January 17, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 120

Egypt Rethinks its Nuclear Program Part III: The Nuclear Lobby (Continued)

January 17, 2003 | By Y. Feldner*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 120

The Religious Establishment

Leading elements in Egypt's religious establishment have expressed clear support for developing Arab/Islamic nuclear weapons, based on Koranic verses that they claim permit, and even require, them doing so. The first to support Arab nuclear weapons was Sheikh of Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi in the opening speech at a conference on the future of nuclear strategy held at the University of Asyut in October 1999, with the participation of nuclear scientists from various Arab countries. Sheikh Tantawi explained, "Islam calls for strength, but for logical and just strength that stands by the oppressed until he completely vanquishes the oppressor, because this strength is one of the traits of Allah and one of the traits of divine inspiration."

Quoting from the will of Caliph Abu Bakr,[1] Sheikh Tantawi said that the Caliph had instructed the Muslim commander Khaled ibn Al-Walid to fight the enemy with the sword if the enemy fought him with the sword and to use the spear if the enemy fought him with the spear. Sheikh Tantawi explained: "Had Abu Bakr lived today he would have said to Khaled ibn Al-Walid: 'If they fight you with a nuclear bomb, fight them with a nuclear bomb.' Strength is [one] of the traits of good and wise people who know their obligation towards their God and towards their homeland, and they use this strength in order to defend their faith and their homeland. This is the Sunna that was known to the forefathers of all times, and is known to us as well."

"We must keep up with other peoples in their progress and in their scientific superiority. In Egypt and in the Arab and Islamic countries, we have many scientists. Talking of the nuclear option and of disarmament from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East does not prevent us from getting ready and advancing in all kinds of science, in order to serve truth and morality… Our demand that Israel join the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty does not prevent us from learning and advancing in science until we surpass it and until we act in accordance with Abu Bakr's words to Khaled ibn Al-Walid: 'Fight them with that with which they fight you.' Islam welcomes any force that serves truth and religious precepts and defends the honor of men. Islamic religious law states that every despotic and aggressive power must be eradicated. It should be fought, whatever its strength, and life is decreed by Allah. If Israel has nuclear weapons, then it is the first to be doomed, because it lives in a world that does not fear death. Israel's nuclear weapons do not frighten us; what does frighten us is [the possibility] that we will not wake up and [will] not advance. Welcome the use of nuclear energy for purposes of peace!"[2]

Recently, Al-Azhar University's support for developing nuclear weapons made headlines. The support followed the posting of a Fatwa, issued by the Al-Azhar Religious Ruling Committee, on the Islam Online website. The ruling stated that developing nuclear weapons was a "religious obligation."[3] Al-Azhar Religious Ruling Committee head Sheikh 'Ali Abu Al-Hassan explained to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-'Aam: "… The Muslims must obtain all kinds of weapons, not only nuclear weapons. I refer to arming [ourselves] with might, in accordance with the words of Allah, 'Make ready for them whatever you can of armed strength and of mounted pickets at the frontier, whereby you may daunt the enemy of Allah and your enemy...'"

"Current international circumstances confirm the need for this Fatwa, primarily at a time when Israel and all the enemies of the Islamic nation have this weapon. The Islamic nation's nuclear weapon must be used for self-defense, and for demonstrating power, so that none will [develop] covetous aspirations about the nation. What is happening to the Muslims in all countries of the world is the result of weakness, and if the Muslims obtain this weapon, no one will conspire against them… When North Korea's defense minister threatened to attack America with nuclear weapons, fear was evident on the faces of America's rulers, and they began to negotiate with the Koreans. Obtaining nuclear weapons is a religious obligation, and anyone who gives up on [obtaining] this weapon is a sinner, according to religious law. Preparation in the face of the enemies, and employing all possible means to defend land and honor, should be considered a religious obligation."

"There is consensus among the clerics that any Muslim ruler who does not prepare, does not strengthen himself, and does not fortify himself against his enemy is a sinner. Islam calls for obtaining means of strength, not for aggression but for self-defense. The world and relations between countries are governed today by the logic of power, not by law or morality… Just as it is the Muslims' obligation to obtain their means of strength, the most important of which is nuclear weapons, they are obligated to use this weapon if the others use their weapon. Israel is aiming its nuclear missiles at the Arab capitals, and this arouses fear in the souls of the people. This is the reason for the weakness of the Islamic nation and for the aggression it faces. It would not happen if the Muslims armed themselves with every weapon, including nuclear."

Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan objected to the argument that some weapons are legitimate and others are not, saying, "There are nuclear, chemical, and other weapons in the hands of those who produced them. Are [these weapons] permitted to them and forbidden to us?! The international laws legislated to restrict these weapons are implemented only for the weak countries; in contrast, the strong and large countries – this law does not apply to them."[4]

Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan added, "If a weapon appeared in the hands of one of the nations of the world, whether it was a friendly nation or a hostile nation, the Muslims must obtain this weapon, or a more powerful weapon, and the clerics are in consensus about this."[5]

The Egyptian sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader now residing in Qatar whose rulings are extremely popular in Egypt and across the Sunni Arab world, is also in favor of obtaining nuclear weapons. In a Friday sermon broadcast on Qatari television, Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi said: "I say that the Muslims must obtain this [nuclear] weapon but not use it. We must obtain this weapon, but it is forbidden to use it, because it serves as deterrence and threat, [as the Koran says] 'whereby you may daunt with it the enemy of Allah and your enemy.' This is what is called armed peace – when you have [means] of deterring and frightening the enemy, and then your enemy has no way of waging aggression against you."[6]

The Islam Online website, which discussed the nuclear issue at length, also posted statements by Islamic clerics opposed to Islamic nuclear arming, under the headline "Islam's Clerics Oppose the Use of Nuclear Weapons." However, a close reading shows that these "clerics" are actually two Muslim leaders in the U.S. Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, former head of the Islamic Society of North America, said: "Islam has not defined for us the type of weapon we must use, whether it is the sword or the cannon. But it is opposed to the use of weapons of mass destruction, because Islam teaches us that even in war we are forbidden from attacking civilians and peaceful people who do not fight against the Muslims. According to the precepts of Islam, we are forbidden from attacking animals or killing them, from destroying crops, and from harming water sources, because Allah punishes those who spread corruption on the face of the earth, those who destroy the vegetation and the seed of man. It is important that we remember that it was not the Muslims who invented weapons of mass destruction, and it was not they who presented the world with these bombs. There are today no fewer than 50,000 atom bombs in the world, and all of them are in the hands of non-Muslims."[7]

Taha Jaber al-Alwani, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, added: "It is a fact that Islam sees all people as a single family: Their God is one and they are of the seed of one father and one mother. Therefore, when a quarrel between the members of one family becomes apparent, everyone must lend a hand to finding the best way of settling this quarrel. Weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, and other weapons – must not be used against the members of this single family, because by nature this weapon is unable to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent."[8]

However, the opposition to the view of Al-Azhar and Sheikh Qaradhawi remained within the U.S. Even Sheikh Yousuf Mawlawi, deputy chairman of the European Fiqh Council, said, "If the enemy uses this type of weapon and causes harm to many noncombatant Muslims, we are allowed to treat him identically, until he stops using these means. Identical treatment is a principle that is legitimate in all international norms and laws."[9]

The Journalists

Supporters for the nuclear option are also found among journalists from Egypt's government press. Following India's and Pakistan's nuclear tests, Salameh Ahmad Salameh, a columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "…The latest developments compel the entire Arab region to reconsider the collective nonchalance that has dominated our approach to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We can no longer afford to be negative on this matter: We must take more decisive and daring positions. Calling for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East is no longer enough."[10]

Makram Muhammad Ahmad, editor-in-chief of the government weeklyAl-Musawwar, included the following in his article on preparations for the war on Iraq:"In all honesty, it is every Egyptian's right to ask his government now why it keeps its commitment to the NPT – especially because Cairo's and all the Arab capitals' signing of this treaty was part of a comprehensive agreement, in the framework of which the U.S. made a commitment to oblige Israel to sign the same treaty. Unfortunately, since the last two Arab countries – Oman and Djibouti – signed the treaty in 1995, Washington has turned its back on all its previous commitments, which many Arab capitals saw as deception… What increases suspicion regarding Washington's intentions is that it exploited the last Iraqi crisis in order to deliberately and without warning omit from the preamble to Resolution 1441… a clause… stressing that Iraq's disarmament from weapons of mass destruction should be part of an integrative process aimed at the WMD disarmament of the Middle East… Additionally, there is the American insistence, recently intensified, that Egypt sign the ban on proliferation of biological and chemical weapons, something that Cairo rejected out of the principled position that there must be biological deterrence in the face of Israel's nuclear weapons." The London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which quoted this article, wrote, "The two most prominent individuals who can be relied upon to know the position of [Egypt's] president on critical political issues are [Al-Ahram editor] Ibrahim Nafi' and our friend Makram Muhammad Ahmad."[11]

On this subject, an editorial in Al-Ahram added: "If Israel does not join the NPT, and if it is not subject to inspection… it will influence a trend in all the countries of the region to obtain nuclear weapons, so as to actualize the balance of fear in order to prevent Israel from using nuclear weapons… Nuclear weapons are evil; but India's and Pakistan's experience proves that if countries in any region have this evil weapon, a balance of fear is formed, which leads to peace."[12]

Muhammad Mustafa Al-'Arafi explained, also in Al-Ahram, that "the anarchy in the area of [nuclear] technology that followed the collapse of the U.S.S.R. allowed some more regional powers to obtain weapons of nuclear deterrence – which may reflect negatively on Egypt's regional status." Al-'Arafi proposed developing nuclear capability without actually producing nuclear weapons, until it became necessary.[13]

Also notable is the view of the well-known journalist and long time researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies Wahid Abd Al-Magid, who does not belong to the nuclear lobby but who wrote in 1995 in the Al-Siyassa Al-Dawaliya quarterly, published by the Al-Ahram Institute, that "even if we suppose that Iran can develop nuclear warheads, this will represent a threat to the Arabs before it does to Israel."[14]

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis

[1] It is interesting to note that this will is usually used to demonstrate Islam's desire to avoid harming civilians in wartime.

[2], November 17, 1999. For more on this conference, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 59, Highest Ranking Official Cleric in Egypt Calls for Arabs and Muslims to Acquire Nuclear Weapons to Counter Israel, November 19, 1999.


[4] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), December 27, 2002.

[5], December 23, 2002.

[6] Qatari Television (Qatar), October 18, 2002.

[7], December 25, 2002.

[8], December 25, 2002.

[9], December 23, 2002.

[10] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), June 4, 1998.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (Egypt), January 16, 2003. The quote is taken from Al-Musawwar (Egypt), January 15, 2003.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt) October 22, 1998.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 6, 1999.

[14] Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya (Egypt), April 1995.

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