In early January, Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi delivered a speech at al-Azhar University in which he called on Muslim scholars to adopt more moderate religious discourse. Speaking to the audience, he said, “It is inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world.” Although Sisi went so far as to call for a “religious revolution,” he did not propose any tangible steps to achieving that goal. And as of yet, little has changed.
In fact, since Sisi’s speech, al-Azhar—which is a state institution—has started to wage a campaign against those trying to renew and modernize religious discourse and counter the violent rhetoric exploited by groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This came to a head with the recent court case brought against television preacher Islam al-Beheiry, the host of Al Kahera Wal Nas, a television program, on charges of “inciting strife and defaming great imams.”
Al-Azhar insisted on the suspension of al-Beheiry’s show, “With Islam,” and filed a lawsuit against al-Beheiry. Azhari clerics even accused him of apostasy and declared it permissible to kill him. This is reminiscent of the incident with Farag Foda, a human rights activist who advocated separating religion from politics in the early 1990s. In response, the al-Azhar Scholars’ Front issued a fatwa accusing Foda of apostasy. Foda was assassinated in 1992.
A number of activists and writers have urged Sisi to abide by his promise and truly implement a religious revolution. Instead, it appears that his government is giving al-Azhar free rein. As al-Azhar launches attacks against those calling for moderation, Magdy Abdel Ghafar, Egypt’s interior minister, declared during a recent meeting with Azhari clerics that the state stands by al-Azhar, casting doubt on the significance of Sisi’s speech in January.
In a related development, After ISIS massacred 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya, Sisi issued a decree allowing the construction of a church in the governorate of Minya. Islamist extremists protested the decision, and the state desisted. Elsewhere, in the village of al-Galaa, extremists managed to impose their own conditions for the reconstruction of a demolished church. They demanded that the building be no more than one story tall, and that the church would not be rebuilt if it were ever destroyed again. They recorded these unjust terms at the local real estate registration office, thus enshrining them as law. This discrimination, which violates the law and constitution, was done with the full knowledge of the state’s authorities.
During Holy Week, there were a number of attacks on Coptic churches, homes, and shops with the complicity of the security forces. In the village of Sheikh Abdel Razeq, for example, security forces stormed and desecrated church on the pretext that there was no authorization from the competent authorities to pray there.
Sisi may frequently pay homage to religious moderation and combating extremism, but his rhetoric is empty. He is simply trying to cozy up to the West as it search for partners to confront radical Islamist groups, and in doing so, legitimize his regime, which is still viewed with suspicion by the international community. Sisi’s comments might make for a good soundbite in the Western media, but do not mistake him for the Middle East’s long-awaited reformer.