Meet DR. AHMED AL-TAYEB and learn why the “moderate/radical” Muslim dichotomy is a farce.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horwitz Freedom Center.
There’s nothing like knowing Arabic—that is, being privy to the Muslim world’s internal conversations on a daily basis—to disabuse oneself of the supposed differences between so-called “moderate” and “radical” Muslims.
Consider the case of Egypt’s Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb. Hardly one to be dismissed as a fanatic who is ignorant of the true tenets of Islam, Tayeb’s credentials and career are impressive: he holds a Ph. D in Islamic philosophy from the Paris-Sorbonne University; formerly served as Grand Imam of Egypt, meaning he was the supreme interpreter of Islamic law; formerly served for seven years as president of Al-Azhar University, considered the world’s leading institution of Islamic learning, and is currently its Grand Imam. A 2013 survey named Tayeb the “most influential Muslim in the world.”
He is also regularly described by Western media and academia as a “moderate.” Georgetown University presents him as “a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue.” According to The National, “He is considered to be one of the most moderate and enlightened Sunni clerics in Egypt.” In February 2015, the Wall Street Journal praised him for making “one of the most sweeping calls yet for educational reform in the Muslim world to combat the escalation of extremist violence.”
Most recently he was invited to the Vatican and warmly embraced by Pope Francis. Al Azhar had angrily cut off all ties with the Vatican five years earlier when, in the words of U.S. News, former Pope Benedict “had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year’s bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased.”
Pope Francis referenced his meeting with Tayeb as proof that Muslims are peaceful: “I had a long conversation with the imam, the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar University, and I know how they think. They [Muslims] seek peace, encounter.”
How does one reconcile Tayeb’s benevolent image in the West with his reality in Egypt?
For instance, all throughout the month of Ramadan last June, Tayeb appeared on Egyptian TV explaining all things Islamic—often in ways that do not suggest that Islam seeks “peace, encounter.”
During one episode, he reaffirmed a phrase that is almost exclusively associated with radicals: in Arabic, al-din wa’l-dawla, meaning “the religion and the polity”—a phrase that holds Islam to be both a religion and a body of rules governing society and state.
He did so in the context of discussing the efforts of Dr. Ali Abdel Raziq, a true reformer and former professor at Al Azhar who wrote a popular but controversial book in 1925, one year after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate. Titled, in translation, Islam and the Roots of Governance, Raziq argued against the idea of resurrecting the caliphate, saying that Islam is a personal religion that should no longer be mixed with politics or governance.
Raziq was vehemently criticized by many clerics and even fired from Al Azhar.
The problem with the idea that Islam must govern the whole of society should be obvious: Sharia, or Islamic law, which is what every Muslim including Tayeb refer to when they say that Islam is a polity, is fundamentally at odds with modern notions of human rights and, due to its supremacist and “anti-infidel” aspects, the source of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims the world over.
That this is the case was made clear during another of Tayeb’s recent episodes. On the question of apostasy in Islam—whether a Muslim has the right to abandon Islam for another or no religion—the “radical” position is well known: unrepentant apostates are to be punished with death.
To recap, while secular Western talking heads that don’t know the first thing about Islam continue squealing about how it is being “misunderstood,” here is arguably the Muslim world’s leading authority confirming many of the cardinal points held by ISIS: he believes that Islam is not just a religion to be practiced privately but rather is a totalitarian system designed to govern the whole of society through the implementation of its human rights abusing Sharia; he supports one of the most inhumane laws, punishment of the Muslim who wishes to leave Islam; he downplays the plight of Egypt’s persecuted Christians, that is, when he’s not inciting against them by classifying them as “infidels”—the worst category in Islam’s lexicon—even as he refuses to denounce the genocidal Islamic State likewise.
Yet this well credentialed and respected scholar of Islam is considered a “moderate” by Western universities and media, from Georgetown University to the Wall Street Journal. He is someone whom Pope Francis trusts, embraces, and quotes to reassure the West of Islam’s peacefulness.
In all fairness of course, Tayeb is neither a “moderate” nor a “radical.” He’s merely a Muslim trying to be true to Islam. Put differently, he’s merely a messenger.
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