05/02/2017, 16.39
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For Islam Al-Behairy, pope's visit, a missed opportunity for Al-Azhar

by Loula Lahham

Islam Al-Behairy was sentenced to five years in jail for criticising the Sunni institution. In December he received a presidential pardon. Francis's visit is an honour and an example of tolerance. The peace conference is a media success, but without consequences for the fight against terrorism. The books used by al-Azhar incite violence. Ahmad Al-Tayeb is a perpetual contradiction.

Cairo (AsiaNews) - Islam Al-Behairy is a Muslim intellectual who was released recently from jail after an Egyptian court convicted him for criticising al-Azhar, the foremost Sunni institution in the Muslim world. His remarks were deemed defamatory towards the Muslim religion.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, later reduced to one, and last December, he benefitted from a presidential pardon. Thus, he is back to his critical and scholarly activity.

Al-Behairy has made several appeals to reform the religious discourse and has called for a new interpretation of classical texts of Islamic jurisprudence. In his opinion, these texts contain passages that are a real hymn to violence.

During the conversation, the scholar gave a personal reading of the address by Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayeb before Pope Francis at the international peace conference promoted by the Islamic University on 28 April. Here is his interview with AsiaNews:

What do you think of Pope Francis’ visit, who repeatedly rejected the link between violence and Islam?

It was a great honour for us that the pope came to Egypt. He talked a lot about Egypt here and before, and he expressed his condolences for all the losses the country suffered. In my opinion, he embodies perfectly the teachings of Christianity, such as tolerance, and avoided pinpointing the real causes behind religious violence. He is in fact trying to turn the page and start a new beginning with the representatives of Islam. This so-called peace conference has had huge media success on a global scale, but it will not change anything on the ground. There is nothing specific about the fight against terrorism. Those who think that that religious terrorism will step back are dreamers. It's still too early. No one really wants to oppose these ideologies. This is why Daesh [Arabic acronym for the Islamic State] will continue its action.

In his address, the grand imam of al-Azhar stated that there are no logical justifications for violence, other than postmodern ideology and the desire of some powers to sell weapons. In his view, these are the only reasons for violence. What do you think?

What he said does not make any sense. Were it so, the Islamic State would have promoted post-modern ideas. This is not even a possibility. My personal research never led me to believe that Daesh has a postmodern ideology or possesses a notion of existentialism, to give an example. It is as if someone told us that the sun does not shine at all during the day.

As for arms trafficking, I am really astonished. I do not understand how the sheikh of al-Azhar could have said such a thing. If he believes that terrorism is due solely to arms trafficking, we are really facing a serious problem. The person called to lead the fight against religious terrorism does not even know the causes of its existence.

All of Egypt has to deal with the problem because al-Azhar is first and foremost an institution tied to the state. Let me repeat: If the reasons for religious terrorism are postmodern ideas and arms trafficking, we live in the dream world. There are in fact texts in our classical jurisprudence that incite violence. We see people blowing themselves up, killing dozens of people, because they have read texts that give them carte blanche to kill anyone, and this for the simple reason that they have an unshakable faith that they are doing the right thing for God, immolating themselves and killing many other people along the way. This is not just about arms trafficking. I call upon the Egyptian government to review meticulously the views of Sheikh Al-Tayeb. Because if that is his definition of terrorism, and if that is the reason and its consequences, according to his way of thinking, the state will never be able to put an end to the violence.

The grand imam also talked about the wars of religion and the fact that they always existed in all faiths. He mentioned the Crusades and the World Wars . . .

Nowhere does it say in any history books that the Crusades had religious reasons as their basis. These were purely politically motivated. In 1994, Pope John Paul II apologised on behalf of Europe. Again, there was no religious dimension in the world wars. I do not know if the sheikh realises this or not, but the books used to teach in his institution have no other interpretation but incitement to violence. Unfortunately, these interpretations are not at all wrong. I could also add that the problem is not our erroneous interpretation of this discourse. Terrorism is directly linked to the teachings of our texts, with their own natural and logical understanding, which dates back to a thousand years ago. I would like the sheikh to apologise for this and for what the Muslims did in the Middle Ages and in modern times.

What do you mean? What should he exactly do?

I call on al-Azhar to stop showing to the world books written by certain medieval imams, which it sells as the legacy of true Islam. Because what is in these books is what Daesh does literally, to the last comma.

In his address, the great imam condemned postmodern interpretations, experimental philosophy, and the spiritual void that they cause. Do you agree to this point?

I think that the sheikh of al-Azhar badly chose the words for his address. He should first understand the reasons behind terrorism in order to counteract them. This peace conference leads nowhere. It is a comedy far from reality.

The great imam does not want to open up to new interpretations, but at the same time calls for the purification of the image of religion. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Of course, it is contradiction. If he really wants to counter what is happening, he would listen to those who ask him to re-read these texts and say that what is in them does not correspond to the truth. Past imams blurred our way of seeing things; they have sinned against Islam for over 1400 years. They hurt our people, the image of Islam, and even the relations of Islam with other religions. The sheikh does not want to talk about a new interpretation. He is fiercely opposed it and goes after those who favour it. In fact, he is a source of perpetual contradiction. In a statement addressed to the West, he says that Islam does not call for killing apostates. But in Egypt, he lets himself say that Islam encourages to do so.

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