that jihadists cut themselves from society and the broader Islamist movement by anathematising anybody who was not exactly on the same line as them. The Algerian Salafist-jihadist movement has a particularly long history of controversy over this issue of takfir (designating a person who professes Islam a kafir, or unbeliever — a judgement that amounts to declaring that person an apostate, for which the sharia punishment, at least by Salafi-jihadi lights, is in principle death), as illustrated by AQMI’s own history. The organisation’s precursor, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), was initially formed out of the 2nd and 5th regions of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), with which they had split in the mid-1990s largely because of the GIA’s extremely extensive interpretation and murderous application of takfir; ironically, the GSPC subsequently drew closer to Al-Qaeda and in 2007 rebranded itself as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb under the direct influence of Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, the notoriously takfiri head of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.²
The debate became more pressing in the years following the rise of Islamic State (IS) in 2014. The “caliphate” has adopted hardcore takfirism as a foundational doctrine: for them, anyone who has not sworn allegiance to Baghdadi is an apostate and deserves death. True to form, the latest issue of Al-Nabaa, IS’ official news bulletin (issue no. 187 dated June 20), not only declared Morsi an apostate and an infidel — “he ruled according to the same infidel constitution as his predecessors” — but also added to the rolls of anathema all those “who call themselves ‘the Islamist movement’” but do not disown democratically-compromised rules like Morsi, Erdogan and Ghannouchi. Al-Qaeda’s quest for a “kinder, gentler” jihad thus became a means to differentiate their brand from the bloodthirsty lunatics at IS.
Al-Qaeda mother ship in Afghanistan and its affiliates have been trying to change their image by “reaching out” to society at large and emphasising that “we stand with the people” against the “tyrants who oppress you”. We see this “softened” attitude in AQMI’s position towards the demonstrations in Algeria, which they have strongly supported even though the demonstrators are clearly not calling for Sharia rule.
Another interesting point is to see Annabi emerging as a religious authority for the broader Salafi current. Salafism in North Africa was traditionally subservient to figures from the Middle East — it is intriguing to see this trend reversed.
1- An article in a Gaza news site from 2013 names him as “managing director of the Bin Baz Association,” a Salafist group in Gaza named after Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti in the 1990s, sheikh Abdulaziz Bin Baz. In the article Mosran is critical of Hamas over its treatment of Salafists in the territory.
2- Zarqawi was indeed sharply criticised by his mentor Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi and Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri for his excessive takfirism, beginning with his execution in 2005 of a kidnapped Egyptian diplomat he and his group had condemned as an “enemy of God”.