Egypt attack: Why were Sufis targeted?

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A bomb and gun attack in the north Sinai has brought new devastation to Egypt, with at least 305 killed in one of the country’s most brutal assaults in memory.

Gunmen wreaked havoc in a mosque in the town of Bir al Abed, targeting the Sufi Muslim community that worshipped there.

The mosque was largely attended by Sufi Muslims, seen as non-believers by Islamic State.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but Egypt’s state news agency MENA said it “appeared” to have been carried out by IS.

Some analysts think Sufism – a movement known for its mystical and introspective approach to Islam – is targeted by Islamic State because it is seen as a non-military threat to the group.

With a strongly non-violent approach and clear identity, analyst Mohannad Sabry told Sky News, Sufi Islam has proved attractive to young people IS hopes to recruit.

“The Sufis are succeeding in drawing hundreds of youths from the terrorist organisation in a way the military hasn’t been able to do,” Mr Sabry, a journalist and analyst who has worked extensively in the Sinai, said.

“And I believe that the most important point, for ISIS, is to eliminate their ideological rival rather than a military rival.”

IS did not take immediate responsibility for the Friday attack, but reports said it showed the hallmarks of the group. Its Egypt branch has killed hundreds of people in the north Sinai, targeting the army as well followers of Sufism and Christianity.

It views Sufi practices – such as different kinds of chanting or prayers, and maintaining the shrines of holy figures, and a focus on achieving purity to witness the presence of God – as against Islam.

There are some 15 million Sufis worldwide, including the head of Al Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic authority, and many Sufi families have been firmly established in the political histories of Arab states.

Writing in the Huffington Post, analyst Sami Moubayed described the Sufi understanding of a caliphate as a state of “good or loving spirits”, brought about through love.

“Only Sufis have the religious tools, intellectual skills, and political cunning to dismantle ISIS,” he argues. “That is precisely why they are excommunicated by ISIS.”

In the troubled north Sinai, where the Sufi community has been firmly established for centuries, there has been a long-running struggle with newer hardline Salafi groups like IS.

Jihadists last year beheaded an elderly Sufi leader on charges of witchcraft, and the group published a newsletter saying combating Sufism was a priority.

“There has long been a pull and push dynamic in the Sinai between Salafi Muslims and Sufi Muslims,” Mr Sabry said.

In the Sinai Sufi leaders have worked with Egyptian authorities in a fight against insurgents which has also exposed it to threats.

“The Sufi community seems to have a mission to remain peaceful, no matter how difficult things are,” Mr Sabry said. “They also happen to be one of the most loyal communities to the Egyptian state.”

Followers of the belief system have suffered attacks elsewhere, too.

Leaders and shrines are targeted in low-level violence in Iraq and Syria, as well as more spectacular attacks: last November 52 people were killed and this February 83 died in an IS attack on a Sufi shrine, both in Pakistan.

The Sufi community in the Sinai, Mr Sabry said, is one known for its persistence, and after enduring many attacks on clerics and holy places it will take a lot to shatter the strength it’s built up over many years.

But he said there is a fear that such a spectacular and horrific attack could indicate more brutality to come.

“If it’s the beginning of a pattern it could be the beginning of a war against Sufis that could be much more more terrifying,” he said.

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