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Understanding Sufism And The Sinai Peninsula

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Egyptian authorities say more than 300 people are dead after the worst attack by Islamic extremists in that country's modern history. It happened at a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula. This region of Egypt has seen some violence recently. But Friday's attack is different according to Sahar Aziz. She is a professor and Middle East legal studies scholar at Rutgers Law School. She joins us now. Good morning.

SAHAR AZIZ: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: What makes this attack stand out as different to you, professor?

AZIZ: Well, first, the high-casualty rate is unprecedented, even by the militant groups that have been killing civilians and police officers for at least the past four years. Over 300 people, as you know, are dead. The other unusual aspect of the attack is that they attacked a mosque during Friday prayer and did it in a way that ensured that nearly every attendee would be killed. And in a majority Muslim country, this is something that is very unusual.

And so the other issue also is that there's a question as to where the police officers were. This is a very militarized - the most militarized zone in Egypt near the Israeli border. And the mosque had already experienced threats by these militant groups who proclaim to be associated with ISIS. And so there is a question as to how something this barbaric and this severe could happen without the police preventing it or at least being there on the scene to ensure that the casualty rate wouldn't be so high.

WERTHEIMER: Let's talk for a second about the geopolitics of the region. The Sinai Peninsula is a giant desert. It borders Israel. And that is where Islamic militants have focused many of their recent attacks, but this is a change.

AZIZ: Yes. Thus far, they have been focused primarily on the police and the military in what they claim is a social justice war, so to speak. They're opposing the regime, claiming it's illegitimate and that they want to essentially become the new rulers of Egypt with they're very warped and skewed interpretation of Islam.

Now, that's not to say that civilians have not been killed in the process. And, in fact, if you're suspected of being a cooperator with the Egyptian state, they - ISIS will behead you in a very grotesque way to set an example. However, this is the first time that we've seen them go after a mosque in this way. Now, they have gone after churches and - because part of their kind of terroristic agenda is to kill anyone that they believe is not worthy of living in this Islamic state that they seek to create. And Christians have been common targets. But for them to go after Muslims is quite unprecedented.

WERTHEIMER: This is a Sufi mosque, a mystical form of Islam. Would that have been a factor?

AZIZ: That was probably a factor in terms of their own justifications. However, the facts on the ground show that many of the attendees actually were not Sufis. So Sufism is considered a minority sect, so to speak. And most Egyptians are Sunnis. But 70 percent of the attendees were Sunnis that had been displaced by other conflicts in other cities. So, in fact, it was not a Sufi mosque, so to speak. It was an Egyptian mosque, a Muslim mosque, and average Egyptians - including Sufis and and Sunnis - were killed.

WERTHEIMER: Sahar Aziz is a Middle East legal studies scholar at Rutgers Law School. Thank you very much for this.

AZIZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "A DIVIDING LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.