Rome–The chief cleric at al-Azhar, the mosque and university complex in Cairo that is one of Sunni Islam’s most important centers of learning, visited Pope Francis the other day in the Vatican.
Grand Imam Ahmed Muhammad al-Tayyib spoke briefly about terror in the Muslim world, of which Sunni Islam is the majority branch. While he said that “Islam has nothing to do this terrorism,” he acknowledged that “those who kill Muslims, and who also kill Christians, have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence.”
His words, in an interview with Radio Vatican, were a rare acknowledgment that self-styled jihad leaders ground their activities in Islamic teachings– but distort them. He met the pope to discuss a variety of issues, including Muslim integration in Europe and wars in the Middle East.
The Grand Imam stopped short of identifying the “erroneous concepts” that have led Muslims into terrorism and of fingering who, precisely, promotes these “deviant understandings.”
Here’s a hint: The ideological roots of the current terror wave, at least within Sunni Islam, are well known. They are embedded in the ultra-conservative branches of Islam known and Salafism and Wahhabism. Each preaches intolerance not only toward Christians, Jews and followers of other religions, but also Shiite Muslims and various Islamic offshoots.
Public scolding of these two schools of Islam is rare among Muslim leaders. Wahhabism is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, which has used its oil wealth to promote it worldwide.
Still, the Grand Imam’s words were a welcome condemnation. He, and al-Azhar University, are under pressure form Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to deter young Egyptians and other students from radical holy war. Sisi is fighting guerrillas and terrorists largely based in the Sinai Peninsula and rooted in Salafi doctrine. His bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood movement and 2013 overthrow of Muhammad Morsi, a Brotherhood member who was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has also brought on a wave of violence in Egyptian cities, mostly aimed at police.
Tayyib told Vatican Radio that Azhar is promoting religious tolerance and sending out “peace delegations” to improve Islam’s image. The Pope was probably heartened by Tayyib’s assertion that Muslims and Christians “are partners and each one of us has the right to this land.” Francis has been grappling with ways to preserve Christian communities in the Middle East, both in war torn Iraq and Syria, but also in Palestine and Egypt, where sectarian tensions have intensified over the past decade. In Egypt, Muslim mobs have attacked Coptic Christians, torched their churches and ransacked their homes and business.
With war afflicting four Islamic majority Middle East countries, and significant violent foreign intervention in all of them, it’s hard to see how Tayyib’s anti-terror campaign will have any impact on those who see terrorism as a resistance tool. He is also seen as subservient to the Sisi government, the latest in a string of Egyptian military dictators, who is fighting an Islamist rebellion.
Nonetheless, by noting that terror has an ideological base and dissociating it from true Islam, Tayyib’s words were a step up. He should specify just who are the deviants. That would help reluctant Western leaders, in particular President Obama, who shies away from mention of a link between terror and Islam at all.