All the condolences and hand-wringing of world leaders about yesterday’s attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo will not put a dent in the problem of radical Islam.
A voice of moderation from a major Islamic leader, though, might make a difference. Yet the West almost entirely ignored one of the most remarkable speeches coming out of the Middle East in memory. On New Year’s Day, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave an address at Al-Azhar, the oldest and most prestigious religious school of the Sunni world. He said:
“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (multinational community of Muslim believers) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! 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!
“Is it possible that 1.6 billion [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible! … 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.”
Sisi realizes that the specter of Islamism will not be diminished by political action or suppression – including by Egypt’s own forces. Ideology must be matched by ideology; a different Islam needs to be preached and taught in tens of thousands of mosques and madrassas – including the small ones, not just the large ones that welcome camera crews.
Sisi’s speech was a rare inversion of truth-to-power. Sisi used his political power to coerce the imams (whose funding comes from the state) to change their rhetoric. More importantly, he appealed to their sense of truth about their own religious convictions. Have they not made a mockery of their faith? When billions of people around the globe think of Islam, do they think “the religion of peace,” or do they think of attacks on chocolate shops in Sydney; beheaded Christian children in Iraq; and schoolgirls sold as sex slaves in Nigeria? Only a global chorus of Muslim voices saying, “Not in our names, and not in the Name of Allah!” will counter the gruesome images non-Muslims see.
Why did the West completely ignore what should have been a welcome call for a religious revolution? No doubt many have reservations – as they should – about someone whose rise to power was hardly an exercise in Jeffersonian democracy.
But they miss the point. More significant than the speaker’s identity was what he understood about the receptivity of his audience. Sisi believed that the imams would “get it.” He felt that enough citizens in the oldest and most populous state in the Muslim Middle East care about what the rest of the world thinks, and are unhappy that their faith is generally reviled and detested. Islam could change its image, but only after a reconstruction – a revolution, as Sisi called it – that would have to come from the clergy.
For years, many Westerners (although not enough) have demanded that Muslim leaders – without apologizing or equivocating – be quick to condemn extremism, suicide bombing, and terrorism. Some Muslim organizations have pushed back, saying they are not responsible for actions by a segment of the population whose views they reject.
Sisi’s groundbreaking statement vindicates those Westerners who have continually held the feet of Muslim leaders to the fire. Only such pressure can produce the changes we need, which must come from within the Muslim community itself. At the same time, we need to resist those who coddle the fence-sitters, or even facilitate the flow of the venom. (One of the worst offenders is Twitter, whose feeds pump the toxic stuff to millions of potential recruits. Unlike Facebook, Twitter refuses any responsible oversight of what it transmits.)
Though Sisi’s address at Al-Azhar gained little attention in the West, his message may someday have a greater impact than all the crowds of Tahrir Square, which are now but a faded memory.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the center’s Director of Interfaith Affairs.