Egyptian Cleric's Mission: Spread Salafi Doctrine

In the final part of Morning Edition's series on ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salafis, we meet an Egyptian cleric who has made it his mission to spread the Salafi doctrine throughout the country. Hesham al Ashry is a firm believer in the strictest interpretation of Islamic law.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Having overthrown their autocratic leaders, several Arab nations now face the question of how to govern themselves.

MONTAGNE: One of the toughest questions is the role that Islam should play in crafting new laws. Secular, or moderate, groups hope to leave space for democratic debate rather than clerical rule. That's especially true in Egypt, which has a large Christian minority.

INSKEEP: This morning, we'll meet a man who prefers a different path. He founded a group dedicated to replacing Egypt's constitution with this simple declaration: Islamic law will govern all. That would be the whole constitution. NPR's Leila Fadel concludes her reports on ultra-conservative Muslims, known as Salafis.

HESHAM AL ASHRY: I wish to have a Muslim country. Why not?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hesham al Ashry is a firm believer in the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. He dismisses his critics as unbelievers, even those who are Muslims.

ASHRY: They are against the religion of Islam. They don't want Islam in the country, even though - that they carry Islamic names.

FADEL: Ashry meets us at his office in downtown Cairo. The small, rotund cleric is a high-end suit tailor. He started in Brooklyn, where he lived for over a decade. Under former president Hosni Mubarak's autocratic but secular rule, people like Ashry were afraid to preach openly.

Ashry was detained briefly, on suspicion of being a terrorist - a common accusation against Islamists. In Mubarak's day, even growing a beard too long, or going to the mosque too often, was enough to land you in jail. He's establishing a vice squad of sorts, whose members will roam the streets, advising people they think are breaking Islamic law.

When Ashry first spoke about the group in local media about a month ago, a lot of Egyptians were outraged; especially when he said that all women - Muslim and Christian - should cover themselves completely, unless they want to be raped in the streets. Here's a local TV host responding to Ashry's ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: (Through translator) Egyptians don't need anyone to teach them their religion. They cover their hair, grow their beards, or go to prayers because they want to - not because someone's ordering them to.

FADEL: Egypt's highest religious authority has called Ashry's vice squad destabilizing and wrong, as have other religious figures. Ashry tells me those who criticize him are un-Islamic and against Islamic law, known as Sharia.

ASHRY: Whoever fight Sharia law, that means he fight Islam. He fight the religion of Islam, the rules of Allah.

FADEL: He's been misunderstood, he says. His group is not violent. It's simply providing a service for the people. After another television interview here, he got quite a few death threats - but also a lot of support, he says. He sees Saudi Arabia as a great model of a Salafi state. It's a country where women have few rights, and the anti-vice police has real authority. Egypt - with its nightclubs and more permissive culture - is a far cry from that Arabian kingdom. Many here are deeply religious; others are not

What worries some Egyptians about Ashry's mission is, it's potentially destabilizing. Even Salafis who are working to break the intolerant stereotype of their community find his rhetoric damaging. In our interview, Ashry makes many questionable assertions. All women must cover their faces, hair, hands and bodies, he says, because that's what God wants. But then he adds this:

ASHRY: Medically, it's been proved that the woman flesh, you know, if they will be hit with the sunrise - right? - some women getting the skin cancer in just one week.

FADEL: He thinks opposition leaders like Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and a Muslim, must repent for advocating liberal democracy in Egypt.

ASHRY: But I am against democracy system.

FADEL: But you voted for the president and the parliament, I tell him.

ASHRY: Well, many times, you have to do things that you have to, all right? Even if it's a haram - but you have to.

FADEL: He did what is forbidden - or haram - for the greater good, he says, voting for Islamists - Islamists, he says, who promised to bring about a Muslim nation, but failed to deliver. Although he doesn't believe in democracy, Ashry says if Egypt is becoming one, then his right to free speech must be protected.

ASHRY: That's their morals, to give everyone the right to choose whatever he wants. So they have to accept me.

FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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