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The terrorist attack against Sufi Muslims in Egypt, explained

It’s possible that ISIS was behind it.

People mourn in front of the journalists syndicate for Al-Rawda mosque victims in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. riday's assault was Egypt's deadliest attack by Islamic extremists in the country's modern history, a grim milestone in a long-running fight against an insurgency led by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group. (Photo by Ibrahim Ezzat/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
People mourn in front of the journalists syndicate for Al-Rawda mosque victims in Cairo on November 27.
Ibrahim Ezzat/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In one of the deadliest attacks in Egypt’s modern history, militants targeted a mosque last week, leaving 305 people dead and 128 injured in a town of only 800. No group has claimed responsibility, but the assailants were reportedly carrying ISIS flags.

In response, the Egyptian military targeted militants fleeing the town with airstrikes. President Donald Trump also tweeted about the attack, calling it “tragic” and claiming the US needed to get tougher on terrorism.

While the brutality and devastation are noteworthy on their own, the attack was also striking because the victims were primarily Sufi Muslims.

ISIS’s affiliate in Sinai — which some experts believe carried out the strike — has targeted Sufis several times over the past year. Other ISIS militants have also murdered Sufis around the world, including a February bombing of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan.

It may seem odd that ISIS, a Sunni terrorist group that advocates a hardline and intolerant strand of Islam, is purposely killing fellow Muslims. But experts say ISIS considers Sufism — a mystical form of Islam — a “threat” to what it preaches.

“When you are claiming to be the one true religious authority as ISIS does, other people that practice your religion differently are more of a threat than people from other religions,” Zack Gold, an expert at the Atlantic Council think tank who focuses on ISIS in the Sinai, told me.

What is Sufism?

Some experts tell me that trying to describe Sufism, which has been a form of Islam since around the time the religion was founded in the seventh century, is a hard task.

“Sufism isn’t a sect, and it’s not even a subgroup within Sunnism,” Shadi Hamid, a Middle East and Islam expert at the Brookings Institution, told me. Sufism is “a spiritual tendency within Islam that prioritizes the inward aspects of religion and one’s personal relationship with God,” Hamid said. “This is why defining who’s a Sufi is hard, since many Sufis wouldn’t self-identify as such.”

Sufis also celebrate mystics, or spiritual guides. Sufis believe these mystics help them have a relationship with God, which is part of the reason they honor them in death. Devotees may leave gifts, like rose petals, on their graves.

“Sufism ... is the core and the very spirit of Islam itself,” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a prominent American Sufi cleric, said in an interview. “The essence of Sufism is teaching people how to see God.”

Groups like ISIS, however, consider this a heretical practice — and use it as a justification to target and kill practitioners of Sufi Islam.

Targeting Sufis is part of ISIS’s campaign to “purify” Islam

ISIS follows a fundamentalist, highly intolerant interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. As Vox’s Jennifer Williams explains, “Wahhabism grew out of the teachings of an 18th-century reformer named Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who argued for ‘purifying’ Islam by getting rid of the ‘innovations’ that had snuck in over the centuries as Islam spread to new lands and mixed with indigenous beliefs and practices.”

But, she writes, groups like ISIS have taken “some of the ideas of Wahhabism — a preoccupation with apostates and with purifying Islam — to new extremes, targeting Shia and other ‘apostates’ with brutal violence.”

Groups like ISIS consider Sufis among those “apostates.” That’s because they think Sufis are polytheists because they venerate mystics and erect shrines to saints. ISIS — and other Wahhabi followers — consider the association of God with others an unpardonable sin.

“They believe Sufi shrines are the most egregious expression of that [polytheism],” Alexander Knysh, a scholar of Sufism at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, told the New York Times. “You are turning to a mediator, who is inserting himself between the believer and God, and in this way it becomes a kind of idol.”

In the fifth issue of Rumiyah, an ISIS publication, a leader for ISIS in Sinai said he wanted his group to “wage war” against Sufis and others because of their “sorcery, soothsaying, and grave-worship.” The New York Times also reports that 11 months ago, an ISIS publication said that Sufism was a disease that the group would try to exterminate in Egypt.

But ISIS writ large isn’t just going after Sufis in Egypt. It continues to attack Sufis around the world, especially in Pakistan. Most infamously, ISIS bombed a Pakistani mosque in February that killed at least 70 people and injured more than 250. Four months before, ISIS murdered 52 people at a Sufi shrine. And in April 2011, suicide bombers killed 41 Sufis during a three-day festival.

Other Islamic militants — not just ISIS — destroy Sufi shrines and sites around the world, including in Libya, Mali, and Iran. In Mali, militants destroyed a library containing some of the oldest manuscripts in the world.

It’s worth noting that ISIS in Sinai could also be lashing out against the repressive politics of Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who continues to crack down on religious extremists, students, protesters, and anyone who expresses political dissent. And some experts say it’s impossible to know the true motivation for launching the attack.

But targeting a Sufi mosque speaks to a larger trend of ISIS attacking Sufis for their religious beliefs.

The strikes may well continue.