One week after the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt, much has been said about what he did. But little about what happened on the other shore, that of Islam.
What held sway here was the speech of the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyib, delivered in Arabic and presented in full in the official English version, on this other page:
> “His Holiness Pope Francis of Vatican…”
Unlike Francis, who in his speech immediately afterward attributed the violence carried out in the name of religion to an “idolatrous falsification of God,” with nonexplicit but transparent reference to terrorism and wars of Islamic origin, Al-Tayyib maintained that there is “no one logical reason justifying these disasters” if not “arms trade and marketing,” plus the oblivion that “modern civilization” has cast over the “divine religions and their invariably established ethics.”
Al-Tayyib therefore denied that there is any foundation in attributing to Islam the terrorist acts perpetrated in its name, solely for the reason that there are “small groups of followers” that are carrying them out, because then, he added, the same accusation would hit Christianity and Judaism, they too with followers who sow death “carrying the cross” or “the teachings of Moses.”
Now, what is important to note is that these statements of the grand imam of Al-Azhar did not pass untouched by criticism from some of his coreligionists.
The most biting commentary came from an Egyptian Muslim intellectual, Islam Al-Behairy, sentenced to one year in prison for his previous criticism of Al-Azhar but then pardoned by President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, who also burst out two years ago into a resounding attack on what is the most famous university of Sunni Islam, which he had enjoined to undertake as soon as possible a “religious revolution” capable of “uprooting” the fanaticism of Islam in order to “replace it with a more enlightened vision of the world.”
Al-Behairy presented his criticisms of the grand imam of Al-Azhar in an interview with “Asia News,” the online agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions:
For him, Al-Tayyib’s explanations are pseudo-reasons, blaming Islamic terrorism on arms trafficking and postmodern thought:
“If the reasons for religious terrorism are postmodern ideas and arms trafficking, we live in the dream world. There are in fact texts in our classical jurisprudence that incite violence. We see people blowing themselves up, killing dozens of people, because they have read texts that give them carte blanche to kill anyone, and this for the simple reason that they have an unshakable faith that they are doing the right thing for God, immolating themselves and killing many other people along the way. This is not just about arms trafficking. I call upon the Egyptian government to review meticulously the views of Sheikh Al-Tayeb. Because according to his way of thinking, the State will never be able to put an end to the violence.”
“I call on Al-Azhar to stop showing to the world books written by certain medieval imams, which it sells as the legacy of true Islam. Because what is in these books is what Daesh does literally, to the last comma. If sheikh Al-Tayyib really wants to counter what is happening, he would listen to those who ask him to re-read these texts and say that what is in them does not correspond to the truth. Past imams hurt our people, the image of Islam, and even the relations of Islam with other religions. But the sheikh does not want to talk about a new interpretation. He is fiercely opposed it and goes after those who favour it. In fact, he is a source of perpetual contradiction. In a statement addressed to the West, he says that Islam does not call for killing apostates. But in Egypt, he lets himself say that Islam encourages to do so.”
There is an arresting similarity between these criticisms of Al-Behairy against Al-Azhar and those formulated in the run-up to Pope Francis’s journey by two Egyptian Jesuits thoroughly familiar with this subject, Frs. Henri Boulad and Samir Khalil Samir, in two interviews with “L’Osservatore Romano” and “Asia News,” both of them reprinted by Settimo Cielo.
Al-Tayyib’s record is in effect full of contradictions.
He was in 2007 one of the signers of the famous “letter of 138 Muslim scholars” to Benedict XVI in dialogical response to his lecture in Regensburg. But he is also the one who at the beginning of 2011 broke off relations between Al-Azhar university and the Holy See solely because Benedict XVI had publicly prayed for the dozens of victims of the new year’s attack on the Coptic church of Saints Mark and Peter in Alexandria, Egypt.
He has repeatedly been an honored guest at the interreligious meetings for peace organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio. But he is also the one who in 2004, at one of these meetings, gave public approval of the terrorist acts carried out in Israel against civilians, including children.
He is the one who, when ISIS in 2015 killed a captured Jordanian pilot by burning him to death in the town square, condemned that act as “not Islamic.” But in compensation he decreed that those assassins “must be killed, crucified and amputated of feet and hands.”
Given these precedents, it comes as no surprise that Al-Behairy should declare himself skeptical over the international conference for peace organized at Al-Azhar by grand imam Al-Tayyib in conjunction with the pope’s visit:
“This peace conference leads nowhere. There is nothing specific about the fight against terrorism. It is a comedy far from reality.”
Just as there is still nothing like acceptance – except by a few isolated pioneers – for the revolutionary proposal that Benedict XVI issued to the Islamic world in December of 2006, three months after Regensburg.
A proposal of extraordinary relevance, but one that has fallen too far into oblivion, even within the Catholic Church. One more reason to reread it in its entirety:
“The Muslim world today finds itself facing an extremely urgent task that is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians beginning in the age of the Enlightenment, and that Vatican Council II, through long and painstaking effort, resolved concretely for the Catholic Church. […]
“On the one hand, we must oppose a dictatorship of positivist reasoning that excludes God from the life of the community and from the public order, thus depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment.
“On the other hand, it is necessary to welcome the real achievements of Enlightenment thinking – human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its exercise, recognizing these as elements that are also essential for the authenticity of religion. Just as in the Christian community there has been lengthy inquiry into the right attitude of faith toward these convictions – an inquiry that certainly will never be concluded definitively – so also the Islamic world, with its own tradition, stands before the great task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.
“The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims at the moment is above all that of encountering each other in this effort to find the right solutions. We Christians feel ourselves to be united with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious convictions as Muslims, struggle against violence and in favor of synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.”
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)