By Claude Salhani
6 February 2014
The head of the military government that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammad Morsi from power in Cairo has taken the highly unusual step of calling for the reformation of Islam.
Such actions have in the past brought down the wrath of Islamists who typically label anyone calling for reform an apostate.
First, a quick look back: On September 11, 2001, the world awoke to two terrible tragedies; the one that was seen by millions of people on live television as Muslim extremists crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, just outside Washington, D.C. and in a field in rural Pennsylvania.
The other reality was far more complex than and not as visible as jetliners slamming into sky scrapers. That was the fact that there was something terribly wrong within the House of Islam.
If the first issue, that of terrorism, was addressed by military force, as was the U.S. reply to 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and ultimately, of Iraq, the second issue, that afflicting the followers of one of the great religions, Islam, had to be addressed from within.
This is an extremely sensitive topic. Due to the very nature of militant Muslims who have quite literally hijacked the religion to suit their political objectives, projecting an image of violence and non-tolerance of anyone not accepting their medieval views of the world. All experts who followed the debate were quite adamant in their prognostics of what was the solution to the crisis tearing Islam apart: that a solution had to come from within Islam.
In no manner could it be imported from the West. The problem was that no one leader in the Arab and/or Muslim world dared speak up, lest they be accused of apostasy. That is until now.
In an extremely rare display of courage and bravery by a leader in the Arab world General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces and current head of state, spoke out for the need of reformation in Islam. During a speech, which went unreported by the Western media, General El-Sisi delivered at the Armed Forces' Department of Moral Affairs in Cairo, the general stated: "Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, pointing to the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam-rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years."
Coming from the current ruler and very possibly the next president of Egypt, this statement carries great importance and must not be underestimated by any means.
"Notice what El-Sisi did not say. He did not say Zionism or Western oppression is the greatest threat to Egypt, nor did he point to a specific group like Al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. He accurately framed the struggle as an ideological one within Islam," said Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst with the Clarion Project, who was the first to notice the speech by the Egyptian leader.
What is important in this speech is the general reference to the lack of change in Islam in 800 years; the Egyptian leader is making reference to what is known as Ijtihad, an independent interpretation of Islam, ended by the year 1258. This is usually referred to as closing the gates of Ijtihad, it was then that all changes in the religion had been stopped in the Sunni branch of Islam. The Egyptian leader now is asking for the gates to be reopened, the only way that reform can come to Islam.
While having the president (or ruler) of Egypt call for reformation within Islam is no minor feat, Sisi on his own stands little or no chance of making it happen. Where he does have a chance is if he succeeds in winning the support and public backing of other Muslim leaders, and particularly if he manages to win the support of the head of al-Azhar, the highest center of (Sunni) Muslim learning in the world.
Al-Azhar is often compared to being the equivalent to Sunni Muslims what the Vatican is to Catholics while the sheikh of al-Azhar is often compared to the pope. As Mauro points out, "when the military toppled President Morsi and el-Sisi announced the suspension of the Islamist-written constitution, he was joined by the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University...."
"To date, al-Azhar has not broken with el-Sisi or condemned his remarks." Sisi "called on all who follow the true Islam to improve the image of this religion in front of the world, after Islam has been for decades convicted of violence and destruction around the world, due to the crimes falsely committed in the name of Islam."
Claude Salhani is a journalist and political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism. He is senior editor of the English service of the Trend Agency in Baku, Azerbaijan.