Sisi's religious revolution gets underway

Last week, the news spread across the web that Egypt’s President Al-Sisi had “cancelled Islamic education” in all of Egypt. Was it in fulfillment of his New Year call for a religious revolution?  Was that dramatic announcement for real or a just a wild rumor?

Bonjour Egypte, a French-language online publication, announced on February 20th that Al-Sisi's Ministry of Education had “published a manual of values and ethics, for all levels of education, after canceling the program of Islamic education.” It added: “The decision is explained by the lack of moral values in the Egyptian street. Sissi, a champion of secularism and an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood, has canceled the teaching of Islam in the schools of Egypt.”

The same word-for-word announcement had already been made by a different publication on 26 June 2014, only to be denied as a fake in an online forum one day later.

On February 22, in the Saudi holy city of Mecca where a counter-terrorism conference was held in the aftermath of the slaughter of 21 Copts by the Islamic State, Grand Imam Ahmed Tayyeb called for a radical reform of religious education to prevent the misinterpretation of the Quran by extremists. "The only hope for Muslim nations to restore their unity is to deal with this Takfiri trend [accusing other Muslims of being unbelievers] in our schools and universities." He offered no indication whether this reform had been effected in Egypt and to what extent.

When Sisi called for a religious revolution on January 1st, 2015 before an assembly of ulema and clerics at prestigious Al-Azhar University, the world caught its breath. Could it be that the leader of a great Muslim nation, seat of the foremost Sunni Islamic learning center, was truly intent on carrying out such a historic and unprecedented reform?

Sisi knew that in requesting the revisiting of the "corpus of texts and ideas” that had been “sacralized over the years" and were "antagonizing the entire world," he was taking enormous risks and not endearing himself to the radical fringes of his people. And indeed, voices calling out for his death were quickly heard on programs broadcast by Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood channels: “Anyone who kills Egyptian President Abdel Al-Fattah Al-Sisi and the journalists who support him would be doing a good deed,” said Salama Abdel Al-Qawi on Rabea TV.  On Misr Alaan TV, Wagdi Ghoneim clamored that “whoever can bring us the head of one of these dogs and Hell-dwellers” would be “rewarded by Allah.”

In calling for a ‘religious revolution,’ Sisi also knew that he was up against tremendous odds, owing to Al-Azhar’s educational curricula that had been promoting a radical Salafist and Wahhabist brand of Islam for quite some time.

On Jan 4, the popular satellite TV host Ibrahim Issa showed, with book in hand, that what Al-Azhar taught in its curricula was exactly what Daesh [ISIS] practiced. To wit, that “all adult, free and able men” were to “kill infidels,” and do so “without so much as a prior notice or even an invitation to embrace Islam.” Issa, in his characteristically refreshing and funny style, chided his audience for being so deeply in denial. “So you find Daesh horrible, don’t you? Oh dear, oh dear! But why, when Daesh does exactly what Al-Azhar teaches?” He added that there was “no hope that Al-Azhar would ever lead the “religious revolution’” requested by Sisi, unless Al-Azhar was first willing to “reform itself.”  For how could an entity that was “part of the problem be also part of the solution?”

As Sisi had done, Issa made the distinction between religion/doctrine/belief (deen/ akida) on the one hand, and the thinking/ideology (fikr) on the other. He further explained that what was meant by the latter was the body of interpretative and non-core texts -- such as Bukhari’s Hadith, for example, which narrated violent episodes taken from the lives of the Prophet’s companions. Those were amenable to re-interpretation in terms of contextual relevance.

In an earlier, Dec.14 program, Issa had similarly analyzed why Al-Azhar refused to consider the Islamic State as an apostate. On Dec.11, Al-Azhar had called the Islamic State criminal while insisting that “No believer can be declared an apostate, regardless of his sins.”  Nonsense, opined Issa. Apostasy had been declared many times against believers. The real reason for the reluctance was simply that ISIS’s practices were based on Al-Azhar’s teachings,[i] which had been allowed to stand for decades with the regrettable connivance and complicity of the State. Consequently, if ISIS was now declared an apostate, so should Al-Azhar. 

Issa’s views echoed those of Sheikh Mohammed Abdallah Nasr, a former Al-Azhar student and a leading figure of the “Azhariyyun” Civil State Front, which is opposed to political Islam. “Although many consider Al-Azhar a representative of moderate Islam, its curricula incite hatred, discrimination and intolerance, and are a doctrinal reference for the Islamic State,” he said to MCN direct.

It is to be remembered that soon after his New Year’s bombshell, Sisi had created another commotion on Jan.7, by becoming the first Egyptian leader ever to visit the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral during mass, to wish his Christian compatriots a Merry Christmas. His overtures towards the Copts were a bold gesture that went against conventional wisdom. As stated by Ibrahim Issa, religious radicalism and supremacism were “deeply embedded in the minds of some Egyptians contaminated by pollutants inherent in the Brotherhood’s ideology.” The contamination “endured despite Egypt’s massive rejection of the MB rule in 2013,” he believed. Those people would not take kindly to Sisi’s move.

And sure enough, a leading Takfiri Salafist by the name of Yahia Rifai Suroor launched into inflammatory rhetoric that spread across Facebook and was also reported by Copts Today. Suroor posted that unless Christians clearly renounced “the war waged by the Church on Islam,” shedding their blood would be “a religious duty.” As for Muslims who were “Sisi’s supporters,” they were automatically “renegades” and their blood was also fair game.

A few days later at Davos, however, Sisi appeared to have taken a step back in his carefully worded address where he described Islamic terrorism as the action of a “minority” that “distorted religion,” instead of his previous strong language on the need for a “religious revolution.”

But his speech was delivered in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks and subsequent violent protests that had swept the Muslim world; the timing was probably not right for him to come down too hard on Islam.

On Jan. 31, he was back on track when a wave of deadly attacks rocked the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. Responsibility was claimed by a group of extremists previously called “Beit al-Maqdis,” who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and morphed into the “Province of Sinai.” The new terror acts presented Sisi with an opportunity to forecefully renew his commitment to fighting terrorism and to also tackle its root cause, religious extremism. He reiterated his undertaking on Feb.1st before a huge gathering of leaders of the Armed Forces, Islamic and Coptic clerics, and government members.  He said he was aware of how sensitive the subject of religion was, yet he had to confront it head on because he would be “accountable before God” for his stewardship of the country. In a dramatic tone, he added that he was ready to “lay down his life” for the completion of his mission -- perhaps a veiled allusion to the fate of late assasinated President Sadat. He reminded the assembly that Egyptians had mandated him to lead their fight against the enemy [the Muslim Brotherhood, which he never named other than by “them”], adding that “they” had declared armed jihad on Egypt on their official website as of that very day. Therefore, it was war and Egyptians needed to brace themselves for it. This said, he emphasized he would not lead them against their will because he had to respect their freedom of choice. 

This freedom, he said, extended to the religious sphere, for freedom was God-given gift to the human species. There were three aspects to religious freedom, which he enumerated. “First, the freedom to embrace a religion or none at all. Second, the freedom to choose which religion. Third, the freedom to do the right thing based on the teachings of that religion or to stray away from the path of righteousness.” Fourteen minutes into his address, Sisi called moderate Sheikh  Ali al-Jifri in the assembly, and pleaded with him half-jokingly: “Sheikh Ali al-Jifri, the world is so tired of us...Can we please, please have some tolerance and moderation?” Turning next to Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, he assured him that he would not interfere with the technical aspect of the reform process entrusted to him, adding that the the religious problem as a whole was indeed a shared concern for all Egyptians. Both statements drew a round of applause.

On 3 Feb, Egypt’s Imams came out in a massive show of support for the President, chanting pro-Sisi and anti-Muslim Brothers slogans.

The Feb.15 massacre of 21 Egyptian Copts that took place in Libya at the hands of ISIS was a further test of Sisi’s resolve. At Christmas mass on Jan.7, he had told the Coptic Christian congregation that all of them were “Egyptians, without distinction.” And he proved true to his word by immediately launching punitive strikes against ISIS’s positions in the wake of the mass slaughter, in coordination with the Libyan government.

Sisi returned to the Coptic cathedral to present his condolences in person to the congregation and decreed 7 days of national mourning for the victims. This went far beyond what governments of Christian-majority Western countries ever did to honor their own nationals targeted by terrorist attacks. He also acknowledged to all 21 Copts the status of “martyrs,” an unprecedented move in a country that previously denied its victimized Copts such recognition -- deemed incompatible with the uncertainty on whether they would end up in hell or paradise, owing to their condition of  “kufar.”  He finally granted a generous financial compensation to the victims’ families -- bereaved and deprived of their breadwinner -- both as one-time cash payments and yearly income.

In doing so, Sisi did not fear arousing again the ire of the “Ikhwan” [Muslim Brotherhood].  And sure enough, ex-Muslim Brother Wagdy Ghoneim started his ranting against Copts from his exile in Turkey. He justified their killing by arguing that they behaved as though they owned the country. On his public Facebook page, he also lashed out at those who had expressed condemnation for the beheadings, including the Church.

In a statement uploaded to his personal YouTube channel on February 19, he accused the Coptic Pope of having “staged a coup” for the removal of former MB President Morsi in 2013, saying that “treachery run in the blood of Copts.”

Ibrahim Issa held another episode of his 25/30 TV program on that same day, where he blamed the religious education infused with a Wahhabi and Salafist ideology -- taught in schools and at Al-Azhar University -- for the radicalization that boomeranged now against Egypt. He said that Egypt was only reaping what it had sewn for  30/40 years by allowing its students to be poisoned by notions of religious supremacy and hatred of non-Muslims.  It was sheer hypocrisy to feign being scandalized by the slaughter of these 21 Christians, knowing that ISIS’s legal and religious justifications for their killings found their origins in the teachings of Al-Azhar.

On a more positive note, the Copts’ massacre was perhaps the catalyst that allowed Grand Imam Ahmed Tayyeb to be persuaded to modify his stance on religious education. Previously, his position had been that the teachings dispensed at Al-Azhar reflected the true and immutable word of God -- as he stated in his closing remarks at the Al-Azhar meeting of Jan.1st, 2015.

Ibrahim Issa had analyzed them as meaning that Sisi’s initiative of a “religious revolution” was doomed to be indefinitely shelved. In Issa’s opinion, those remarks by the Grand Imam effectively closed the door on exegesis or ijtihad [also called intellectual jihad].

Yet, in a dramatic turnabout after the Copts’ massacre, it was the same Grand Imam who called for a radical reform of religious education while speaking at a Mecca conference on “Islam and counter-terrorism.”

Just as one was wondering where Egypt stood exactly with this on-again, off-again reform of the religious discourse and education, the “cancelation of religious education” reported by Bonjour Egypte appeared to have been misstated. On Feb. 23, Dar al-Akhbar reported not a cancelation, but a revision, which was still worked on. The media representative of the Education Ministry, Omar Turk, said that efforts, focused on “generating a spirit of tolerance,” were part of “a 3-year strategy for intellectual security established in response to Sisi’s repeated calls for a religious revolution.”

Some people on social media expressed doubts the revision would ever take place. But as the project seemed pushed back to a distant future -- if not downright taken off the table -- an article suddenly appeared last Monday in the Egyptian publication Youm7 showing the first amendments made to Al-Azhar’s educational manuals. It was immediately shared and profusely commented upon on Facebook’s public pages. Jihad was not abrogated -- because it could “merge with the protection of the homeland” -- but postponed to the last 3 years of high school (ages 15-18 years); the crime of “terrorism” replaced that of “spreading [moral] corruption on earth,” perhaps to prevent the latter expression from covering atheism or “polytheism” [Christianity].  And the distribution of war booty among the victors was suppressed as being incompatible with modern warfare.

Last but not least, a former license to cannibalise enemies was also removed as being incompatible with modern mentalities. Comments under the Facebook post revealed readers’ genuine outrage and disbelief at discovering what had been taught for all these years under their nose -- with the exception of a minority who attempted to find excuses.

A special Nov. 26, 2014 Youm7 investigative report predating the start of the reform analyzed the main contents of Al-Azhar’s educational books in some detail.  It revealed that late Grand Imam Mohammed Tantawi was very much aware of how “catastrophic” the Al-Azhar curricula were, and that is why he had removed certain texts deemed ill-adapted to our day and age. But his successor, current Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, yielding to pressure by some groups, had reinstated them.

The report added that Al-Azhar had always professed to promote an “Islam for all times and places,” truly “in the service of mankind,” as was “the purpose of all revealed religions.”

Al-Azhar, touted as a “bastion of moderation in the Muslim world,” had clearly not walked the talk, said the report. In deciding to sponsor archaic texts, revolting for modern minds, it had instead produced a generation of  “extremists” who also suffered from “psychological and behavioral troubles, and a sense of alienation from others,” as confirmed by the interviewed psychologists and sociologists. 

These texts “could have been studied as part of a ‘history of religion’ curriculum without any problem, but not as a source of 21st century doctrine,” the report went on to say, least of all in an embattled country “fighting for its prosperity, and against terrorism and extremism.”  It was important, concluded the report, to make proposals “in a dispassionate spirit,” for “the substitution of all articles inciting violence and hatred against non-Muslims and against women, for others reflecting true Islam.”

Recent examples of horrific acts probably inspired by Al-Azhar’s anachronistic teachings come to mind. Such as the video of an FSA fighter, showing him eating the heart of an Assad loyalist back in 2013. Or this week’s repulsive story of a mother fed the flesh of her kidnapped son when she came to enquire about him with ISIS members.

In light of the apocalyptic convulsions shaking our world, never had the reform of the Islamic religious discourse been of more consequence and urgency than now. Sisi warned this would take time. One can see why, but he is to be applauded for keeping the pressure on in order to remove resistance to his initiative. The reform, which had known several false starts in the past, is now firmly underway.

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, Spanish.

[i] “All infidels inside the country and everywhere else are killed without exception or excuse, to get them to convert. If they refuse, both to convert and to pay the jizya (protection money conferring the status of dhimmi - protected, second-class citizen), death is their fate, “including by immolation.” Infidels slated to be killed have “their weapons, clothes and horses confiscated, their lands burned. If the Imam entered a town by force, he could decide to distribute the booty among the looters [his men]. He could also decide to kill or enslave prisoners.  Those allowed to pay the jizya, have first to be subdued and humiliated.”

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