There’s nothing like knowing Arabic—that is, being privy to the Muslim world’s internal conversations on a daily basis—to disabuse oneself of the supposed differences between so-called “moderate” and “radical” Muslims.
Consider the case of Egypt’s Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb. Hardly one to be dismissed as a fanatic who is ignorant of the true tenets of Islam, Tayeb’s credentials and career are impressive: he holds a Ph. D in Islamic philosophy from the Paris-Sorbonne University; formerly served as Grand Imam of Egypt, meaning he was the supreme interpreter of Islamic law; formerly served for seven years as president of Al-Azhar University, considered the world’s leading institution of Islamic learning, and is currently its Grand Imam. A 2013 survey named Tayeb the “most influential Muslim in the world.”
He is also regularly described by Western media and academia as a “moderate.” Georgetown University presents him as “a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue.” According to The National, “He is considered to be one of the most moderate and enlightened Sunni clerics in Egypt.” In February 2015, the Wall Street Journal praised him for making “one of the most sweeping calls yet for educational reform in the Muslim world to combat the escalation of extremist violence.”
Most recently he was invited to the Vatican and warmly embraced by Pope Francis. Al Azhar had angrily cut off all ties with the Vatican five years earlier when, in the words of U.S. News, former Pope Benedict “had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year’s bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased.”
Pope Francis referenced his meeting with Tayeb as proof that Muslims are peaceful: “I had a long conversation with the imam, the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar University, and I know how they [Muslims] think. They seek peace, encounter.”
How does one reconcile Tayeb’s benevolent image in the West with his reality in Egypt?
For instance, all throughout the month of Ramadan last June, Tayeb appeared on Egyptian TV explaining all things Islamic—often in ways that do not suggest that Islam seeks “peace, encounter.”
During one episode, he reaffirmed a phrase that is almost exclusively associated with radicals: in Arabic, al-din wa’l-dawla, meaning “the religion and the polity”—a phrase that holds Islam to be both a religion and a body of rules governing society and state.
He did so in the context of discussing the efforts of Dr. Ali Abdel Raziq, a true reformer and former professor at Al Azhar who wrote a popular but controversial book in 1925, one year after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate. Titled, in translation, Islam and the Roots of Governance, Raziq argued against the idea of resurrecting the caliphate, saying that Islam is a personal religion that should no longer be mixed with politics or governance.
Raziq was vehemently criticized by many clerics and even fired from Al Azhar. Concluded Tayeb, with assent:
Al Azhar’s position was to reject his position, saying he forfeited his credentials and his creed. A great many ulema—in and out of Egypt and in Al Azhar—rejected his work and its claim, that Islam is a religion but not a polity. Instead, they reaffirmed that Islam is both a religion and a polity [literally, al-din wa’l-dawla].
The problem with the idea that Islam must govern the whole of society should be obvious: Sharia, or Islamic law, which is what every Muslim including Tayeb refer to when they say that Islam is a polity, is fundamentally at odds with modern notions of human rights and, due to its supremacist and “anti-infidel” aspects, the source of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims the world over.
That this is the case was made clear during another of Tayeb’s recent episodes. On the question of apostasy in Islam—whether a Muslim has the right to abandon Islam for another or no religion—the “radical” position is well known: unrepentant apostates are to be punished with death.
Yet Tayeb made the same pronouncement. During another Ramadan episode he said that “Contemporary apostasy presents itself in the guise of crimes, assaults, and grand treason, so we deal with it now as a crime that must be opposed and punished.”
While his main point was that those who do not follow Islam are prone to being criminals, he especially emphasized those who exhibit their apostasy as being a “great danger to Islamic society. And that’s because his apostasy is a result of his hatred for Islam and a reflection of his opposition to it. In my opinion, this is grand treason.”
Tayeb added what all Muslims know: “Those learned in Islamic law [al-fuqaha] and the imams of the four schools of jurisprudence consider apostasy a crime and agree that the apostate must either renounce his apostasy or else be killed.” He even cited a hadith, or tradition, of Islam’s prophet Muhammad calling for the execution of Muslims who quit Islam.
Meanwhile, when speaking to Western and non-Muslim audiences, as he did during his recent European tour, Tayeb tells them what they want to hear. Speaking before an international forum he asserted that “The Quran states that there is no compulsion in religion,” and that “attempts to force people into a religion are against the will of God.” Similarly, when meeting with the Italian Senate’s Foreign Policy Commission Pier Ferdinando Casini and his accompanying delegation, Tayeb “asserted that Islam is the religion of peace, cooperation and mercy…. Islam believes in freedom of expression and human rights, and recognizes the rights of all human beings.”
While such open hypocrisy—also known as taqiyya—may go unnoticed in the West, in Egypt, human rights groups often call him out. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights recently issued a statement accusing Al Azhar of having two faces: one directed at the West and which preaches freedom and tolerance, and one directed to Muslims and which sounds not unlike ISIS:
In March 2016 before the German parliament, Sheikh al-Tayeb made unequivocally clear that religious freedom is guaranteed by the Koran, while in Cairo he makes the exact opposite claims…. Combating terrorism and radical religious ideologies will not be accomplished by directing at the West and its international institutions religious dialogues that are open, support international peace and respect freedoms and rights, while internally promoting ideas that contribute to the dissemination of violent extremism through the media and educational curricula of Al Azhar and the mosques.
At any rate, if Tayeb holds such draconian views on apostasy from Islam—that is, when he’s speaking in Arabic to fellow Muslims—what is his position concerning the Islamic State? Last December, Tayeb was asked why Al Azhar refuses to issue a formal statement denouncing the genocidal terrorist organization as lapsing into a state of kufr, that is, of becoming un-Islamic, or “infidel.” Tayeb responded:
Al Azhar cannot accuse any [Muslim] of being a kafir [infidel], as long as he believes in Allah and the Last Day—even if he commits every atrocity…. I cannot denounce ISIS as un-Islamic, but I can say that they cause corruption on earth.
As critics, such as Egyptian talk show host Ibrahim Eissa pointed out, however, “It’s amazing. Al Azhar insists ISIS are Muslims and refuses to denounce them. Yet Al Azhar never ceases to shoot out statements accusing novelists, writers, thinkers—anyone who says anything that contradicts their views—of lapsing into a state of infidelity. But not when it comes to ISIS!”
This should not be surprising considering that many insiders accuse Al Azhar of teaching and legitimizing the atrocities that ISIS commits. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah Nasr, a scholar of Islamic law and Al Azhar graduate once exposed his alma mater in a televised interview:
It [Al Azhar] can’t [condemn the Islamic State as un-Islamic]. The Islamic State is a byproduct of Al Azhar’s programs. So can Al Azhar denounce itself as un-Islamic? Al Azhar says there must be a caliphate and that it is an obligation for the Muslim world [to establish it]. Al Azhar teaches the law of apostasy and killing the apostate. Al Azhar is hostile towards religious minorities, and teaches things like not building churches, etc. Al Azhar upholds the institution of jizya. Al Azhar teaches stoning people. So can Al Azhar denounce itself as un-Islamic?
Similarly, while discussing how the Islamic State burns some of its victims alive—most notoriously, a Jordanian pilot—Egyptian journalist Yusuf al-Husayni remarked on his satellite program that “The Islamic State is only doing what Al Azhar teaches. He went on to quote from textbooks used in Al Azhar that permit burning people—more specifically, “infidels”—alive.
Meanwhile, Tayeb—the face of and brain behind Al Azhar—holds that Europe “must support all moderate Islamic institutions that adopt the Al-Azhar curriculum,” which “is the most eligible one for educating the youth.” He said this during “a tour [in Germany and France] to facilitate dialogue between the East and the West.”
As for the ongoing persecution of Egypt’s most visible non-Muslim minorities, the Coptic Christians, Tayeb is renowned for turning a blind eye. Despite the well-documented “severe persecution” Christians experience in Egypt; despite the fact that Muslim mobs attack Christians almost “every two to three days” now—recent examples include the burning of churches and Christian homes, the coldblooded murder of a Coptic man defending his grandchild from Muslim bullies, and the stripping, beating, and parading in the nude of a 70-year-old Christian woman—Tayeb recently told Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros that “Egypt represents the ultimate and highest example of national unity” between Muslims and Christians.
Although he vociferously denounces the displacement of non-Egyptian Muslims in Buddhist Myanmar, he doesn’t have a single word for the persecution and displacement of the Copts, that is, his own Egyptian countrymen. Instead he proclaims that “the Copts have been living in Egypt for over 14 centuries in safety, and there is no need for all this artificial concern over them,” adding that “true terrorism was created by the West.”
Indeed, far from speaking up on behalf of Egypt’s Christian minorities, he has confirmed that they are “infidels”—that same label he refused to describe ISIS with. While he did so in a technical manner—correctly saying that, as rejecters of Muhammad’s prophecy, Christians are infidels [kafir]—he also knows that labeling them as such validates all the animosity they feel and experience in Egypt, since the mortal enemy of the Muslim is the infidel.
This is consistent with the fact that Al Azhar encourages enmity for non-Muslims, specifically Coptic Christians, and even incites for their murder. As Egyptian political commentator Dr. Khalid al-Montaser once marveled:
Is it possible at this sensitive time — when murderous terrorists rest on [Islamic] texts and understandings of takfir [accusing Muslims of apostasy], murder, slaughter, and beheading — that Al Azhar magazine is offering free of charge a book whose latter half and every page — indeed every few lines — ends with “whoever disbelieves [non-Muslims] strike off his head”?
The prestigious Islamic university—which co-hosted U.S. President Obama’s 2009 “A New Beginning” speech—has even issued a free booklet dedicated to proving that Christianity is a “failed religion.”
One can go on and on. Tayeb once explained with assent why Islamic law permits a Muslim man to marry a Christian woman, but forbids a Muslim woman from marrying a Christian man: since women by nature are subordinate to men, it’s fine if the woman is an infidel, as her superior Muslim husband will keep her in check; but if the woman is a Muslim, it is not right that she be under the authority of an infidel. Similarly, Western liberals may be especially distraught to learn that Tayeb once boasted, “You will never one day find a Muslim society that permits sexual freedom, homosexuality, etc., etc., as rights. Muslim societies see these as sicknesses that need to be resisted and opposed.”
To recap, while secular Western talking heads that don’t know the first thing about Islam continue squealing about how it is being “misunderstood,” here is arguably the Muslim world’s leading authority confirming many of the cardinal points held by ISIS: he believes that Islam is not just a religion to be practiced privately but rather is a totalitarian system designed to govern the whole of society through the implementation of its human rights abusing Sharia; he supports one of the most inhumane laws, punishment of the Muslim who wishes to leave Islam; he downplays the plight of Egypt’s persecuted Christians, that is, when he’s not inciting against them by classifying them as “infidels”—the worst category in Islam’s lexicon—even as he refuses to denounce the genocidal Islamic State likewise.
Yet this well credentialed and respected scholar of Islam is considered a “moderate” by Western universities and media, from Georgetown University to the Wall Street Journal. He is someone whom Pope Francis trusts, embraces, and quotes to reassure the West of Islam’s peacefulness.
In all fairness of course, Tayeb is neither a “moderate” nor a “radical.” He’s merely a Muslim trying to be true to Islam. Put differently, he’s merely a messenger.
Critics would be advised to take it up with the Message itself.