Egyptian President Sisi calls for reform of Islam
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Egyptian President Sisi's speech on January 1, 2015, could represent the beginning of a theological, cultural and behavioral reaction from the broad Arab body-politic toward the excesses generated from the so-called "Arab Spring" that became the nightmare of most Arab and Muslim regimes, as well as for many Western countries.
The implementation of jihadist ideology today has unleashed fierce military and terrorist assaults against most Arab regimes; the application of the most severe interpretations of Islamic penal law in the areas under the control of the jihadists; expressions of despicable cruelty on the battlefield against Shi'a combatants in Syria and Iraq; ethnic cleansing; persecution of Christian populations and non-combatant minorities; and inhumane treatment of hostages and prisoners of war. All these plagues have generated a wave of shock and awakened the Arab and Muslim world to the hideous fact that the Salafi movement – sponsored and financed for years by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – has unleashed a monster that is steadily expanding.
It was not until the fiery execution of the Jordanian pilot, Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, that the issue of the interpretation of Islamic law was raised as an issue between jihadists and mainstream clerics. It was clear that jihadists had opted for the most severe interpretation of the Koran as dictated by Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), the Sunni Islamic scholar, pioneer of the Salafi movement and the jihadists' spiritual inspiration and model. Mainstream clerics claimed this interpretation was wrong, illegal, and immoral.
Kasasbeh's ordeal may spark a debate on where Islam is headed: until recently, very few Muslim leaders and clerics, if any, had raised their voice against the jihadist ideology, considering it to be a phenomenon of a political expression of Islam rather than a theological issue to be tackled.
With this as a background, Egyptian President Sisi may be a pioneer in the sense that he has preceded all other Arab leaders and clerics in addressing and confronting the issue of jihadism. No political figure before him, nor any Muslim religious thinker, had previously dared to deal with the issue and voice calls for change.
"We Are in Need of a Religious Revolution"
President Sisi visited Al-Azhar University on January 1, 2015, and addressed Egypt's religious leadership. Sisi said, inter alia:
All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.
I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move…because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 22, 2015, the Egyptian president had tough words against global terrorism and Islamic extremism. Sisi condemned the plague 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 cautiously chosen words to describe Islamic terrorism as the action of a "minority" that "distorted religion."
Sisi continued, "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." Sisi 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 into the hands of those seeking to show that conflict was inevitable.
In a brief interview held following his address at Davos, Sisi was asked to elaborate on what he meant at al-Azhar by "a religious revolution." Sisi explained: "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 to weed out erratic ideas that led to violence and extremism."
In fact, there is nothing new in what Sisi said. His speech was but another expression of his view of Islam, a view that has been out in the open from the very beginning of his public exposure. In a speech at the Department of Moral Affairs of the Armed Forces in 2013, Sisi declared that "religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people," and pointed 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. Sisi further "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."
In this context it is worth recalling the words of American scholar and president of the Middle East Forum Daniel Pipes: "No matter how fine Sisi's ideas, no politician – and especially no strongman – has moved modern Islam. Ataturk's reforms in Turkey are systematically being reversed. A decade ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan gave similarly fine speeches on ‘the true voice of Islam' and ‘enlightened moderation' that immediately disappeared from view. Sisi's comments are stronger, but he is not a religious authority and, in all likelihood, they, too, will disappear without a trace."
However, unlike his Western counterparts who make-believe that the current wave of violence has nothing to do with Islam, it is of some comfort to hear the head of the largest Arab country speak once more so directly about Islam and how it is being used to terrorize the world. This is not a big surprise to those who have followed Sisi.
Yet true reform requires scholars of Islam, not "strong" politicians. Islam is in need of innovators who can cope with the reality of the 21st century and repudiate its misinterpretation carried out by jihadi Islam. Sisi is not likely to be that reformer.
Recognizing the limitations of his power, Sisi admitted that the issue of "revolution" had been referred 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."
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.