On the night of December 30, 2004, the streets of downtown Cairo were unusually crowded. Government police officers, conspicuous in white gaiters, stood at attention outside a mosque, diverting traffic into a single congested lane. The police were on hand not to keep people out but to hem the mosque's occupants in. The speaker that evening was Mohammad Hassen, one of Cairo's most inflammatory sheikhs. President Hosni Mubarak's administration, anxious to allay fears of growing extremism after the October bombings in Sinai, was not taking any chances. Hassen and his followers had been known to advocate violence against Israel in the past.
That evening, however, the mood of the hard-line Islamic community was defensive, not aggressive. Earlier that day, in an appearance on Egyptian national television, Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt and one of the highest-ranking clerics in the Sunni Muslim world, had denounced what the West refers to as fundamentalism. Although many Muslim leaders have stepped forward to condemn terrorist violence in recent years, no one before had even implicitly attacked the philosophy, often known as Wahhabism, that is thought to give rise to it—in no small part because Wahhabism is the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia, which controls the holy city of Mecca. But Gomaa did so, and went further: he referred to the extremists as khawerig, or "outsiders"—persons who fail to follow true Islamic law. Historically the term has been attached to the early Islamic dissidents who murdered Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. In Arab Islamic society it is traditionally taboo to criticize the lifestyle or personal philosophy of any practicing Muslim. Never before had such a respected Islamic scholar and sheikh—much less the religious leader of the most populous Arab nation—laid bare the division between practicing fundamentalists and the rest of the Muslim umma, or religious community. In a region where extremist sheikhs have all but silenced their moderate rivals, this was a dangerous stance to take.