Just one month before the Paris massacre of Charlie Hebdo and his staff, the prestigious Sunni Muslim Al-Azhar Institute organized and held a conference at its headquarters in Cairo to address worldwide terrorism. It was entitled, “Al-Azhar in the face of extremism and terrorism.” After two full days of discourse focused on the ISIS (Islamic State Iraq Syria) terror group, Al-Azhar concluded with a statement aligned with an earlier one made by President Obama. ISIS is not Islamic. The President saw fit to omit this opinion from his subsequent speech at the UN, but Al-Ahzar is sticking to it.
Al-Azhar religious scholars (an autonomous body separate from the state but financed by taxpayers) form the center for Koranic interpretation and spiritual guidance to the largest Muslim sect in the world, the Sunnis, estimated at one billion believers — eighty percent of the worldwide Muslim community. If the religion of Islam were governed by a hierarchy of leadership, Al-Azhar would surely be its head.
Renowned for its doctrinal instruction to imams and its slightest pronouncement (fatwa) obeyed by Muslim followers, Al-Azhar wields a subtle but powerful authority over Muslim believers. Its influence over the West’s perception of Islam is as great. In this capacity, Al-Ahzar has the power to significantly contribute to the eradication of Muslim violence around the world. But instead, what has its impact been as spiritual head with a state role?
Unlike the American president, Al-Azhar would not condemn ISIS when put to the test. Surely, if Al-Ahzar posited that ISIS terror is Islamic then a denunciation of ISIS’ actions would be a condemnation of its own doctrine. But, if ISIS terror is not Islam as Al-Ahzar proclaims what is the harm done with condemning it? This contradiction alone clues us in on a leadership that is allowing if not fostering crimes against humanity.
This ambiguity coming from the reverential summit of Islamic scholarship transmits confusion and inauthenticity to the West which seeks to find a benign Islam to tolerate. Al-Ahzar’s unwillingness to clarify Islam in relation to current realities and the relative terms sought to define them – Islam, Islamist, Islamic terror, terror, Islamic extremism, extremism, etc. – is suspicious at best. Anselm Choudary, an outlier, does a better job at being concise and consistent on the Hannity show.
No matter how many millions march for “freedom and tolerance” in Paris and the anti-terror cause in the days following the Hebdo attacks little will change without Al-Azhar Institute — the preeminent Islamic authority — making clear, concise statements to properly identify and condemn violence by Muslims. It could begin by reversing a silence dating back to its 880 AD origins regarding Muslim attacks on the Coptic Christians. This Cairo institute has never condemned the violence or the propaganda of Muslims against Christians within its own state. Tragically, this lack of responsibility has advanced jihad throughout the state and the world.
Al-Ahar excluded Jews from this worldwide summit on terrorism. Its failure to invite synagogues and Jewish leaders was not disguised by its otherwise inclusiveness. Joining the Egyptian Mufti, Dr. Shawki Allam, Al-Azhar University chairman and deputy, and six hundred Muslim scholars (including those of minor sects) from 120 countries were heads of the Eastern Orthodox churches, including Egyptian Copts, and Vatican representatives. Protestant denominations from the West were present, and speakers from communities persecuted by terror groups (Pakistan, Syria, and others) attended.
Did this important conference at the heart of Sunni-Muslim religious learning hold the least promise for genuine examination of worldwide terror? Not really. We’ve seen Al-Ahzar fail to denounce Muslim Brotherhood members as terrorists when the pro-democracy presidency of Al Sisi banned the organization from Egypt last year. Also, the Grand Mufti of Al-Ahzar, who is required by law to confirm or deny death sentences issued by the Egyptian courts, reversed the death penalty of Badeh and others — all convicted murderers from the Muslim Brotherhood. So far, the Sunni authority of Al-Ahzar has placed itself at odds with Muslims in the Egyptian streets and the rest of the modern world presumably in order to remain true to Islamic doctrine.
At the conference, a Mufti from Nigeria gave a speech in which he recognized ISIS as a terror organization. Generally, any recognition or instruction stated by a Muslim cleric anywhere is considered a fatwa duly acknowledged and followed by all Muslims around the world. In a panic, Al-Ahzar countered the Mufti by issuing a statement negating the Mufti’s point — overriding it and declaring that ISIS is not a terror organization. The Al-Ahzar statement went on to say that members of ISIS are not Muslim and their actions are not that of Muslims. Then, for good measure, Al-Ahzar emphasized another Koranic verse in order to warn the Nigerian Mufti that it is not his place to condemn ISIS. In short, the reminder stated that any action taken by one Muslim (ISIS members) cannot be judged by another Muslim (Nigerian Mufti). It didn’t matter that Al-Ahzar just declared ISIS a non-Muslim group.
In reaction to Al-Azhar statement, the Egyptian media, attempting to protect the image of Islam, demanded that Al-Azhar label, identify and condemn ISIS as explicitly “Kafir” (non-Muslim) in order to further the deception that terror groups in operation could readily be regarded as being from non-Muslim sources. In response, Dr. Abbas Shoman of Al-Ahzar claimed that the institute had never condemned any believer by disavowing his Muslim identity (assigning him “Kafir”) – a flat out lie. The well-known Egyptian, Farag Fuda, a secular Muslim scholar and human rights advocate critical of Islam and Al-Ahzar, was accused of blasphemy by Al-Ahzar clerics and condemned. The “fatwa” dutifully led to Fuda’s murder, the intended consequence.
Traced to lies and murder, Al-Ahzar Institute is solely responsible in its actions and teachings for setting the common ethical underpinning of Islamic society. The world would be mistaken to rely upon the leadership of this esteemed Islamic institution for a solution to the world’s crisis.
Ashraf Ramelah, founder and president of Voice of the Copts, conveys the truth on behalf of Egypt’s persecuted Copts. He is a board member of Stop Islamization of Nations