By Barry Rubin
This is the kind of serious development that everyone better pay close attention to if they want to understand what’s going on in the Middle East and how the West doesn’t get it.
The Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, gave an interview to al-Jazira. Al-Azhar is the most important religious center in the Sunni Muslim world. Up until now, its leadership has been controlled by the Egyptian government, which meant the government of President Husni Mubarak until earlier this year.
That regime was a dictatorship. It appointed the head of al-Azhar and the mufti of Egypt. It controlled mosque sermons and which preachers went on television. Consequently, it limited their extremism and, knowing their careers were at stake, the clerics complied. They weren’t real moderate but, for example, wouldn’t think of passionately attacking the United States or calling for the abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel.
Now everything is different. The people are the same as those who radicals once derided as Mubarak’s “parrots,” but to survive they must please different masters. The Muslim Brotherhood has publicly announced that it would seek to replace those deemed to be too pro-Mubarak among clerics and especially in al-Azhar. In future, it proposes that the top clerics be appointed by parliament, where they expect to have a very large number of seats.
So instead of pleasing Mubarak, people like Tayyeb have to please the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the leadership of al-Azhar just held their first official meeting ever with the Brotherhood in order to make some kind of deal.
Therefore, while it is shocking it isn’t surprising that Tayyeb now sounds like a radical jihadist. Responding to Usama bin Laden’s death, he made the following points:
–The killing of bin Laden by the Americans was an act of “piracy.”
–His burial at sea (supposedly done to please Muslims) was against Islamic law and is a “moral crime,” the “mutilation of a corpse.”
–The main cause of terrorism is Israel’s existence and actions.
–The other big cause of terrorism is that Western countries seek to dominate the Arab world.
Key forces in Egypt no longer consider America as an ally or bin Ladin as an enemy. That’s what the change in Egyptian politics has brought.
Now, consider in contrast a relatively moderate—on such international issues—countries that are still dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A leading Saudi cleric praised the killing of bin Ladin on al-Arabiya, the television network controlled by the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis know that revolutionary Islamism threatens their wealth, power, and lives.
Al-Jazira, praised by American leaders and journalists, hates America. Al-Arabiya, which is ignored by them, is friendlier. What next? The U.S. government calls for the overthrow of al-Arabiya and its replacement by al-Jazira?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pjmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org.