Egypt’s president, in a move applauded by conservative Western media, is challenging senior Muslim clerics to reform their teachings rather than fuel extremist ideologies that have led to widespread terrorism in the name of Islam.
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected last spring after the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, said in a speech at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a leading intellectual center of Sunni Muslim thought, that Muslim religious scholars “must take a long, hard look” at the role of Islam in violent extremism.
In a feature on al-Sisi March 20, The Wall Street Journal referred to him as “perhaps the world’s most significant advocate for Islamic moderation and reform.”
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, President of Egypt
“It’s impossible to doubt the seriousness of Mr. Sisi’s opposition to Islamic extremism, or his aversion to exporting instability,” The Journal said. “In late February he ordered the bombing of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in neighboring Libya after ISIS decapitated 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.
“Egypt’s security cooperation with Israel has never been closer, and Mr. Sisi has moved aggressively to close the tunnels beneath Egypt’s border with Gaza, through which Hamas has obtained its weapons,” The Journal reported.
Meanwhile, a scholar affiliated with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), has observed that “an alarmingly high percentage of all terrorists are professing Muslims.” The scholar, Paul David Miller, is an ERLC research fellow and associate director of the University of Texas’ Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft.
Urging an ‘enlightened ideology’
Al-Sisi, in his speech to Muslim clerics and scholars at Al-Azhar in late December, noted that it is “inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing and destruction all over the world.”
Al-Sisi said he was referring not to religion but to ideology because “the problem has never been with our faith.” He defined ideology, in a translation of a three-minute portion of his speech circulated online, as the “body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.”
Islamic ideology has become hostile to the entire world, al-Sisi said, and “it is inconceivable that 1.6 billion Muslims would kill the world’s population of 7 billion so that they could live on their own.”
The Egyptian president acknowledged that he was speaking intentionally to religious leaders and said, “You cannot see things clearly when you are locked in this ideology. You must emerge from it and look from outside in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology.
“You must oppose it with resolve,” al-Sisi urged. “Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion.”
Al-Sisi named the grand sheik of Al-Azhar specifically, telling him he bears responsibility before Allah for what is taught at the institution. “The world in its entirety awaits your words because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition.”
In comments to The Wall Street Journal, al-Sisi did not expect follow-through on his speech to be easy.
“The most difficult thing to do is change a religious rhetoric and bring a shift in how people are used to their religion,” he said. “Don’t imagine the results will be seen in a few months or years. Radical misconceptions [about Islam] were instilled 100 years ago. Now we can see the results.”
The real Islam, al-Sisi told The Journal through a translator, never commands its followers to kill others because they do not believe in Islam. “Never does it dictate that [Muslims] have the right to dictate [their beliefs] to the whole world,” he said.
Pulitzer prize-winning columnist George Will lauded al-Sisi’s Al-Azhar speech, which was televised in Egypt, and suggested that the nation’s president deserves a peace prize.
“As head of the Egyptian state, al-Sisi occupies an office once occupied by Anwar Sadat who was murdered by Islamic extremists for his opening to Israel,” Will said on Fox News Sunday Jan. 11. “This was an act of tremendous bravery by al-Sisi, and if the Nobel Peace Prize committee is looking for someone who plausibly deserves it, they could start there.”
CNN, in a story about the speech, said al-Sisi, a former defense minister, “has long positioned himself as a more secular option and defender against extremist views.”
As an example of his moderate stance, al-Sisi reportedly visited the main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo to attend Christmas mass and deliver brief remarks.
“We build our country together,” the president said, according to the CNN report on Jan. 6. “We will accommodate each other. We will love each other.”
Other media outlets from CBS News to The Washington Times took note of al-Sisi’s call to reform the version of Islam preached by clerics. The Times said he “is alone among major world leaders in his willingness to go before an audience of senior Muslim clerics and tell them that parts of Islamic ideology are indeed driving terrorists to kill worldwide.”
The newspaper also noted that al-Sisi’s message is at odds with President Barack Obama’s view that Islam the religion has nothing to do with Muslim extremists. Obama spoke at the same university to a similar audience in 2009 and said, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism. It is an important part of promoting peace,” The Times said.
Also among the observations reported by The Times is that al-Sisi’s speech “has received much more attention in the American conservative press than it has in the main liberal media, which are sensitive to charges of ‘Islamophobia.’”
Texas prof’s assessment
Addressing whether Islam is a terrorist religion, Miller, the ERLC research fellow and University of Texas scholar, noted in The Federalist Feb. 26: At the Obama administration’s summit at the White House on violent extremism, “all discussion of ‘Islam’ was studiously avoided.”
“It is false that jihadism has nothing to do with Islam,” Miller wrote, “but that does not mean that Islam is nothing but jihadism.”
The Islamic State is definitely Muslim, Miller said, and jihadism “most certainly has a strong, complicated and important relationship to Islam and its future.” Islam has become entwined with the politics of countries in which it predominates, he wrote, and Islamism is the transmutation of Islam into a political ideology.
“Jihadism is a variant of Islamism. It is the effort to impose Islamist goals – however defined – by force,” Miller wrote.
But nearly all Muslims are not jihadists, he stated. “Assume ten million active jihadists worldwide – a wild exaggeration of their true numbers. That is 0.63 percent of all Muslims worldwide.”
Not all Muslims are terrorists, “but these days an alarmingly high percentage of all terrorists are professing Muslims,” Miller wrote, adding that humanity does not seem to flourish in the heartland of Islam – because of a broad pattern of tyranny, oppression, misogyny, poverty, illiteracy and a lack of religious freedom.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is a writer in Nashville.)