One of the most recent symbols to originate in the Middle East is the so-called Rābiʿa sign, an increasingly popular hand gesture that plays a significant role within the realm of political activism. As simple as it might seem, holding up four fingers with the thumb folded into the exposed palm bears a clear cut message and a history of anger and suffering. As is the case with nearly every non-verbal body gesture among humans, the Rābiʿa sign speaks volumes in itself, consequently being banned in Egypt and Austria, and risking the same fate in Germany.
The sign’s name originates from the Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya Square and the adjacent eponymous mosque, famously known for a number of high-profile funerals because of its close proximity to the Cairo cemetery. Both places are located on the northern edge of the Naṣr City district in the eastern part of the Egyptian capital. Both landmarks were named after the 8th century Muslim ascetic and poet Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya. Born and raised in al-Baṣra, she was most famously known for her virtue, piety and devotion to God. Since she was the fourth daughter, her name is actually the feminine version of the ordinal number four (rābiʿ).
In the forty days prior to 14 August 2013, the square was the scene for large-scale sit-ins to protest the coup d’etat carried out by ʿAbdulfattāḥ al-Sīsī and the subsequent ouster of elected president Muḥammad Mursī. As more tents were put up daily, the Egyptian government decided to intervene. Increasing riots and growing disgruntlement among many Egyptian supporters of Mursī’s presidency could’ve formed a threat to the new post-coup government, so al-Sīsī declared he would move in his armed forces. On August 2013, the Egyptian security forces effectively raided the protesters’ camp violently, killing between six hundred and at least a thousand civilians. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, the protesters were chased in the mosque, which was then destroyed by the attackers.
The massacre was called “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history” by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, on the 12th of August 2014. It caused great outrage among opponents of al-Sīsī, who captured their grief, quest for justice and revolutionary thought in a single symbol, the Rābiʿa sign. As most protesters of the Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya Square were members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the sign is increasingly associated with the Brotherhood (especially by its opponents), though it’s more widely used by anti-imperialists and political activists. The four fingers are a reference to Rābiʿa’s name (the fourth), which in turn is associated with the Rābiʿa Square and its 2013 massacre. After the disastrous killings, the sign emerged quite rapidly and widely in social media and further protest marches in Egypt.
Outside of Egypt, the sign has been adopted by supporters of Mursī, anti-putschists demanding his reinstatement and more generally justice activists. Most notably Turkish president Recep Erdogan, ideologically aligned with the Brotherhood, appeared doing the sign publicly. Public figures like Malala Yousafzai, Jeremy Corbyn, Kung Fu champion Muḥammad Yūsef, popular Egyptian preacher Fāḍel Sulaymān and others have been seen doing it as well. Brotherhood prisoners, including Mursī himself, have been photographed displaying the sign from inside their prison cells.
Düzce in the eponymous northwestern Turkish province has erected a statue of the Rābiʿa sign in June 2017. Mayor Mehmet Keleş (AKP) argued that Turkey needed a symbol after the failed coup that shook the country in 2016. The text under the statue reads: “One homeland, one flag, one nation, one state.” In an unexpected clash of symbols, local members of the Grey Wolves criticized the statue, arguing that the Rābiʿa sign is a Muslim Brotherhood symbol being imposed on the Turks. They claim that the grey wolf is their national symbol, covering the statue with their own flag.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.