Just a week before the horrific assault by two Islamic extremists on the Paris office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a Muslim, gave a remarkable speech before an audience of religious leaders at the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Speaking on New Year’s Day, Aal-Sisi called for a “revolution” in Islam — not the kind we see unfolding in Syria or Iraq, if one can call such murderous destruction revolutionary.
Indeed, Al-Sisi’s revolution envisions a religious shift that sheds the radical rhetoric responsible for marginalizing the Muslim faith and terrorizing its nonadherents.
Instead, such thinking, he said, should be replaced with an “enlightened perspective” that embraces peace.
In Al-Sisi’s own words: “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!”
The Egyptian leader’s Cairo speech could not have presaged the events that were about to unfold in one of Europe’s most storied capitals only days later. Nor could he have anticipated the slaughter of as many as 2,000 men, women and children in Nigeria by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram in the early days of 2015. Yet those atrocities were still in many ways entirely predictable.
The world, Western states in particular, sadly assume that vicious and increasingly commonplace attacks on innocents are the responsibility of radicalized fanatics who kill while invoking the name of Allah. Days before law enforcement and intelligence agencies or political officials identify a culprit, or before an al-Qaeda cell can post its video claiming responsibility, most observers have already attributed the horrendous crime in question to the most notorious agents of terror in the current age.
It’s a reality that Al-Sisi audaciously concedes.
“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!” he says, but clearly Al-Sisi and many of his moderate cohorts accept the possibility that this perception of Islam — held by large swaths of the modern world for understandable reasons — left unchallenged may eventually lead to the religion’s self-destruction. More practically, it could also cause the ultimate failure of most states that currently constitute the Middle East.
Whether the bold challenge to members of his own religion is an act of courage or one of self-preservation, the Egyptian leader has done what many in the West, even in the face of recent violence, remain reluctant to do: identify the problem in no uncertain terms.
On the contrary, White House spokesman Josh Earnest tied himself in knots while painstakingly avoiding use of the word “Islamic” when referring to the administration’s efforts to combat violent extremism.
Disappointingly, it seems that Al-Sisi’s bold remarks failed to inspire stronger support from the administration. But this is the same administration that failed to voice support for the courageous anti-regime protests in Iran in 2009. To support the type of Islamic reformation Al-Sisi described, the West has to make clear which side it is on.
Like his predecessor Anwar Sadat, Al-Sisi may suffer in the Muslim world for his own recent declarations. But his rhetorical challenge to Muslim extremists should not go unanswered, and it should inspire stronger words from U.S. leaders who have been asking for this kind of revolution all along.
Cynthia M. Allen is a Star-Telegram editorial writer/columnist. 817-390-7166.