The speech that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently made calling for Islamic reform is getting quite a bit of attention, and warrants close examination. Here are the excerpts that Raymond Ibrahim posted here at Jihad Watch a few days ago, with my comments interspersed:
I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
This is extraordinary to begin with: I can recall no other Muslim leader (political or religious) going back to Ataturk who acknowledged that “the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.” Instead, generally they deny that Muslims have done killed or destroyed, or done anything whatsoever that should cause any anxiety for anyone — or blame non-Muslims for the violence, and claim that Muslims were only responding to extreme provocation.
That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
The distinction el-Sisi makes here is all-important: “I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking'” — in other words, the problem is not Islamic doctrine, but “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years.” Apparently, then, el-Sisi is saying that the problem is not Islam’s sacred texts themselves, but interpretations of them that have become widespread and even mainstream. So apparently he fits into the camp of those who say that Islam properly understood will not give rise to violence, terrorism and supremacism.
Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!
I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.
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 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.
A “religious revolution” that will limit the capacity of Islam to incite violence. This is all to the good. El-Sisi drew back from acknowledging that there is a problem not just in “thinking” but in “religion,” but his statement is nonetheless positive, as a massive reconsideration of violent and supremacist aspects of Islam is indeed much needed. The thing is, if it is undertaken honestly, it will lead not just to a reevaluation of “thinking” (the interpretation of texts) but of “religion” (the texts themselves), and the scholars of al-Azhar and others are almost certain not to allow that. El-Sisi is no doubt aware of that. The fact that he made this speech anyway, and challenged the scholars to find some way forward so that Muslims could live in peace with non-Muslims, is a testament to his courage.
Will the “religious revolution” that he calls for actually come about? The odds against it are prohibitive. But even staking out his position in this way may further enable el-Sisi to act to restrict the power and influence of political Islam in Egypt.