The president of the United States has somehow put himself on the opposite side of an Islamic theological debate from the Muslim president of Egypt.
President Obama has aligned himself with revivalist groups — including the Muslim Brotherhood — that are trying to promote traditionalist Islam, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has begun championing Islamic modernizers.
Those modernizers want to defang the militant and supremacist Islam that has reigned since Islam emerged in the 700s. In contrast, the revivalists — and their allied jihadis — want to regain the regional power that traditionalist Islam held until roughly 1800.
The Islamic debate was dramatically exposed Jan. 1 when Sisi called a public meeting with the leaders of Islam’s leading seminary, which is based in Cairo.
“Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants — that is seven billion — so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” Sisi said in front of the TV cameras and religious leaders at Al Azhar.
Sisi tried to portray Islam’s traditional doctrines as outmoded ideas wrongly attached to the faultless core of Islam. “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!”
“You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective. … 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 [Muslim community] is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.”
In contrast, Obama has repeatedly praised Islam as a “religion of peace,” and says that jihadis are violating the established beliefs of Islam.
His attorney general, Eric Holder, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Jan. 11 that “we are at war with terrorists who commit these heinous acts and who use Islam, they use a corrupted version of Islam, to justify their actions.”
When quizzed by ABC’s George Stephanopolous the same day, Holder repeated the same traditionalist message. “We are at war with those who would commit terrorist attacks and who would corrupt the Islamic faith in the way that they do to try to justify their terrorist actions,” Holder said.
Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, repeated Obama’s theological claim Jan. 7, shortly after Muslim revivalists murdered eight journalists, two cops and two other people at the Paris office of a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. “There are some individuals that are using a peaceful religion and grossly distorting it,” he claimed.
“We have enjoyed significant success in enlisting leaders in the Muslim community, like I said, both in the United States and around the world to condemn that kind of messaging … and we’re going to redouble those efforts in the days and weeks ahead,” Earnest said.
On Jan. 11, the White House announced it would hold a Feb. 18 meeting to showcase its efforts to prevent “violent extremism” in the United States. The announcement didn’t mention Islam.
The administration’s current policy recruits Brotherhood-aligned groups in the United States to identify and re-educate potential jihadis living in semi-segregated Muslim communities in the United States.
The White House’s continued support for traditionalist Islam is drawing new criticism. “The Obama White House is now a propaganda center for what Earnest described as ‘peaceful’ Islam,” said a Jan. 9 statement from Newt Gingrich.
“This is either madness or cowardice,” he added. “It could be madness because President Obama and his team are so out of touch with reality that they see themselves as the definers of a 1,500-year-old religion.”
“It could be cowardice because our national elite in both parties … is afraid to face the reality that millions of people around the world, many of them motivated by religion, hate the West and want sincerely to destroy it,” he added.
Obama has pushed the same revivalist message since 2009, when he flew to Cairo to give a major speech to Muslims, dubbed, “A New Beginning.”
Obama began the 2009 speech by praising the same seminary that Sisi reprimanded.
“For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. And together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress,” he said.
Prior to the speech, Obama insisted that some members of the then-suppressed group be allowed to attend.
Once the Muslim Brotherhood revivalist movement narrowly won Egypt’s presidency in June 2012, Obama tried to help them reconcile their Islamic worldview with the attitudes needed for stable government.
Since 2009, Obama and his deputies have mostly partnered with the revivalists who are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, not with the fewer modernizers promoted by Sisi.
In the United States, his deputies have privately and publicly met with the revivalist groups’ allies hundreds of times, and he has invited them to the White House. For example, Obama has met with Haris Tarin, D.C. head of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who has called for the U.S. government to stigmatize speech critical of Islam.
That’s very different from Sisi, who is trying to suppress the Brotherhood movement and to push al-Azhar’s Islamic leaders toward modernity.
Sisi made his demand for modernity in front of TV cameras, and then underlined his modernist approach by joining the head of Egypt’s remaining Christian community of roughly eight million people at a New Year Mass.
“It is very important that the world sees us as Egyptians. … We are setting an example from right here in Egypt. That is why it is not acceptable to say anything except that we are Egyptians. We must be Egyptians only. Yes, Egyptians. Yes, we are one hand. … We will treat each other with respect. And we treat each other with love, a deep and sincere love,” Sisi said.
Sisi’s presence at the Mass was a first for an Egyptian head of state, and it comes only two years after Egypt’s electorate overwhelmingly elected two militantly revivalist parties to run Egypt’s government. In July 2012, Sisi overthrew the revivalists amid huge public protest against their slow-motion, economy-wrecking imposition of orthodox Islam.
Obama’s distance from Sisi isn’t surprising, Robert Spencer, an expert and critic of Islam, told The Daily Caller. “Obama believes that Islam is a ‘religion of peace,’ he probably doesn’t think it needs any reform, and thus regards Sisi’s recommendations as unnecessary.”
Sisi’s embrace of modernity, and of Egypt’s Christian community, is far more politically dramatic than anything imaginable in the United States.
Al-Azhar isn’t just the Harvard of Islam — it’s the intellectual partner of the Brotherhood and its various jihadi groups, including Hamas in Gaza and the gunmen who killed Sisi’s predecessor, President Anwar Sadat, in 1981.
Unsurprisingly, the Brotherhood’s supporters oppose Sisi’s push.
Pro-Sisi “Egyptians shouldn’t worry about my not supporting his call for ‘religious revolution,'” said a tweet from Mohamed Elibiary, a Texas-based Brotherhood supporter who served as an adviser until late 2014 in the Obama’s Department of Homeland Security.