Al Azhar calls for reforming the notion of "citizenship" to fight extremism and violence
by Fady Noun

Top Shia religious official attends interfaith conference organised by main Sunni institution. Twelve Churches from the Arab world were invited as well. Patriarch al-Rahi focuses on Lebanon’s way of belonging and living together. Al Azhar imam says that all citizens are equal and that Christians cannot be considered a minority, which has “negative” connotations.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – "Al Azhar represents me and represents Qom and Najaf,” said Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan, head of Lebanon’s Shia Higher Council, causing a stir yesterday, at the two-day Islamic-Christian conference on "Freedom and Citizenship: Diversity and Integration” organised by Al Azhar in Cairo.

Sheikh Kabalan’s presence was a first. Until now, Shia scholars took part in Al Azhar conferences and meetings in their personal capacity only. The Ja‘fari mufti welcomed the initiative in a great show of solidarity, as a sign of rapprochement between Sunnis and Shias.

"An Ummah that tears itself apart from within ceases to be an Ummah," said Sheikh Kabalan, who even went so far as to say that the liberation of Jerusalem comes after the necessity for Sunnis and Shias to "To be together in God".

The Shia official also called for a return of Egypt to its role as "guide" of the Arab world, and invited Tehran and Riyadh to talk to each other.

As its title indicates, the conference calls for an end rather than a reform of the notion of "dhimmitude". In fact, faced with a rising tide of fundamentalist Muslim currents in which this notion generates discrimination, exclusion and violence, updating it is needed in war-torn societies where Islam is the majority religion, as well as in Western societies where Islam is a minority, but where it aspires to a political role.

Conscious of the urgency, and apparently spurred by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Grand Imam of El-Azhar invited almost as many Christians as Muslims to speak at the Cairo conference.

As the only Arab country whose president is Christian, sll of Lebanon’s communities were represented at the symposium. It must also be noted that the Muslim co-chairman of the National Committee for Dialogue, Mohammad Sammak, is one of the conference’s main backers.

Christian speakers included the Maronite Patriarch, Card Beshara al-Rahi, Maronite Archbishop of Beirut, Bishop Boulos Matar, one of the two co-presidents of the National Committee for Dialogue Hares Shehab, Adyan Foundation president Fadi Daou, former minister Tarek Mitri, Prof Antoine Messarra, and Constitutional Council member and former president Amine Gemayel.

In general, according to a source at the conference, el-Azhar brought together representatives of 12 churches in the Arab world, ranging from Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako to the Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem, Younan Mounib (president of the Lutheran World Federation). This is a sign of its determination to recognise the richness and legitimacy of such diversity both within the Arab world and among the churches.

"Who disregards the contribution of Christians to Arab civilisation ignores all of history," said Arab League secretary general at the inaugural session of the conference. He also spoke about the notion of "dhimmitude" in Islam, which provides a religious basis for the civic inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Imam of Al-Azhar himself considers this anachronistic and "non-scientific".

Efforts to ground the notion of citizenship and civic affiliation on rational bases stems, in particular, on historical references dating back to the early days of Islam. The Madinah Pact concluded by the Prophet with Jewish and Christian tribes of the time was mentioned in particular. This pact, it seems, puts forward an egalitarian society whose members enjoy the same rights and are called to defensive solidarity and peaceful coexistence.

For the Imam of El-Azhar, "all citizens are equal and Christians cannot be considered a minority, a term loaded with negative connotations."

For Adyan Foundation president Fr Fadi Daou, whose concept of "inclusive citizenship in diversity" is beginning to be popular, the reform of the notion of citizenship will remain incomplete if it is not accompanied by a reform of the notion of the state, and if Islam does not adopt the concept of a "civil" state.

It is precisely this type of state that the Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi mentioned in his address. The head of the Maronite Church spoke of a median solution "between Muslim theocracy", marked by the confusion of the civil and religious and Western "atheocracy", marked by total divorce.

The patriarch underlined the benefits of a shared citizenship "capable of creating a sense of belonging and assuring coexistence that he defines as" the essence of the Lebanese model."

Not satisfied with addressing this aspect of citizenship, the patriarch went on to talk about one of the root causes of the geopolitical crisis that is shaking the Arab world, namely the place taken by Islam in lieu of Arab nationalism as an actor of history.

He stressed the need to rely on the notion of Arabism as a the “basis of civilisation" and the development of civil liberties, as opposed to the Islamic state, and the "Ummah" as a locus for religious discrimination between compatriots.

For his part, Sheikh Abdel Latif Derian turned to the model of living together, pluralism and the recognition of the other, but stopped short of a "civil state", speaking instead of a State "of good and just governance".

Today, Wednesday, was reserved for political speeches. The day will be marked by the address of Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Although officially invited to the symposium, his speech will be delivered by Minister Pierre Raffoul.