By Michele Antaki
January 25, 2015
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, Egyptian President Abdelfattah el-Sisi had strong words against global terrorism and Islamic extremism, but he nonetheless took a step back from his now famous al-Azhar New Year’s speech, interpreted as historic by some Western media.
In his address to world leaders Thursday, el-Sisi started by hailing the millions who took to the streets in the wake of recent terrorist attacks that rocked the French capital, comparing them to the crowds that had descended on the Egyptian streets in July 2013 to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
He sternly condemned the scourge of terrorism that spilled blood across the globe, saying that blood in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Lebanon, Canada and France was “of the same color.” But he used carefully calibrated words to describe Islamic terrorism as the action of a “minority” that “distorted religion.” He also called upon Western countries to mobilize against terrorism in “full awareness of the political factors” which had allowed terrorism to penetrate societies.
When Sisi had addressed al-Azhar’s religious scholars on New Year’s Day, his words had a different ring. He had called for nothing less than a “religious revolution,” stating that it was “inconceivable that the “thinking held most sacred” by Muslims -- “that corpus of texts and ideas sacralised over the centuries to the point that departing from them had become almost impossible -- should cause the entire Ummah to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.”
At Davos, President el-Sisi used equally emphatic words, but their meaning was not quite the same: “I assert with all firmness that Islam is a religion whose values of tolerance embraced by more than a billion followers should not be evaluated through the acts of criminals and murderers.”
He added that Muslims must “seek reform” and “re-evaluate their positions” so as not to allow a “minority” to “distort” their history, jeopardize their present and threaten their future on the basis of a “mistaken understanding or inadequate interpretation of the principles of religion.”
As for Western nations, they had to refrain from confrontation and from “hurting Muslims’ feelings” in combating terrorism, for this would play in the hands of those seeking to show that conflict was inevitable.
In a brief interview publicly conducted in the same room at the end of his address, he was put on the spot and asked to elaborate on what he had meant at al-Azhar by “a religious revolution,” Sisi had these words of explanation:
“Islam’s teachings of tolerance weren’t always clear to the rest of world over the last 20-30 years. Terrible terrorist attacks and the [resulting] disastrous portrayal of Muslims led us to suggest taking a hard look at the religious discourse and weeding out erratic ideas that led to violence and extremism.”
Sisi went on to say that he had referred the matter to al-Azhar’s ulema because “they were the ones in charge of the state of the Islamic nation and as such “responsible for bringing the religious discourse in harmony with the spirit of the times. There can be no religious discourse which is at odds with the milieu in which it operates and with the [rest of the] world.” The terms of “religious discourse” and “over the last 20-30 years” stood, however, in contrast to el-Sisi’s previous al-Azhar references to the “corpus of texts and ideas sacralised over the centuries.” They implied a subtle but definite shift of emphasis towards external or superficial remedies -- reputation management coupled with cosmetic changes -- rather than a full-fledged “religious revolution.”
His following words further clarified that the effort of reform had “nothing to do with creed or religious beliefs,” because the “bedrock of Islamic doctrine” was “not what this was all about.” He reiterated that “the talk was about developing a new discourse,” more “adapted” to contemporary realities and ”more evolved humans.”
In his New Year al-Azhar address, Sisi had also been careful to frame his suggestion as one of renewal of the religious “thinking” and not of religion itself. However, the juxtaposition of the words “thinking” and “corpus of texts and ideas sacralised over the centuries” suggested a bigger effort of introspection and exegesis. This interpretation was downsized to a mere call for a change of the “religious discourse” made at Davos.
The tenor of his al-Azhar’s message was further watered down in the call addressed to the world to engage in a similar effort:
“No one can monopolize the truth with a capital T. No one should believe their principles or values are necessarily better than others’”. He emphasized that this call for open-mindedness and tolerance applied not only to Muslims, but to everyone else.
Hinting at the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, he reiterated his plea for the world to “reconsider certain things that could, at times, provoke other people or hurt their feelings.” While speaking of an “improved religious discourse”, it was “also necessary to address the creation of a civilized, humane environment conducive to respect each other’s cultures and beliefs.”
This, too, was a definite step back from his previous Al-Azhar message, which was an acknowledgement of responsibility on behalf of the Islamic Ummah and an unprecedented step in the Arab world where blame is traditionally laid at someone else’s door -- colonialism, imperialism, the US, Israel or Western powers. “This Ummah is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost - and it is being lost by our own hands,” were his impassioned words before the audience of Islamic scholars.
At the end of the interview, Sisi finally referred to the Palestinian problem as one of the probable factors of extremism. President Sadat, he said, was a maverick whose visionary ideas were proven right in time. “If we were able to reach peace between Israel and Palestine, if a Palestinian state was to be “established on the land occupied in 1967, with its capital in East Jerusalem, this would lead to a degree of stability we cannot even imagine.” This would help in the “efforts to counter terrorism and extremism in the region.”
So, has el-Sisi sobered up since his revolutionary al-Azhar speech calling itself for a “religious revolution,” or had the world misunderstood him then? He may have been unsuspecting at the time that his words -- spoken in Arabic for a local audience -- would make the rounds across the globe as they did and cause such a frenzy. Was he surprised by the tsunami they unleashed and was he asked to tone them down? Possibly. Egypt, after all, has still to cope with a non-negligible Salafist presence, and Sisi, however well intentioned, is walking a tight rope between tradition and progress. Besides, and in all fairness, it is not up to him to make religious determinations, but to al-Azhar’s religious scholars, due to meet soon for that purpose. All Sisi could do was invite them to convene -- which he did -- and then wait for the outcome of their deliberations. On a related note, it was also normal for him to point at the shortcomings of the Islamic Ummah when addressing an audience of Islamic scholars, whereas there was no need to focus so narrowly on them at a World Forum where he addressed a much larger and diverse audience.
It is also to be remembered that Sisi is himself a devout Muslim, viscerally attached to his religion. Matters of dogma and doctrine are red lines that must not be crossed for the followers of Islam. The very word of “Islam” means “submission.” This is a notion not fully comprehensible to Western minds, trained as they are on secularism and critical thinking from a tender age.
Last but not least, the recent Paris terror attacks have definitely made things more complicated for him. Even though Sisi openly saluted the marches of solidarity organized across France against Islamic terrorism, he could not ignore similar but violent protests that swept the Muslim world and even led to the torching of churches and burning of Christians. Muslim uneducated or radicalized masses have a hard time differentiating between the concepts of Western and Christian. Like it or not, Sisi could not ignore the clamour of the street. Egypt, after all, has a leadership role in the Sunni Muslim world owing to the presence of al-Azhar Islamic University on its soil. The timing was just not right for Sisi to make public declarations at a world forum about a sweeping reform of Islam, at a time where the street was shouting "death to the infidels."
Where does this leave us and is the project of Islamic renewal defunct? Not necessarily. We just have to wait and see what sort of change will emerge from the announced “reform of the religious discourse”. Time will tell, and so will al-Azhar’s scholars. Meanwhile, el-Sisi is as good a leader as Egypt can get, especially in such troubled times as these. The West just has to recognize the constraints he is operating under and that not all options are open to him.
Michele Antaki was raised in Egypt and France. LLM of Law - France. PG Diploma of Conference Interpretation - UK. She was a UN interpreter in NY for 27 years in 4 languages - Arabic, English, French, and Spanish.