Sisi’s Speech, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, and 'Responsibility'

Egyptian President Sisi’s January 1, 2015 speech (partial video here) during the birthday celebration of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, organized by Egypt’s Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments), has been glowingly praised.


I will remain entirely unimpressed until Sisi’s rhetoric can be:

  • reconciled with Sisi’s alliance with Nour Party “Salafists,” who supported his Presidential candidacy because Sisi was deemed “faithful to the Sharia.” (Nour, at that time, even sloganized, “Together hand in hand we build the country through religion.”);

Moreover, Sisi’s much-ballyhooed rhetoric is imbued with the same rather tiresome apologetic mindset Bernard Lewis described six decades ago (in his 1954 essay, “Communism and Islam”) when characterizing Muslim apologists for “Islamic democracy”:


Many attempts have been made to show that Islam and democracy are identical—attempts usually based on a misunderstanding of Islam or democracy or both. This sort of argument expresses a need of the up-rooted Muslim intellectual who is no longer satisfied with or capable of understanding traditional Islamic values, and who tries to justify, or rather, re-state, his inherited faith in terms of the fashionable ideology of the day. It is an example of the romantic and apologetic presentation of Islam that is a recognized phase in the reaction of Muslim thought to the impact of the West

Consistent with this well-established tradition of modern Islamic apologetics Lewis characterized, Sisi’s speech made explicit that the problems currently afflicting Islamdom were not rooted  in “faith,” i.e., Islam, but  in “ideology”—although he did concede that “ideological problem” was somehow centuries, perhaps a millennium, old. Within this purely apologetic construct, Sisi called for a “conscious” religious discourse to  “preserve the values of true Islam, eliminating sectarian polarization and addressing extremism and militancy,” while “revamping religious speech in accordance with the tolerant Islamic religion.”

In the last part of an edited clip of his speech, he turns to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Ahmed al-Tayeb, and says,

Honorable Grand Imam [al-Tayeb], you bear responsibility before Allah. The world in its entirety awaits your words.


But, like Sisi himself, Grand Imam al-Tayeb is hardly a tabula rasa. The de facto Papal equivalent of Sunni Islam’s de facto Vatican, certainly the creed’s most important Sunni institution of religious learning, al-Tayeb has an ugly track record of “words,” including recent pronouncements, that could have—and should have—been challenged, explicitly, by Sisi.

In the spring of 2002, al-Tayeb (then Al-Azhar Mufti), extolled Palestinian jihadist homicide bombing “martyrdom operations” against Israeli Jews—including civilian non-combatants—as reported by an Al-Azhar affiliated Arabic website.

As Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, al-Tayeb has publicly reiterated Islam’s canonical, Jew-hating bigotry. During an interview with Al-Tayeb, which aired on Channel 1, Egyptian TV, October 25, 2013, he gave a brief explanation of the ongoing relevance of the Koranic verse 5:82 which has been invoked—“successfully”—to inspire Muslim hatred of Jews since the advent of Islam:

A verse in the Koran explains the Muslims’ relations with the Jews…This is an historical perspective, which has not changed to this day. See how we suffer today from global Zionism and JudaismSince the inception of Islam 1,400 years ago, we have been suffering from Jewish and Zionist interference in Muslim affairs. This is a cause of great distress for the Muslims. The Koran said it and history has proven it: “You shall find the strongest among men in enmity to the believers to be the Jews…”


Less than a year later—consistent with his belief in (and promulgation of) Islam’s “sacralized,” conspiratorial Jew-hating canon—Grand Imam al-Tayeb insisted that the scourge of jihad terrorism, ravaging the Middle East, epitomized by ISIS, is due to the machinations of  “Global Zionism,” i.e., Jews. During a televised statement which aired on Channel 1 Egyptian TV, September 8, 2014, al-Tayeb intoned:

All the fundamentalist terrorist groups are the new products of imperialism, in the service of global Zionism in its new version, and its plot to destroy the [Middle] East and tear [the] region apart.

Intellectual and moral honesty demand that we hold both President Sisi and Grand Imam al-Tayeb accountable for their words, actions, or failure to act, with commensurate “responsibility.” Neither man is an empty vessel which we can afford to fill with our hopes, or worse still, misbegotten delusions.


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