The real Hassan Shehata, Egypt’s slain Shia Sheikh
BY AMRO HASSAN Cairo – “He was a swindler who regularly held superstitious ceremonies. I don’t know who exactly attacked and killed him, but God bless whoever dispensed us of [Hassan] Shehata,” Amina Saad, a resident of the Giza village of Abu Musallam describes the dramatic killing of Shia leader Hassan Shehata, his brother and two fellow Shia at the hands of an angry mob earlier this week.
Fathi Sallam, a shop owner in the area, said that he frequently came to their area and that they often heard that he sponsored group and swinger sex gatherings attended by Shia couples. “He was an epidemic to the whole town,” he said.
“They say he was funded by Iran; they sent him money to preach for the Shia ideologies here and convert as many Egyptian Sunni Muslims to Shia,” a third resident, who refused to be named, said about Shehata.
But this is all hearsay. After interviewing several people who reside in Shehata’s neighborhood, it was clear that they knew very little about him prior to his death and that all that resounded were contradictory, mostly unverified opinions.
According to initial police investigations, the horrifying scenes of the body of Shehata being dragged and beaten to death before the callous eyes of scores of citizens, who were more concerned with snapping shots and videos of the crime, has opened the curious doors of inquiry as to why this man was considered to be such a menace to Sunni Muslims.
The Truth About Shehata
Hassan Mohamed Shehata Moussa was born in 1946 to a Sunni Muslim religious family in a small village in El Sharqeya province. His Sunni family was known to adopt special sanctification towards members of Prophet Muhammad’s descendants, which is one of the main pillars of the Shia ideology.
He took over platforms in mosques since the age of 13 and went on to study at the world’s biggest Sunni Muslim university, Al Azhar. He was one of a few religious preachers in charge of moral incentivizing at the engineers’ department of the Armed Forces during the 1973 war against Israel and was hosted on a number of radio shows around the same period.
According to Shehata himself in an interview he gave after he was released from prison, he practiced Sufi Islam for nearly 20 years, before becoming disillusioned with “the fractions within in such ideology”, saying that some sects of Sufism abandoned the main pillars of Islam like praying while other Sufis just focused on musical religious ceremonies at the expense of more important Islamic practices. In 1996 he converted from Sunni to Shia Islam and initiated talks and discussions about his new faith among other religious and social issues at a mosque in the posh side of Giza province.
In the same year, Shehata was detained by authorities for “defaming Sunni Islam”. He never stood before court as no formal charges were made against him and was released in March 1997. He became more prominent in the following few years, with speeches attacking Wahhabis and Islamists who insult members of Prophet Muhammad’s ancestry.
He has often been accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad’s companions on several occasions as well as denying tenets of the Sunni faith. Like many other Shia in Egypt, he was constantly harassed by the Mubarak-era state security, which regarded his preaching as an attempt to spread Shia ideology that harms Islam.
He was once again arrested in 2009 among a group of over 300 fellow Shia, a detention that captured public attention due to the intense press coverage at a time when Mubarak’s regime allowed relative media freedom to appease western powers after the 2005 elections.
A Threat to Sunni Islam?
While official statistics about religious minorities in Egypt have always been scarce and hard to find, Shia in Egypt are believed to be merely in the thousands. It has never been proven that Shehata’s preaching played any part in expanding the Shia community or incited systemized hate speech against Sunni Islam in the Arab world’s most populous country.
The father of five had become a public figure due to his constant arrests, but he has never reached the fame or influence of many Sunni clerics who gained fame for the right or wrong reasons over the past decade.
The timing of such an outrageous murder was unfortunate, coming eight days after a conference by President Mohamed Morsi at Cairo Stadium saw a speaker dub the Shia as infidels. It is seen as a result of the ongoing political and religious polarization for which Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party have been blamed.
“The rhetoric nowadays is aimed at dividing Sunni and Shia Muslims. We have all heard the President’s speech at Cairo Stadium and we heard the other cleric who said that a dead Sunni is in heaven but a dead Shia are in hell. What sort of talk is this?” Ismail Shehata, Hassan’s brother, said in a phone interview with ON TV.
One of the survivors of the brutal attack has similarly voiced his exasperation at how the Shia ideology is being defamed by some Sunni clerics, who are inciting religious hatred for political purposes.
“We fast exactly the same as Sunnis do. We pray five times a day like Sunnis do. We agree on main Islamic beliefs like Sunnis do. Even Al Azhar’s Sunni top cleric Ahmad Al-Tayeb made a famous fatwa that killing a Shia is a sin, but some clerics are teaching the uneducated public that we want to destroy Sunni Islam,” Shaaban Mohamed, a survivor of the Abu Musallam massacre, said.
“Unlike all the lies that were said about us, all we were doing that night was a gathering to celebrate the mid-month of Shaaban in the Islamic calendar, a date that is even celebrated by Sunnis,” he added.
While four Salafis are among the eight suspects who are currently being interrogated for the crime, the other four, in addition to other young men who were shot on video setting the house ablaze, seemed like religiously-moderate (unbearded) young men who wouldn’t kill for a religious cause.
Nonetheless, ongoing political and religious polarization is unleashing some extremists and their uneducated followers to frightening levels of violence.