Once-armed Islamists talk tolerance by Egypt temple

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CAIRO: The Egyptian Islamist group Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya preached non-violence and tolerance of tourism this week outside a pharaonic temple close to the Luxor site where its members massacred 58 foreigners in 1997.

The group which took up arms against the state in the 1990s and played in a role in Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, gathered followers by the Luxor Temple on Friday to espouse the peaceful activism it is pursuing in the post-Hosni Mubarak era.

The organizers had picked the location, by a mosque in the Luxor Temple complex, as a message to tourists "that there is no danger to their presence in Egypt,” Sheikh Assem Abdel-Maged, one of the group’s leaders, said in a telephone interview.

"Some tourists attended the meeting and took photos and there were some meetings with tourists," he said on Saturday.

The Gama’a Al-Islamiya is one of the Islamist groups that has emerged from the shadows since Mubarak was ousted from power on Feb. 11, trying to re-establish itself in the new era.

Mubarak suppressed Islamists whom he saw as a threat.

The Gama’a’s jailed leadership renounced violence in 1997, but Mubarak maintained restrictions on the group, preventing its leaders from organizing or speaking in public about ideological revisions that shunned the use of force.

The group attained global infamy when a splinter faction ignored the leadership’s ceasefire orders in 1997 and carried out the massacre at the Hatshepsut temple, just across the river Nile from Luxor Temple where Friday’s meeting was held.

With Mubarak gone, the Gama’a Al-Islamiya is now trying to build a following in its historic heartlands in southern Egypt.

Urging calm

The group is part of the ultra-orthodox Salafi movement, which advocates a return to the practice of Islam as they believe it was in the religion’s earliest days.

An array of Salafi groups have surfaced since Mubarak was toppled, fuelling concerns among moderate Muslims, secular Egyptians and Christians worried about the prominence of hardliners in the post-Mubarak era.

Abdel-Maged said 2,000 people had attended Friday’s meeting. They had been lectured by him and two other leading members of the Gama’a on the errors of violence and the duty Muslims have to protect members of Egypt’s Christian minority.

The Salafis have hit local headlines in recent weeks because of a series of acts of Islamist vigilantism by hardliners, though these have no apparent links to the established Salafi groups.

"We spoke to the youths and asked them to be more calm," Abdel-Maged said, adding Egyptian media had exaggerated the incidents, "exploiting some of the mistakes made by youths belonging to the Salafi movement" to distort its image.

Some of the attacks have targeted shrines that are part of popular religious tradition in Egypt and also play a role in the practice of the mystical Sufi tradition.

To the Gama’a, the shrines are a violation of Islamic sharia law, Abdel-Maged said. "But destroying shrines by force is not allowed, or anything of the sort," he said. Attendees were urged to seek to convince through argument and debate, he added.

Abdel-Maged was jailed from 1981 to 2006 for providing "moral and material" support for Sadat’s killers.

A member of the Gama’a’s advisory council, Abdel-Maged spent time in an Egyptian prison with Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, who he cites as his inspiration.

Abdul-Rahman was convicted in the United States in 1995 of conspiring to attack the United Nations and other New York landmarks.

Abdel-Maged said those attending Friday’s meeting included a young man involved in a morality attack on a Christian accused of running a brothel. The victim’s ear was chopped off in the attack which also hit the front pages in Egypt.

"In the end he was convinced with what we told him: that these severe abominations (running a brothel) can be changed but without using violence," Abdel-Maged said.

"I am trying to make him go into the media to discuss his experience."


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