It’s difficult to overstate the potential importance of the Egyptian president’s New Year speech on Islam – and equally important to avoid overly optimistic expectations as to its practical impact.
“O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty.”
– Koran, Sura 9:123
“Violence… occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.”
– Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 1993
On New Year’s Day, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered a remarkable address at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
The Obama-Sisi contrast
He directed measured, but nonetheless severe, censure at much of the Islamic clergy, their interpretation of religious texts and their prescription for how Muslims should practice their faith in the modern day: “I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facing – and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!”
Ironically, Sisi spoke at the same venue that Barack Obama chose to deliver his 2009 “Outreach Speech” to the Muslim world. But the contrast between the two could hardly be more striking. As one US analyst deftly noted:
“Obama began the 2009 speech by praising the same seminary that Sisi reprimanded,” emphasizing “That [Obama’s approach] is different from Sisi, who is trying to suppress the Brotherhood movement and push Al-Azhar’s Islamic leaders toward modernity.”
Sisi used the occasion to condemn the ongoing practices in the Islamic world, after having coercively removed the regressive and ruinous regime of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. By contrast, Obama heaped effusive praise on Islam, and insisted on places of honor for senior Brotherhood representatives – to the chagrin of his host, president Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, many consider Obama’s words and gestures in Cairo as providing a considerable – arguably, crucial – fillip in the process that swept the Brotherhood to power barely two years later.
Revolution not reform
Although Sisi was at pains to appear respectful to Islam as a religion per se, there was little doubt as to the grim view he took of the consequences of the manner in which Muslims were being instructed to observe their faith.
“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!” he said.
Sisi appealed to the religious establishment for a “more enlightened perspective”:
“I am saying these words here at Al-Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema [top Islamic scholars] – Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now…you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to… reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.”
But despite his ostensible deference, Sisi made no bones about what was called for. Not gradual reform but swift revolution.
“I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move,” he urged.
Tendency to appease
Sisi is undoubtedly correct in his diagnosis of Islam as comprising “a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.” However, until recently the tendency of the “rest of the world” has been to appease rather than oppose, to understand rather than withstand, to excuse rather than expunge.
Nonetheless, lately there does appear to be the beginning of rumbling discontent in the West, and indications that resistance to Islamic-inspired outrages is beginning to emerge – albeit far too timidly and far too slowly.
It is still too early to assess whether the savage slaughter in Paris last week will prove a tipping-point in the mood toward Islam and shift it from angst to anger. There is, however, considerable room for skepticism.
For despite the short-term uproar the killings at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher has generated, the death toll pales when compared to far-greater Muslim-motivated atrocities perpetrated in the West without producing a sustained, resolute response to deal adequately with the manifest menace.
With 17 dead, last week in Paris seems unlikely to become a watershed event. After all, the Madrid train bombings left 191 dead and 1,800 wounded in 2004; the London subway bombing 52 dead and 700 wounded in 2005; the Mumbai attacks almost 170 killed and over 600 injured in 2008, and the Moscow metro bombing 40 dead and over 100 injured in 2010. This of course is but a minute sample of a long, gory list of post 9/11 Muslim massacres, carried out in the name of their religious belief.
Islam’s bloody borders
It is difficult to see why the ordeal in Paris, gruesome as it was, will produce the required stiffening of resolve.
After all, the incipient clash between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds has been part of the public discourse for over two decades. In his controversial – some might say, prescient – article “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs (1993), the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted:
“The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” He warned: “… the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the… boundaries of the… Islamic bloc of nations, from the bulge of Africa to central Asia…. Islam has bloody borders.”
In a subsequent book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998), Huntington wrote:
“No single statement in my Foreign Affairs article attracted more critical comment than: ‘Islam has bloody borders.’… Quantitative evidence from every disinterested source conclusively demonstrates its validity.”
Subsequent events and statistics strongly corroborate Huntington’s contentions.
Bloody borders (cont.)
It is possible to fill tomes with examples of obdurate Islamic enmity to Judaism and Christianity. But Islamic intolerance is not confined to the monotheistic People of the Book.
One of the most graphic illustrations of Islam’s abiding rejection of all that is not Islamic is provided by the 2001 destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan.
The statues, which stood for 15 centuries (!) were designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and were perhaps the best-known cultural landmark of the region. Despite all this, and ignoring international appeals, the Taliban government reduced the statues to rubble, in a determined, prolonged and complex effort.
According to the then-Afghan culture minister, 400 religious clerics from across the country decided the “statues were un-Islamic.”
The Taliban’s spiritual leader and supreme commander Mullah Muhammad Omar, proclaimed:
“Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.”
The then-foreign minister told a Japanese daily:
“We are destroying the Buddha statues in accordance with Islamic law… it is purely a religious issue.”
This implacable enmity toward the un-Islamic is reflected in the appalling statistics regarding Islamic violence.
Some estimates indicate that since 9/11, there have been a staggering 25,000 lethal acts of Islamic terrorism.
Islam’s bloody innards
In his Al-Azhar address, Sisi issued a stern warning:
“… this umma [Islamic world] is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.” The warning is timely and accurate.
For, as I pointed out in last week’s column, as appalling as Muslim violence against non-Muslims might be, it pales into insignificance when compared to violence among Muslims themselves.
In a sense, Sisi was echoing views Huntington articulated in his book:
“Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and… obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”
Judging from the scope of the carnage, Islam’s innards are if anything bloodier than its borders, and the enmity for fellow Muslims far outstrips that for the infidel.
Quite apart from the well-known Sunni- Shia rift that has resulted in untold deaths, the myriad massacres in mosques, marketplaces and madrassas across Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim-dominated Dar a-Salaam (Zone of Peace) make it impossible for anyone other than a learned expert to decipher the patterns of intra-Islamic rivalries and the reasons for their lethal consequences.
Sisi’s passionate cry that the Muslim world is being torn apart at its own hands is corroborated everyday by a never-ending stream of blood-soaked facts.
‘No stronger retrograde force exists…’
Well over 100 years ago, in his book The River War (1899), Winston Churchill predicted with stunning prescience much of the realities which Sisi laments in his New Year address:
“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful, fatalistic apathy.”
Churchill warned of adverse effects on Muslim economies and societies:
“The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live… the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.”
On Islam’s attitude to women, he wrote:
“The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.”
Regarding conflict with the West, he provided an ominous caveat:
“Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science… the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome… ”
Given the situation in Europe today, this is a prognosis that should not be lightly dismissed.
Ataturk or Anwar Sadat?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance that Sisi’s speech could have – and equally important to exercise sober caution in developing excessively optimistic expectations as to the practical impact it may have.
Earlier this week, the influential US columnist George Will raised both the prospects and the perils:
“…as head of the Egyptian state, Al Sisi occupies an office once occupied by Anwar Sadat who was murdered by Islamic extremists for his opening to Israel. This was an act of tremendous bravery by Sisi, and if the Nobel Peace Prize committee is looking for someone who plausibly deserves it, they could start there.”
Will Sisi be able to initiate a Kemalist-like transformation of Egypt as Kemal Ataturk did in Turkey just under a hundred years ago (and now disintegrating rapidly under the Islamist Erdogan regime)? The answer is far from certain. The times and circumstances in today’s Egypt are vastly different – and arguably more daunting – than those in post-WWI Turkey.
Egypt faces almost insurmountable socioeconomic challenges, and failure by Sisi to address them adequately will provide his numerous radical opponents much grist for their extremist mills to grind.
Recent reports (The Jerusalem Post, January 12) that a newly exposed Islamic State-affiliated cell that “planned to assassinate government ministers, media personalities and businessmen in the coming days” dramatically underscore how a tragic rerun of political assassination in Egypt cannot be discounted.
So while Sisi’s endeavor should be warmly applauded – and supported – its chances of success are sufficiently uncertain – indeed, remote – that it would be more than imprudent of the West and for Israel to make any assumption of such success a basis for future policy.
Sisi, ISIS & Israel
The outcome of the titan battle between Sisi and Islamic State will, of course, have dramatic impact on Israel, particularly with regard to the fate of Sinai, and the ramifications this will have on our long southern border and the city of Eilat.
But that is a topic for another – and somewhat depressing – article in the future.
First posted at the Jerusalem Post
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies www.strategicisrael.org.