Last weekend’s terrorist attack in Egypt was remarkably brutal. Assailants bombed a North mosque and then gunned down worshippers as they tried to flee.
All told, at least 305 people were killed, at least thirty of them children. No specific group has claimed responsibility for the massacre, but the faith of the victims provides some clues.
The North Sinai mosque that was targeted was popular with practitioners of Tasawwuf, also known as Sufism.
It’s a form of Islamic mysticism that has been described by a 14th century Arab historian as “dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah Most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.”
Some have labeled Sufism as a “sect” of Islam, but there are Sufi orders among both Sunnis and Shiites. It would be more accurate to describe it as one dimension of a broader faith.
A reputation for moderation within Sufism causes fundamentalists to attack it
While Sufis are relatively few in number, they have had a profound influence on Islamic thought throughout the centuries, and they have encouraged pluralism in the practice of Islam, which is why their approach is often viewed as having a moderating influence on Islam as a whole.
That reputation for moderation has attracted the ire of many fundamentalist groups, who see Sufism as a perversion of the pure faith.
Notably, the Salafi movement, which originated in the 18th Century long after Sufism, is dedicated to strict obedience to the traditions of the “salaf,” or forefathers, and is largely a response to modernization and assimilationist tendencies of Muslims living outside the Middle East.
Salafis, a reaction to modernization and assimilationism, attack Sufism
Many Salafis any regard Sufism as an unacceptable deviation from those traditions. As a result, some Salafi preachers devote a great deal of time and effort speaking out against Sufism. It is likely that the terrorists responsible for the atrocities last Friday were influenced by much of that rhetoric.
That is not to say that all Salafis are terrorists, or even that all Salafis oppose Sufis.
Indeed, what this latest attack demonstrates is that longstanding divisions within Islam itself are at the heart of the problem. Islamic violence has spilled out into the Western world, but the hard reality is that the primary victims of Islamic terrorism remain Muslims themselves.
Consider the following from a 2011 State Department report:
In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years. Muslim majority countries bore the greatest number of attacks involving 10 or more deaths, with Afghanistan sustaining the highest number (47), followed by Iraq (44), Pakistan (37), Somalia (28), and Nigeria (12).
Muslims, even more than Christians, bear the brunt of radical Islamic terrorism
The 305 deaths in Egypt demonstrate that these statistics continue to hold true. Yet media coverage of Muslims killing Muslims in largely Arab countries is relatively sparse, so Americans get a distorted picture of who is being targeted.
The Trump administration’s travel ban appears to be based on the principle that Islam is a monolithic force, and that all of its practitioners are equally likely to be radicalized.
This is not only wrong; it is dangerous. While the ostensible purpose for the ban is to prevent future attacks, the likely outcome is that it will create more victims. But because those victims are in Arab nations, they’re easy for this administration to ignore.
(This image is a work of a U.S. military or Department of Defense employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.)