Mob attack kills Shia Muslims in Egypt

A photo <a href="">posted on Twitter</a> following yesterday's attack

At least four Shia Muslims – including a prominent religious figure – were killed yesterday when a mob attacked homes in an Egyptian village yesterday. About 30 more are said to have been injured. Ahram Online reports:

Not less than 3,000 angry locals attacked houses of Shias in the village Sunday afternoon after weeks of incitement by Salafist preachers, according to eyewitnesses.

Five houses were set on fire during the attack. Police are evacuating the rest of Shiite homes in the village.

"For three weeks the Salafist sheikhs in the village have been attacking the Shias and accusing them of being infidels and spreading debauchery," Hazem Barakat, an eyewitness and photojournalist, told Ahram Online.

Barakat, who reported the incident live on Twitter, took photos and videos showing one of the Shias began dragged in the street after being beaten. "I saw several Shias stabbed several times while they were being dragged in some sort of public lynching," said Barakat.

According to eyewitnesses cited by Ahram Online, police arrived late at the scene and then stood by, watching the attack.

Although Sunni Salafists have been whipping up anti-Shia sentiment recently, a large portion of the blame for yesterday's violence lies with the Egyptian authorities. Official policies under Mubarak and subsequently have legitimised prejudice against the Shia (who in Egypt are a tiny minority thought to account for no more than 1% of the population).

Among those who died yesterday, 66-year-old Hassan Shehata had been jailed twice under Mubarak for "contempt of religion", Ahram Online reports. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has documented a number of cases since 2004 where Shia have been harassed and detained by the authorities.

The authorities have long been reluctant to take a firm stand against sectarian attacks and perpetrators often avoid serious punishment. Instead, the authorities encourage "reconciliation" meetings aimed at restoring calm without necessarily addressing the underlying problems.

Last year, the US State Department's annual report on religious freedom stated that the lack of prosecutions "contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults". It noted that Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental body) had called for an end to "reconciliation" sessions on the grounds that they were not only against the law but also provided "a major reason for sectarian clashes" because of the resulting impunity.

In Egypt, as in other Arab countries, plays a part in determining attitudes towards the Shia (because of the association with Iran) but some also fear what they claim is "creeping Shiism" in predominantly Sunni Muslim societies. 

Earlier this year, Geneive Abdo, author of a Brookings paper on the growth of sectarianism, wrote:

Since the Egyptian revolution, Sunni animosity in Egypt toward Shia Muslims has increased and gone public in a country where, in the past, doctrinal differences between the two Islamic sects were barely mentioned.

Even at al-Azhar, the mosque and university complex that is a seat for Sunni learning and where Shia jurisprudence is taught as part of the curriculum, there is far less tolerance than in the past.

"You can't trust the Shia because of taqiya," a scholar at al-Azhar told me in February when I was in Cairo. He was referring to a practice permitted in Shia Islam whereby followers may deny or otherwise obscure their religious beliefs if they feel they are under threat of persecution. 

The dispensation of taqiya was particularly important historically because the Shia often lived as minorities in Sunni-dominated societies, as is the case in Egypt and much of the Arab world ...

Among those who seek to stir up sectarian strife, taqiya thus provides the basis for a type of "reds under the beds" scaremongering where secret adherents of Shiism are supposedly working under cover to destroy Sunni Islam.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 24 June 2013