The ruler of Egypt is alone among major world leaders in his willingness to go before an audience of senior Muslim clerics and tell them that parts of Islamic ideology are indeed driving terrorists to kill worldwide.
Just days before al Qaeda-linked terrorists unleashed a wave of murder in Paris, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi gave a blunt talk that some observers hope will be the beginning of a campaign within Islam to reform its preachings and exile its extremists.
Mr. el-Sissi’s message is at odds with President Obama’s view that Islam the religion has nothing to do with Muslim extremists.
On Dec. 28, Mr. el-Sissi, a former chief of the armed forces who ousted the elected Islamist president in 2013, went to Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a leading intellectual center of Sunni Muslim thought. He stood before clerics and scholars and asserted that years of Islamic writings and sermons had created an ideology that justifies waves of violence. Now, he said, the imams have a duty to stop it.
“You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology,” he said in a speech televised to the Egyptian people. “You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion.”
Analysts cannot recall any other world leader taking such a bold public step since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda, which, like other organizations that want to unleash violence around the world, bases its doctrine on Sunni Muslim ideology.
When the smoke had cleared in Paris, French President Francois Hollande in effect broke with Mr. el-Sissi’s Dec. 28 message. He told citizens, “Those who carried out these attacks, the terrorists, the madmen, these fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”
Mr. Obama asserts repeatedly that al Qaeda-type killers have nothing to do with Islam, the religion.
At the same university and same audience makeup in 2009, Mr. Obama said, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism. It is an important part of promoting peace.”
When the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, killed American Peter Kassig by beheading, Mr. Obama chose to refer to him by his Muslim name, apparently believing he freely became a Muslim after the violent group took him captive.
“ISIL’s actions represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith, which Abdul-Rahman adopted as his own,” the president said.
U.S. political conservatives point out that there are clerics who preach violence. There are mosques used to raise terrorist money, recruit fighters and plan attacks. All are components of Islam, fringe or otherwise, they say.
“Western leaders often appear to be the great apologists for Islam,” said Soeren Kern, an analyst with the Gatestone Institute who writes on the “Islamization of France.” “How many times have I heard recently that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, or Islam is a religion of peace, or that jihadists are not true Muslims. Until the West gets over the political correctness, Islam is going to run roughshod over Western values of democracy and free speech.”
One frequent criticism from U.S. conservatives is that there is still no sustained public campaign by moderate Muslim leaders to condemn and root out extremists — 14 years after al Qaeda’s attacks on America.
“Sissi said something profound and, I think, correct,” said Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s top policy official under President George W. Bush. “The great question is whether he’ll be heeded.
“Many officials around the world fear that confronting the Islamist threat will be seen as an attack on Islam itself,” said Mr. Feith, an architect of Mr. Bush’s war on terrorism. “National security officials can educate the public on the difference between Islamism as a totalitarian political ideology and Islam as a religion. Opposing Islamism is not religious bigotry, not the same as attacking Islam. If we want to defeat the terrorists, we must counter Islamist ideology.”
Mr. el-Sissi’s pointed speech has received much more attention in the American conservative press than it has in the main liberal media, which are sensitive to charges of “Islamophobia.”
“We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in,” Mr. el-Sissi said, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute. “It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world. It is inconceivable that this ideology — I am referring not to ‘religion,’ but to ‘ideology’ — the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.”
At one point, he spoke directly to Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand sheik of Al-Azhar University and its revered mosque.
“Honorable Imam,” he said, “you bear responsibility before Allah. The world in its entirety awaits your words, because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition. We ourselves are bringing it to perdition.”
Mr. el-Tayeb was appointed by President Hosni Mubarak. He supported Mr. el-Sissi’s ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who once in office quickly moved to consolidate power, crack down on dissent and suspend certain laws.
Mr. el-Tayeb has condemned Islamic extremists such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former Iraqi cleric who heads the Islamic State and its ultraviolent terrorist army that invaded Iraq last year. Mr. el-Tayeb also has condemned Israel as a force for evil.
Zuhdi Jasser is a Syrian-American internist and nuclear cardiologist who has emerged in the U.S. as a major voice for countering Islamic extremism.
Concerning Mr. el-Sissi’s tough talk, Dr. Jasser, a Muslim, reminds people that it has been a long line of autocratic rulers such as the former general who created an environment in which violent Islamic ideology took hold in Egypt.
Most notably, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, a Cairo surgeon, led Egyptian Islamic Jihad. It merged in 1998 with Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan-based terrorist group that attacked the U.S. three years later.
Dr. Jasser said, “It is certainly a major step — the fact that el-Sissi addressed the clerics and told them that we need a revolution and condemned the violence and really put them on their heels as far as the fact that this is not just an isolated problem, that there is an endemic theological interpretation that is a militant interpretation.
“Now, having said that, as somebody who is on the front line of countering these ideas, I can tell you what he was missing in his speech. This is a military dictator. What you didn’t hear from el-Sissi — he never uses the word freedom, never uses the word liberty.”
What Dr. Jasser said Muslim leaders are needed to declare a separation between mosque and state, in the place of Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“When I hear a Muslim leader say that, then I will take a second look that they’re real about it,” he said. “But until then, what’s happening is these radicals are coming back to bite these oligarchs in the rear end.”
Mr. Obama’s June 2009 appearance at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University was part of his travels to majority Muslim nations.
In Cairo, he portrayed Muslims as victims of colonialism, then the Cold War, then modern Western societies.
He compared women’s struggles in the male-dominated Muslim culture to a lack of rights today for American women. He said, “The struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.”
He praised Islam’s history.
“And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality,” he said. “And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. So let there be no doubt. Islam is a part of America.”
The president did urge the clerics to shun violence.
“The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer,” he said. “Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith.”
In 2013, Mr. Obama appeared at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington to outline his strategy for combating terrorists.
He said he wanted Congress to repeal the law that in 2001 authorized war against al Qaeda and allied groups.
“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
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