Rabbi David Saperstein was sworn in as U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom on Friday, February 20. Appropriately, Rabbi Saperstein emphasized the primacy of freedom of conscience in his acceptance remarks, noting he would:
… use this position fervently; to advocate for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief; for the rights of individuals to practice, choose and change their faith safely; not only living their faith through worship, but through teaching, preaching, practice, and observance; as well as the right to hold no religious beliefs; and consequently, to seek strongly anti-blasphemy and apostasy laws.
Indeed, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo reasoned elegantly in Palko v. Connecticut (1937) that, absent the right to freedom of thought or conscience, other rights such as the right to freedom of speech are rendered meaningless:
Freedom of thought … is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom. With rare aberrations a pervasive recognition of this truth can be traced in our history, political and legal.
At present, Islamdom is the overriding source of the liberty-crushing assault on freedom of conscience which merits Rabbi Saperstein’s most urgent and focused attention. For example, “Rising Restrictions on Religion” — a report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life issued August 9, 2011 — found that application of traditional, consensus Islamic Law, the Sharia, currently results in a disproportionate number of Muslim countries — 21 — registering the worst persecution scores on their scale. Furthermore, the Pew investigators observed:
Eight-in-ten countries in the Middle East-North Africa region have laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion, the highest share of any region. These penalties are enforced in 60% of the countries in the region.
Egypt — the world’s largest Arab Muslim country — and its millennial-old pinnacle of Islamic religious education Al-Azhar University epitomize Islamdom’s vociferous rejection of freedom of conscience. Even now, under the much-ballyhooed “reformist” Egyptian President el-Sisi, the nation is currently engaged in a new campaign — launched on Sisi’s watch — to extirpate the ostensible “scourge of atheism” while prosecutions targeting Coptic Christians for alleged “blasphemy” continue apace. Al-Azhar University, under the aegis of present Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, spearheads this ongoing attack on freedom of conscience.
Given Rabbi Saperstein’s laudable concern for protecting freedom of conscience, he must evaluate and address Al-Azhar’s and al-Tayeb’s role in undermining this quintessential religious liberty.
But there is an equally compelling reason for Rabbi Saperstein to cast a gimlet eye on the good Grand Imam himself: al-Tayeb’s continuing history of virulent anti-Semitic pronouncements, redolent with canonical Islam’s central motifs of Jew-hatred.
Grand Imam al-Tayeb is the de facto Papal equivalent of Sunni Islam’s de facto Vatican. 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 Judaism…Since 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 … ”
Grand Imam Al-Tayaeb’s assessment is upheld by a continuum of authoritative Koranic exegeses that span over a thousand years up to the present day. The classical Koranic commentaries on Koran 5:82 by Tabari (d. 923), Zamakashari (d. 1143), Baydawi (d. 1316), and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) demonstrate a uniformity of opinion regarding the confirmed animus of the Jews toward the Muslims, which is repeatedly linked to the curse of Koran 2:61 (i.e., for killing prophets, and transgressing against the will of Allah, repeated at verses including 2:90-91, 3:112, 3:181, and 4:155):
[Tabari]: In my (Tabari’s) opinion, (the Christians) are not like the Jews who always scheme in order to murder the emissaries and the prophets, and who oppose Allah in his positive and negative commandments, and who corrupt His scripture which He revealed in His books.
[Zamakshari]: Here Allah portrays the Jews as being unyielding and as acknowledging the truth only grudgingly. … On account of their vehement enmity against the believers, Allah places the Jews together with the idolators; indeed, going even further, he shows them to be at the head, since they are mentioned before the idolators. Allah does the same in his words: “And thou shalt find them (the Jews) the eagerest of men for life — even more so than the idolators. Each of them wishes he could be given a life of a thousand years; but the grant of life would not save him from chastisement—for God sees well all that they do!” (sura 2:96/90). The Jews are surely like this, and even worse! From the Prophet (the following is related): “If a Muslim is alone with two Jews, they will try to kill him.” … The Jews focused their hostility to the Muslims in the most overt and intense manner.
[Baydawi]: [B]ecause of [the Jews’] intense obstinacy, multifaceted disbelief, and their addiction to following their whims, their adherence to the blind following of their tradition, their distancing themselves from the truth, and their unrelenting denial of, and hostility toward, the prophets … [the Christians] … easiness to deal with, the softness of their hearts, their dismissal of gain in this world, and their serious concern with learning and good deeds … their acceptance of the truth as soon as they understandit; or, because of their humility as opposed to the arrogance of the Jews.
[Ibn Kathir]: Allah said, “Verily you will find the strongest among men in enmity to the believers the Jews and those who commit Shirk [i.e., the polytheists, or idolators].” This describes the Jews, since their disbelief is that of rebellion, defiance, opposing the truth, belittling other people, and degrading the scholars. This is why the Jews — may Allah’s continued curses descend on them until the Day of Resurrection — killed many of their Prophets and tried to kill the Messenger of Allah several times, as well as performing magic spells against him and poisoning him. They also incited their likes among the polytheists against the Prophet.
Maulana Muhammad Shafi (1898-1976), a former grand mufti of India (prior to the August, 1947 partition), was the author of Maariful Qur’an, which remains the best-known Koranic commentary in Urdu. Mufti Shafi’s modern gloss on Koran 5:82 in Maariful Qur’an confirms its classical exegesis, noting that the vast preponderance of Jews felt an unremitting malice toward the Muslims, and a lust for the “material pleasures of mortal life” — the rare exceptions to this rule (for example, Abdullah ibn Salam), became Muslims (see Koran 3:113)!
Finally, less than a year after his invocation of Koran 5:82 to rationalize perpetual Muslim Jew-hatred — 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.
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.
Rabbi David Saperstein’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom must uphold basic standards of morality and intellectual honesty, if it is to have any tangible impact. Absent rank, willfully blind hypocrisy, even a minimal threshold for righteous advocacy demands that Rabbi Saperstein confront both al-Tayeb’s Sharia-based assault on freedom of conscience, and the Grand Imam’s odious promulgation of canonical Islamic Jew-hatred.