On November 24, more than 300 people were killed in a deadly attack on the local mosque in Al Rawda village, in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula, after militants detonated a bomb inside the crowded mosque and then fired upon worshipers as they fled. The attack, which has since been claimed by the local affiliate of ISIS in the Sinai, targeted Al Rawda’s Sufi Muslim community.
In the massacre’s tragic aftermath, countless media outlets have published articles seeking to outline a rudimentary understanding of Sufism for unfamiliar readers. While the attempt to educate is admirable, most pieces have created a sharp dichotomy between Sufis and their rival, the Salafis, seemingly to explain the theological differences motivating the attack. The result not only perpetuates stereotypes of Muslims, as enmeshed in conflict driven by irreconcilable religious differences, but also glosses over the political motivations that may have contributed to the attack.
Immediately following the Sinai mosque massacre, for instance, several pieces were published online with titles that promised a basic overview of Sufism for the uninformed reader (see examples in: France24, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, and Egypt Independent in English). Connecting these stories is a shared emphasis on the Sufi drive for purity, tolerance, and practice of mystical rituals, especially saint veneration and shrine worship. In particular, these pieces underscore shrine worship, as a practice that has been deemed heretical, with many shrines destroyed in recent years by Salafist Islamist groups and especially ISIS.
While many articles insist that Sufism is not an obscure sect of Islam, but rather a mystical tendency that developed as an integral part of the religion, the focus on Sufi tolerance presents Sufis as a moderate minority. As Shadi Hamid argued in a recent piece for The Atlantic, “to describe Sufis as ‘tolerant’ and ‘pluralistic’ may…be true, but doing so presupposes that non-Sufi Muslims aren’t tolerant or pluralistic.” In fact, emphasizing these elements of Sufism in relation to the violent responses they have received from groups like ISIS, perpetuates the dichotomous “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” stereotypes, delineated by Mahmood Mamdani in his 2004 book of the same name. For years, this false binary has routinely been part of misrepresentations of Muslims in American and European media outlets.
Furthermore, the stress placed on general religious rituals broadly shared by Sufis overshadows the political specifics of the attack in Egypt. As Nour Youssef noted in an article for The New York Times, though religious tensions had been rising between local Sufi residents and the Sinai’s ISIS affiliate, the attack in Al Rawda appears to have been in retaliation for “the town’s cooperation with the Egyptian military.” Most of the Sufi-focused articles on the attack have conveniently ignored this political dynamic. While the BBC’s piece on Egypt’s Sufi Muslims did attempt to describe Sufism’s relationship to Egyptian politics, it is only a vague outline of the phenomenon nation-wide, without any consideration for the Sinai region’s local politics.
In seeking to understand the atrocity of the Al Rawda mosque attack, religious differences between Sufis and Salafis are certainly an important factor. Journalists and news outlets, however, should be cautious about divorcing the massacre from its political context and relying on reductive arguments about uncompromising religious differences.