01/21/2011, 00.00
ISLAM - VATICAN

Al-Azhar against the Vatican: politics and pettiness

by Bernardo Cervellera
Behind the decision to freeze dialogue with the Holy See, the rejection of the presence in the Vatican delegation of an expert in Islam of Jordanian nationality, a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. But also political expediency. Al-Azahr condemned the suicide of the Tunisian that sparked the popular revolt and fall of Ben Ali.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The decision to freeze dialogue with the Vatican by the Islamic University of Al-Azhar, seems to many a bolt from the blue, which threatens to cause a clash between Christians and Muslims worldwide. The dialogue – heretofore always friendly - between the Holy See and the world’s highest institution of Sunni Islam, dates back to the '90s. Its positive progress was undoubtedly thanks to the personality of the imam of the time, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, who died last March 10, 2010. As of March 19 of the same year, his successor became Imam Mohamed Ahmed al-Tayyeb (see photo). He, January 1st last, criticized Benedict XVI for expressing solidarity with Coptic Christians, accusing him of "interference" in the internal affairs of Egypt.

In fact, the tension with Al-Azhar dates to January 1. In the run up to a meeting that should have taken place in the coming weeks, the Islamic University had requested that the Vatican remove one person in particular from its delegation: Fr. Khaled Akasheh, from Jordan, an expert on Islam, a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who to date had been in charge of relations with the Islamic University.

Msgr. Akasheh is among the most qualified people in dialogue with Islam. He was in the Catholic-Muslim Forum in 2008, following the famous letter of 138 Muslim scholars to the Pope, and engaged in dialogue with Tehran’s Organizations of Islamic Culture.

The Vatican pointed out that in prior arrangements for dialogue, it is written that each delegation has the right freely to choose its members. But Al-Azhar had insisted that if his name  is not removed, it would interrupt dialogue.

However, this friction - and threats to freeze dialogue - have far deeper roots. Al-Azhar’s reasons for not wanting Fr. Akasheh are unclear. It is probable that they do not want someone who understands Arabic, who is an Arab, who understands Islam (Mgr Akasheh knows the Koran in depth), in order to feel free, not to be judged (or held to account).

The criticism of the pope, his expression of solidarity for the Coptic community judged as "interference in internal affairs" of Egypt, are thus only instrumental, a way to ostensibly cover up, the most petty of reasons.

But there is another element to consider: the link between Al-Azhar and its traditional support for the Egyptian political power. Hosni Mubarak, is a moderate Islamic leader, eager to advance the country towards secularism – also a demand of Coptic Christians, continually discriminated against in terms of legislation and social development. To this end, Mubarak is pushing ahead in his attempt to exclude fundamentalists from the political framework, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. In an attempt to determine the next presidential election in his favour, Mubarak is trying not to upset the Muslim world. Critics of the Vatican have this aim: lay the blame on the Christian and Western Pope, thus stroking the frustrations of the Muslims towards the (so called) Christian West. Al-Azhar has simply latched on to this trend.

How much weight will this decision carry? Will the rest of the Muslim world follow the line of the "splendid" Sunni university? In our opinion it is not likely. Al Azhar, which is funded almost entirely by Saudi Arabia, is representative of a very traditional Islam and is seen by many Islamic institutions as "too dusty and outdated”. While Tunisia and the Arab world grapple with the struggle and suffering for the future of Middle Eastern society, tackling the problems of human rights, democracy, despotism, poverty and the economy, Al-Azhar has limited itself to merely stating that Islam is against suicide, in some way condemning all those unfortunates who have set themselves on fire out of a despair caused by poverty and injustice. And yet, the sacrifice of these people has fuelled the revolt that led to the fall of Ben Ali and is shaking the Middle East.

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