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July 23, 2015 No.
6114

Egyptian Columnists On Al-Sisi Regime's Campaign For 'Renewal Of Religious Discourse' As A Way Of Fighting Terrorism

The wave of terror attacks during Ramadan this year, that included the June 26, 2015 attacks at a Tunisian tourist site, at a Shi'ite mosque in Kuwait, and at a U.S.-owned factory near Lyon, France, as well as a series of attacks in Egypt - the June 29, 2015 assassination of prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat and the July 1 attack on Egyptian army positions in the Sinai by armed Islamists - sparked discussion in the Arab media, particularly in the Egyptian media. A major focus of this discussion was a proposal to combat Islamic terror on the ideological level via a "renewal of the religious discourse."

The term "renewal of the religious discourse" was originally coined by 'Adly Mansour, the former chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court who was appointed Egypt's interim president following the July 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime headed by president Muhammad Mursi. At a January 2014 Ministry of Religious Endowments ceremony marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Mansour told an audience that included dozens of senior clerics: "Our society today is in dire need of a renewal of the religious discourse, a conscious and responsible renewal... that will deal with the problem of extremism and the mistaken or defective understanding of Islam..."[1]

On the same occasion a year later, current Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi also took up the call for a renewal of the religious discourse, calling, on December 28, 2014, for a religious revolution.[2]

Articles published in the Arab and Egyptian media on this issue in the wake of the recent terror attacks showed disagreement over whether such an approach, which stemmed from a different perception of the causes of terror, would prove effective. Ibrahim 'Issa, editor of the Egyptian newspapers Al-Dustour Al-Asly and Al-Maqal, argued that terrorism is not the result of economic, political or social factors, but of the religious discourse, and therefore the renewal of this discourse is the main approach to fighting the terrorism it engenders. Accordingly, he said, President Al-Sisi should devote most of his attention to it. In contrast, Egyptian intellectual Dr. Mamoun Fandy, who writes a column for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, opposed the idea of renewing the religious discourse, dismissing it as "nonsense" and "a failed attempt to revive backwardness" and calling for completely changing the discourse and basing it on scientific criteria. Furthermore, Dr. Wahid 'Abd Al-Magid, political commentator and former member of the Egyptian People's Assembly, argued that it was the social environment that dictated the public discourse, and that therefore the first thing to do was to deal with the social environment.

Below are translated excerpts from these three articles:

Al-Maqal Editor: Terror Is Not Caused By Economic, Political Or Security Reasons; The President Should Focus On Ideologically Combating Terror


Ibrahim 'Issa (Source: Al-Misriyoun, Egypt, October 30, 2014)

Ibrahim 'Issa, editor of the Egyptian newspapers Al-Dustour Al-Asly and Al-Maqal, believes that the renewal of the religious discourse is the main way to combat Islamic terror. He wrote bitterly in Al-Maqal, which he also owns, in criticism of President Al-Sisi, charging him with responsibility for the June 29 assassination of Egyptian prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat and for the deaths of many others from Islamic terrorism. This, he said, was due to the mistaken priorities that Al-Sisi is promoting. He urged the president to completely devote himself to combating terrorism on the ideological level, to be reflected in education, in the mosques, in the media, and in the culture, rather than focusing on other issues such as the war on poverty. 'Issa also attacked the president's decision to entrust the ideological struggle to Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb and Egyptian Mufti Muhammad Shawqi Al-'Alam because their own views are extremist. He wrote:"...The funeral yesterday of the shahid [martyr] advisor, Egyptian prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat, must be the last funeral [resulting from] mistaken priorities. Of course, we are all prepared to die, and none of us can interfere with his [own final] hour if that is Allah's will - but in reality, there are mistaken priorities that are leading us to funerals.

"In his statements at the funeral, President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi requested sharply and clearly that we not waste time on the small necessities, and that we should be aware that a very large-scale campaign against terrorism is underway...This is a very important demand. If only the president would be the first to implement it, in his efforts and in his policy...

"I know that the president is concerned for his people, and believes that the fight against terrorism will succeed by [economic] development and by fighting poverty and unemployment. This is very nice - but it is an absolute mistake. Mr. President, abandon this concept, because it hurts the country and delays our anti-terror campaign.

"There are no economic reasons for terrorism. Terrorism exists equally among the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. You cannot possibly believe the claims - of which we are sick and tired - that link terrorism to poverty. Proof of this is that there is terrorism, for example, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, France, and Germany; their peoples are not impoverished. Most of the murderous terrorists in Syria and Iraq are Saudis, who come from the wealthiest country in the Arab world. And don't forget [Al-Qaeda leaders] Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Are they paupers who turned to terrorism because of their poverty?

"There are no economic causes of terrorism; neither are there political or security causes. Enough of this mistaken profile of the phenomenon. Of course we must fight poverty - but it is not a war on terrorism, and it is not the first priority when fighting terrorism. If President Al-Sisi demands that we deal with the big problem-namely the war on terror - we call on him to implement this immediately in his policy. He is the president of the war on terror. This is what we expect of him and of his policy henceforth.

"We must know that the security conflict is not the only solution, and certainly prosecution is no solution.

"In his statements at [Barakat's] funeral, we sensed the great importance that he attaches to changing the laws or the legislative infrastructure of the legal measures [now in place] in order to expedite the implementation of the punishments for accused terrorists. Here too the priorities are wrong. Of course deterrence is essential for dealing with terrorists. But I remind all that death does not frighten terrorists, just as it does not frighten us at all. Moreover, they walk on their own two feet in order to blow themselves up... How many executions have there been, from the Khawarij[3] era until now? Yet this has not prevented the emergence of the terrorist perception, or of the terrorists and their organizations. Furthermore, there are legitimate fears that the implementation [of the laws]in order to achieve a sublime aim - that is, the war on terrorism - will slide down the despicable slope to violation of rights."

We Need A "War To Free The Egyptian Mind"; The War On Terror Is Al-Sisi's Responsibility, Not The Responsibility Of Extremist Al-Azhar Sheikh And Egyptian Mufti

"What is really needed, and urgently and most profoundly, is for the president to focus his main attention [in another direction].Mr. President, let the government deal with developing desert roads, paving highways, and improving land... You, as president, deal only with the big war - the war to free the Egyptian mind.

"So what should we do? First, there need to be short- and long-term plans; and a council of intellectuals, researchers and experts must be appointed, to draw up ideas. The president is assisted by councils of advisers in education, sciences, health and the economy but he is not surrounded by a single thinker or a council dealing with terror. He [Al-Sisi] is approaching the issue from a security standpoint, as if it concerns only the National Defense Council. Moreover, he has assigned [the mission] to the failed and[Muslim Brotherhood-]infiltrated institution of Al-Azhar, whose sheikh [Ahmad Al-Tayeb] himself constitutes an obstacle to the renewal of the religious discourse in Egypt. So what should we expect?...

"The real war to which the president must apply himself is the war to renew the religious discourse...[Al-Sisi]has handed this task to [Ahmad Al-Tayeb,] the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, when there is documented proof that, for example, his decisions are coordinated with the monarch of an Arab country [i.e. Saudi Arabia],[4] rather than with the president of Egypt, and he is involved in issues of sectarian sedition in which Saudi Arabia is interested because of its Wahhabi perception, rather than in moderate Islam, which is in accordance with the Egyptian perception. [He has] also [outsourced this task] to [Egyptian]Mufti [Muhammad Shawqi Al-'Alam],who plagiarizes paragraphs from the works of [Muslim Brotherhood ideologue] Sayyid Qutb for his own articles, using them to guide the Muslim public,[5] and to Religious Endowments Minister [Muhammad Mokhtar Gomaa] who is in charge of a [Muslim Brotherhood-]infiltrated, negligent, and corruption-rotted ministry. And then the president still places his trust in the religious parties [apparently the Salafi parties],which commit murder and then march in the funeral procession of the murdered. These are the parties that believe that Egypt is not implementing Shari'a, that Egypt's judges do not judge according to the words of Allah; that manmade law contradicts religious law, and that appealing to the courts is apostasy.

"By Allah, Mr. President, how do you expect to fight terror when you envelop the disseminators of terror and the purveyors of its perceptions in your love, taking them under your wing, supporting them, and even confiding in them? With every passing day, a new terrorist is born, who will blow himself up and kill among us as many as his madness desires.

"Amending the laws will do nothing in the face of the waves of religious insanity - [the] only [thing that will work is] a war of minds in education, the media, the culture, the mosques and the social media. This effort must be conducted professionally and with alertness; advanced resources must be utilized, along with talented minds and a trained police force...

"Mr. President, you have said that the blood of the prosecutor-general is the responsibility of us all, not just your responsibility. But it is not we who are the decision-makers. We have an opinion, and we have stated it, but the decision was in your hands, and therefore it is you who are responsible for the death of the prosecutor-general, because you are our president, who bears the entire responsibility.

"Mr. President, prepare for your battle, and leave the infrastructures and the economic decisions to a competent and wise government and to a prime minister who is not constantly awaiting your directives and who considers your wishes to be his commands!"[6]

Egyptian Intellectual: We Need A New, Innovative Religious Discourse - Not A Renewal Of The Old One

Others doubted that religious discourse could eradicate terror, and gave various reasons for this. Egyptian intellectual Dr. Mamoun Fandy, who writes a column for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat,  attacked the phrase "renewal of the religious discourse," calling it "nonsense" and "a failed attempt to renew backwardness." He argued that paralysis has taken hold of Islamic intellectual thought, and that the books written today do not meet the lowest standard of intellectual thought. Calling for a new discourse that would sever the link between violence and Arab and Islamic heritage, he wrote:

"The notion of 'renewing the religious discourse' is common in the Arab world. But what our region needs is a new religious discourse, as opposed to a renewal of the old discourse. This is especially true in light of the beheading in the name of religion that we witness daily, and in light of the terrorism we saw on June 26, 2015, which struck three continents in one day - from Tunisia to France to Kuwait - also in the name of religion. When people are murdered in a mosque as they kneel and bow before Allah, where will we take cover? If mosques are considered unsafe, whence can people flee from this terrorism in the name of religion? If mosques are not protected from terrorism, then what is protected [from it] today?


Dr. Mamoun Fandy (Source: Al-Misriyoun, Egypt, July 17, 2014)

"We are now in a real cultural crisis, and we do not need a renewal of the old religious discourse, which has brought us to the current situation, but rather a new religious discourse, that brings us closer to the world instead of causing it to hate us.

"The image of the Muslim in non-Muslim countries is currently that of a sick camel... [i.e. highly negative], as a result of the actions of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, which they justify in the name of Islam, even if Islam has nothing to do with them.

"We need a new religious discourse based on innovation, instead of an old way of understanding the principles and research methods of religion...

"The extremist movements do not draw their religious discourse from the principles of Islam; their source of authority is violent discourse...Extremists have their violent religion, and we have our monotheistic one. They have their religious discourse, and we have ours. As for those who portray [all] Muslims as sharing the same religious source of authority as these [extremists] - they merely want to create confusion and to ignite the fire of fitna.

"Islamic history is glorious, but it had dark periods from which extremists draw their ideas. Most of their sources of authority were written in periods when Islamic thought waned - and there were many such times. However, there were also glorious historical eras, when weighty tomes were written that showed openness to the self and to the other...

"In Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Arab world, and among Muslims in the West, there have been demonstrations aimed at defending the Prophet [Muhammad] against offensive cartoons. [But] what, in fact, harms the Prophet and Islam more - cartoons or ISIS's barbaric, primitive actions, which include capturing women, cutting off heads, and hanging and burning people alive like the Jordanian pilot?

"The more important question is: Why don't the [Arab and Muslim] masses act against the murder of Muslims in a mosque in Kuwait, or the murder of innocent tourists in Tunisia...? Why does death no longer shock us? Why did the masses act against a stupid cartoon, while the blood that was spilled on the prayer mats in the Kuwaiti mosque has not spurred them to action?

"What has happened to us? Does our situation need renewal of the religious discourse - or does it need a new religious discourse that will represent the severing of the link to the violence in our heritage...?

"The intellectual thought in our region has been struck with a paralysis that is unrelated to the scientific research and its standards as they are known in civilized societies. All this should be thrown in the nearest garbage can. This is a discourse that cannot be renewed. We must start setting criteria for what should [and should not] be published, and require publishing houses to either meet minimal standards or be prohibited from operating...

"Our crisis is much too great [to be resolved with] a renewal of the discourse that falls short of the threshold of knowledge. The solution to our crisis will be begun only by a new religious, political, and social discourse. The nonsensical clich├®s reiterated by governments, like 'renewing the religious discourse,' can be described in a single phrase - 'a failed attempt to renew backwardness.'"[7]

Egyptian Columnist: The Crisis Centers On Social, Economic And Political Conditions, Not Religion

In contrast to 'Issa and Fandy, Dr. Wahid 'Abd Al-Magid, political commentator and former member of the Egyptian People's Assembly, argued in his column in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm that the cause of terrorism was indeed a cultural, economic, and political situation in society that encouraged the endorsement of a particular discourse. This situation in society, he wrote, must be addressed first, before attention is turned to the discourse itself:

"Every time there is an increase or new development in terrorism, there is also an increase in calls for reform in the religious discourse. This stems from the idea that the problem lies with [religious]texts that need to be either amended or opposed - and not with a society and an environment that are distorted and that spur a few to misuse texts that have been in existence for centuries to support their attacks against that very society...

"However, such a presentation of the issue of reforming the religious discourse reduces [the handling] of a complex crisis to only one of its aspects, and not even to the most important one. The link - any link - between a text - any text - and reality is not created out of thin air, but is connected to the circumstances of the individual, who is impacted by the text in accordance with his specific interpretation or understanding.


Wahid 'Abd Al-Magid (Source: Almorakib.com, June 2, 2015)

"If the essence of the crisis was the religious discourse itself, then the perpetrators of terror would not be exceptional. However, [society has] only a few religious extremists... and even fewer [of these same extremists] transition from extremism to terrorism - that is, from believing extremist discourse to actually carrying out acts of violence.

"If the reason for the crisis is solely the extremist religious discourse, then we must ask why this discourse was minimal in many eras - such as in Egypt from the 19th to the mid-20th century, when it reemerged on the fringes in the 1970s and then began to thrive.

"Therefore, if we search for a different reason for the crisis, we will discover that it is connected to the situation of the society, its prevailing culture, the social and economic state of various groups [in it], and the nature of the political regime, whose policies and actions impact people's lives. The more conservative the society, the more closed its prevailing culture, especially when its education perpetuates that culture and relinquishes its central role - making inflexible thought flexible.

"The [more] controlling and absolutist the political regime, and the more it limits society's participation in public affairs, the more [the regime] becomes [a factor] preventing society from becoming open, and preventing [its] flowers, in all their colors, from blooming. Instead, below the surface, anger towards and alienation from society fester below the surface, in many ways and forms.

"It is then that extremist religious discourse influences those with the most anger - not just because of the extremism [of the discourse], but also because it meets [their] need to express [their] sense of alienation..."[8]

 
Endnotes:

[1] Albawabnews.com, January 12, 2014.

[3]The Khawarij broke away from the forces of Caliph 'Ali bin Abu Taleb and formed Islam's first religious opposition group.

[4] The reference is to an alleged Saudi Foreign Ministry document disclosed by WikiLeaks, claiming that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar asked for Saudi guidance in responding to Iranian pressure for a meeting for rapprochement among the various schools of Islamic thought.Wikileaks.org/saudi-cables/doc515.html.

[5] An article in the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' claims that Egyptian Mufti Muhammad Shawqi Al-'Alam had cited several paragraphs from a book by Sayyid Qutb and said that they were his own. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 24, 2015.

[6]Al-Maqal (Egypt), July 1, 2015.

[7]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 29, 2015.

[8]Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 2, 2015.