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.