The Limits of Muslim Liberalism

Interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the limitations and blind spots of so-called liberal Islam and proponents such as Tariq Ramadan. 

Liberal Islam, steeped in orthodoxy, rationalism, and arrogated notions of representation, has lost its vitality and ability to engage constructively with such radical departures. Its modalities are much the same as those of traditional forms of religious authority, engaged as they are in perpetuating threats of “deviance.” Like traditional scholarship, liberal Islam is still struggling to respond cogently to the increasingly voluntarist impulse in the Muslim world and the challenge laid down by the jihadi manipulation of it. The gatekeepers of knowledge have simply shifted from an ulema class to one of professional religious entrepreneurs, who then define the boundaries of Islam for public consumption. Their predilection for invoking classical jurisprudence and the “Golden Age” of Islamic history also suppresses, implicitly, voices of dissent. Under a veneer of intellectual freedom, substantive debate on contentious issues — such as blasphemy, apostasy, gender, sexuality, the penal code, and the right to criticize or exit — is often postponed or elided. Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on stoning is often invoked to signal his supposed duplicity in this regard, but it is more a reflection of the narrow parameters within which his reformist project is located. The intellectual space liberal Islam opens up is, in fact, quite slim: there are still only a small number of influential Muslim reformists, and they compete to say similar things, most often in the service of the state.

 

Islam, politics and academia

Sitting on a curb outside the college where she was recently expelled, Eman is defiant.

"I did it for the sake of God," the 21-year-old Tunisian history student—who asked to be identified only by her first name—said of her insistence on wearing the niqab, the full-face veil. Such a display of piety is banned in the classrooms of the University of Manouba's Faculty of Arts and Letters, and she has been forced to leave. "He will reward me in other ways."

Eman is covered head to toe in flowing brown-and-beige polyester. She wears gloves and shields her light-brown eyes from view with a second, transparent veil. Depending on whom you talk to in Tunisia, her attire, and the militant strain of Islamism it is associated with, represents either the future of the Arab Spring—or the greatest threat to it.

To her supporters, Eman is staking a righteous claim for a greater role for religion on campus. To her opponents, she embodies a threat to the university's liberal values and to academic freedom itself.

Fundamentalists like Eman, says Habib Kaz­daghli, a dean at the university, believe that the primary purpose of the university is "not to deliver knowledge but to serve as a place for spreading religion."

This is from a piece I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education (it is behind a pay wall but this link gives temporary access) looking at the fights that have erupted, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, over the role of religionon campus. I visited Manouba University in Tunisia, where Dean Habib Kazdaghli has taken a hard line against allowing women in niqab to attend class (and is now facing what he says are trumped up charges of slapping a munaqaba student). I also visited the ancient Islamic university of Al Azhar here in Cairo, to look at how a historical model of Muslim learning has evolved into the 21st century. 

Voices and faces of the Adhan: Cairo

Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo | Trailer from Scott F. Busch on Vimeo.

This film about the call to prayer in Cairo sounds cool — it looks at the project to unify the Adhan (on the grounds that the cacophony of different mosques was disagreable, I suppose). I actually love hearing the dissonant Adhans of Cairo, particularly when in the medieval part of the city (which has a high density of mosques with high minarets) — it can be a very beautiful thing to hear all of these calls, precisely because they are not in sync. I wonder if the question of noise pollution might not be better handled by improving the quality of speakers mosques use (the distortion they cause can be awful) or better yet, not using amplification altogether.

The directors have a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish the film — help out here.

The Battle for al-Azhar

The Battle for al-Azhar

Hisham Hellyer writes in Foreign Policy of the coming changes in the role of al-Azhar in Islamist-dominated Egypt, after PM Qandil decided not to appoint a Salafist in the position of minister of endowments after al-Azhar staged a revolt over the matter:

"There are difficult times ahead for Al-Azhar's establishment. There appear to be three options for it, the first being the obvious one of sacrificing its independence from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, and allow the 'Salafizing' of the establishment to take place. As noted above, this has serious implications. The second would be to align with the non-civil forces in the deep state whose aim is to minimize MB and Salafi influence in Egypt, which would also involve sacrificing its independence in the process. The more difficult route would be to chart another course, where it is engaged in critique of both the deep state and the MB. This would be, of course, the path chosen by individual prominent Azharis, such as Sheikh Emad Effat, who was popularly recognized as the 'Sheikh of the Revolution.' He was killed in the midst of clashes with military forces on Cairo's streets in December 2011."

To me these questions are another aspect of the resurgence of corporatism in post-Mubarak Egypt I recently wrote about for The National, with al-Azhar essentially playing the role of the corporation of the ulema. Nathan Brown had written about these issues several months ago in a paper on Post-Revolutionary Al-Azhar for Carnegie.

In Translation: Will the real Ibn Taymiyya please stand up?

This week’s In Translation piece is a departure from the usual focus on commentary on current events in the Arabic press. I chose a piece recommended by As’ad AbuKhalil, aka Angry Arab, that takes a scholarly look at the key inspirations of the Salafi movement, the theologian and thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD), who was born in Harran in what is today Turkey and lived most of his life in what is today Syria. Ibn Taymiyya’s times coincided with the destructive Mongol invasions which razed Baghdad and, from his perspective, must have appeared as an end-times event. He is considered to be a key inspiration inspiration to the Wahhabi and contemporary Salafi movement.

Angry Arab wrote of this piece:

This is an interesting discussion of the thought of Ibn Taymiyyah and how it differed from Hanbaliyyah on some theological issues. Ibn Taymiyyah warrants a lot of academic attention (given his influence on today’s Islamists): French Orientalists of the 20th century did pay attention to him but the reason that he is not studied as, say, Sayyid Qutb, is because he left a vast body of literature and access to this text requires a deep understanding of Arabic. He was a dangerous but effective and sophisticated polemicist.

That’s an important point: a deep understanding of Qu’ranic exegesis necessitates advanced study as a grammatician and even etymologist. For more on Ibn Taymiyya and how the democratization of religion in the Arab world that has given rise to new forms of fundamentalist Islamic thought, I recommend reading As’ad AbuKhalil’s critical essay The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism: Arabic Islamic Thought At The End Of The 20th Century [PDF 2.6MB]. It includes his usual verve against the late Saudi Mufti, Abdel Aziz Bin Baz, who counts among the handful of founders of contemporary Salafism.

This is a difficult piece, but I thought it might be enlightening not only for the learned (and unorthodox interpretation) the writer gives of Ibn Taymiyya, but also in the second degree as telling of some of the discussions taking place in the quality Arab press in reaction to the electoral success of the Salafis in Egypt and the rising intellectual and spiritual influence of the Salafi movement more generally.

As always, this translation is possible thanks to Industry Arabic, which provides multi-lingual translation of many different types — media, technical, legal, etc. — and really did a great job on this difficult piece.

 


 

The other side of Ibn Taymiyya – on the occasion of the political ascent of Salafis and Islamists

By Abdel Hakim Ajhar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 14 December 2011

The terms and concepts that have achieved wide circulation with the Arab revolutions – those such as democracy, tyranny, civil society, and citizenship – have no place in the writings of Islamist thinkers before the Nahda period. However, the writings of one such pre-Nahda1 thinker, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), contain material that could enable his followers to adopt a different mentality, one that would guide them – with a little effort — to these prevailing concepts of the age.

The Ibn Taymiyya whom we read about is not the real Ibn Taymiyya: he is a theoretical reproduction and refabrication that has made him into one of the authorities for religious extremists among both his supporters and detractors alike. The real Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, the one who needs to be read by Islamists ascending to the political forefront, is one who will help these Islamists adopt a flexible, rationalistic mode of thinking, and perhaps change many of the intellectual assumptions these forces still live by and consider to be fundamental tenets not subject to review.

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In Translation: Alaa al-Aswany on bigotry

As every week, we bring a selected commentary piece from the Arabic press translated into English, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a full-service translation company founded  by two long-time Arabist readers.

Alaa al-AswanyThere was not enough time to wait for the reaction to the sad events of October 9 — and in any case many commentators are simply speechless, as are so many Egyptians — so instead we picked an op-ed by the novelist Alaa al-Aswany published last week. It touched on the issue that motivated last week’s Coptic protest: a lack of government reaction to an attack on a church in Aswan governorate by local Islamists, with the governor preferring to impose a negotiated solution between the Salafists and Christians rather than impose the rule of law, which would have protected the Christians.

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This Eid, Saturn is ascendant

Love this story from al-Masri al-Youm:

Based on Thursday’s headlines, it seems the biggest news story on the third day of Eid concerns the question of whether or not it really is the third day of Eid. Making the front pages of independent dailies Al-Shorouk, Al-Dostour, and Al-Tahrir are reports claiming that millions of Muslims around the world have “broken their fast early by an entire day, based on a sighting of Saturn.” Traditionally, the holy month of Ramadan ends at the sighting of a new moon; a role that, this year, might have gone to Saturn instead.

“The sighting of a new moon last Monday would have been simply impossible,” Maged Abou Zahra, president of the Jeddah Astronomical Society, states in Al-Shorouk. “Saturn is visible this time of year, and can be easily observed with the naked eye. Either way, the new moon could not have been visible under Monday’s circumstances because the glare from the sun was too strong to observe the moon at that particular moment… this has been confirmed by the most prominent astronomers in the region.”

The mistake has inspired a wave of jokes and sarcastic tweets, as independent dailies such as Al-Shorouk and Al-Tahrir are quick to point out, Al-Tahrir carrying the headline: “Today is the second of [Islamic month] Shawal and the third of Saturn."

Oh, the multiple ironies. One is that Saturn is the planet of the goat-horned devil in many mythologies — something that religiously-minded conspiracy theories will be sure to point out. The other is that this stupid tradition of waiting for sightings of the moon, which sometimes yields different beginnings and ends of Ramadan (with Saudi Arabia often setting the pace for others), yet again proves its anachronism. Anyone can get hold of a computer program that will indicate with great precision when the new moon arrives. I would suggest a little bit of science and ijtihad is in order: let the astronomers rather than the imams tell us when the moon is new.

Sufis vs. Salafists

Love the last line in this story on the emerging feud between Salafists and Sufis in Egypt after a bunch of Salafist neanderthals burned several shrines revered by Sufis (Salafists hate any version of Islam that incorporates mysticism and esoteric beliefs): 

Sufi sheikh warns of sectarian war with Salafis | Al-Masry Al-Youm:

A leading figure from the Azeemia Sufi order has warned of a sectarian war between Sufis and Salafis over the destruction of several shrines connected with revered religious figures.

Sheikh Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem labeled as “thugs” Salafis who carried out the attacks, and accused them of trying to erase important symbols of Islamic Egypt.

On Tuesday, the Azeemia order held a symposium in which it announced its intention of forming a political party named the Egyptian Liberation Party, which aims to protect Sufis in the event that either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis come to power.

Abul Azayem also said he had proposed a meeting with Salafis at Al-Azhar in 2006, but they rejected the proposed venue, and even refused to hold a meeting on their own premises.

However, on Monday, Sufi leaders finally managed to meet with their Salafi counterparts in Alexandria, where Salafis denied responsibility for the demolition of shrines.

For his part, Al-Azhar University Professor Ahmed al-Sayeh said he had asked his relatives in Upper Egypt to send him a machine gun with which to kill those who have demolished shrines.

Bring it on!

Kristof glosses over colonial era

There's a strange cultural phenomenon — perhaps part of the return of conservatism in the West following the social revolutions symbolized by May 1968 — that has made apologia for colonialism popular again among liberals. I know where it once came from: my maternal grandfather, a man I loved dearly, came from a Belgian colonial family (his father was among the first Europeans to go into deep inner Congo, looking for gold and diamonds in Katanga) would often complain that critics of colonialism forget that Europeans built hospitals and roads and so on where none existed — but would rarely mention the hundreds of thousands of people killed or the exploitation that took place. I didn't like what he said and attributed to his age and conservative mindset, as well as his own experience as a settler in Morocco, which was not at all the exploitative model seen in Congo.

I'm a bit puzzled to read this tidbit in Nick Kristof's latest column:

Many Arabs have an alternative theory about the reason for the region’s backwardness: Western colonialism. But that seems equally specious and has the sequencing wrong. “For all its discontents, the Middle East’s colonial period brought fundamental transformation, not stagnation; rising literacy and education, not spreading ignorance; and enrichment at unprecedented rates, not immiserization,” writes Timur Kuran, a Duke University economic historian, in a meticulously researched new book, “The Long pergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.”

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Gulf justice

The backwardness of the religious and political leaders of the Gulf Arabs, combined with their vast wealth, has been the undoing of the contemporary Arab world — perhaps even more so than all the wars with Israel. From HRW:

Saudi Arabia: Where Fathers Rule and Courts Oblige

Saudi judges have repeatedly granted fathers the right to interfere arbitrarily in their adult children's private lives, in serious violation of their right to privacy and to establish families freely, Human Rights Watch said today. Fathers have imprisoned their adult daughters for "disobedience" and prevented their marriage, and have been granted custody over a grandchild without valid reason, all with the support of the courts.

UAE: Spousal Abuse Never a ‘Right’

A decision by the United Arab Emirates Federal Supreme Court upholding a husband's right to "chastise" his wife and children with physical abuse violates the right of the country's women and children to liberty, security, and equality in the family - and potentially their right to life, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling, citing the UAE penal code, sanctions beating and other forms of punishment or coercion providing the violence leaves no physical marks.

Niqabitches

Via The Telegraph, citing a Rue89 piece where the Niqabitches (as the two anti-ban activists who feature in the above video call themselves) write:

"To put a simple burka on would have been too simple. So we asked ourselves: 'how would the authorities react when faced with women wearing a burka and mini-shorts?," asked the students, one of whom is a Muslim.

"We were not looking to attack or degrade the image of Muslim fundamentalists – each to their own – but rather to question politicians who voted for this law that we consider clearly unconstitutional," they said.

"To dictate what we wear appears to have become the role of the State (as if they didn't have other fish to fry ...)."

 

Run! Sharia is coming!

Much has been written about the recent Center for Security Policy report, headed by neocon loony Frank Gaffney, about the plot to impose Sharia on America. It fits the current mood of hysteria perfectly, and just shows one other element of the carefully crafted campaign of Islamophobia taking place at the moment. But I particularly liked this response by Joshua Micah Marshall of TPM:

In our investigation into the growth of Sharia Law in the USA we came across some surprising findings. Numerous American cities now have one or more Muslim 'religious courts' in operation where believers go to adjudicate family law disputes, real estate transactions and various other matters according to Sharia Law by binding arbitration. These religious court verdicts can then be enforced by civilian American courts. Various states have also passed laws to codify Muslim dietary laws, though a few of these laws have been struck down. And numerous national corporations now process foods to suit Muslim dietary standards. Finally, one jurisdiction in New York has been settled entirely by devout Muslims; no candidates run for office except those approved by the local imam; road signs in the town are all printed in both English and Arabic; and various local practices have been brought into line with Sharia.

Actually, there's one detail I didn't mention. The law here isn't Sharia; it's Halakhah, Jewish religious law. And all the above are true if you change 'Muslim' to 'Jewish' and 'Arabic' to 'Hebrew'. (Actually, Yiddish written in the Hebrew script, to be specific.)

Marshall goes on to say, who cares if this is happening? Personally, I care: I don't think any religious law should be implemented or honored in the US (or for that matter elsewhere.) But that's a separate debate.

Do read TPM's investigative piece on the origins of Sharia-scare in Amreeka.

ADL reaches new low

One of the unexpected outcomes of the Cordoba House / Park51 affair is that it has shown the true colors of many people in American life, from the predictable pandering (or is it honest bigotry?) of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and many Republicans (with the notable and honorable exception of Mayor Bloomberg) to the lamentable moral cowardice of some Democrats.

But if there's been any upside to this sorry story, it's to see the mask pulled down on Abraham Foxman and the ADL.

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On Cordoba House

My new column at Masri al-Youm, on Obama's communication problem, is out. It argues that despite the recent polls showing disappointment with Obama in the Arab world, the real communication problem with regards to Islam that the administration has is with the American people. I've been following with horrified fascination the development of the "controversy" over Cordoba House, which has been cathartic in that it had revealed the strong unease — far beyond the lunatic fringes, the professionals manipulators and the populist opportunists — have with the project. This is America's Danish cartoon crisis.
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Gingrich and Cordoba

When I was in New York about two months ago, the controversy over Cordoba House, the mosque being built near the site where the World Trade Center once stood, was just getting going. I remember seeing conserative blogger Pamela Geller on Mick Huckabee's Fox News show (when in the US I watch Fox News compulsively) calling the project, which is designed to promote cross-cultural understanding, as a desecration of the memory of those who died on 9/11. As Geller engaged in tarnishing an entire religion (what else can it be called?) and Huckabee politely nodded, I wondered how mainstream this stupidity had become.

A couple of days ago the prominent Republican Newt Gingrich — often said to be one of the smartest guys in his party — joined Geller's campaign. Gingrich wrote:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over. 

The proposed "Cordoba House" overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks - is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites.  For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.

Gingrich is clearly actually a moron, on at least two counts. First, why does he want the US to follow the same policies as Saudi Arabia? Is that the standard he sets for the country? When will Freedom House condemn this dangerous voice against freedom of religion?

Secondly — and this is pretty galling from a historian — the Cordoba mosque was built on the site of a Spanish Visigoth church, but only after it had been a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, and Emir Abdel Rahman actually bought the property and then began building what is generally recognized as one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet. It was after the Reconquistada, along which came the Inquisition that drove Jew and Muslim from Spain, that the building was converted into a church and its interior symmetry ruined by the construction of a huge, and ugly, Baroque wooden chapel inside it.

Geller and her friends like to describe the Cordoba House project as "the Islamic supremacist mosque", which reminds me of another supremacist project Geller has no problem with: Israel. It's amazing, and I'm sure no coincidence, the overlap you get between anti-Muslim fanatics and those who support Israel's wars and land grabs. Geller notably once ranted:

Israel is essential. And I pray dearly that in the ungodly event that Tehran or its jihadi proxies (Hez'ballah, Hamas etc) target Israel with a nuke, that she retaliate with everything she has at Tehran, Mecca, and Medina...............

Not to mention Europe. They  exterminated all their Jews, but that wasn't enough. Those monsters then went on to import the next generation of Jew killers.

LoonWatch has more of the same. To me it seems clear that Geller and her ilk have embarked on a project to fan Islamophobia because it is convenient for another cause, maintaining US public opinion (already fed years of anti-Arab propaganda) on Israel's side as the legitimacy of the Zionist project erodes globally. They want to carry out this Muslim-bashing for its own sake, of course, but also comes with a nice benefit of boosting Israel, which has long had an interest in spreading anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hysteria. Sooner or later — and I think sooner — these people will start discrediting themselves and the causes they support.

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The new Sheikh al-Azhar

Mubarak and his chief of staff Zakariya Azmi

The big news from yesterday in Egypt is that President Mubarak is back at work, making phone calls, shifting paperwork and generally looking busy. Among the tasks he's carrying out from his hospital room is appointing Ahmed al-Tayeb as the new Sheikh al-Azhar to replace Sheikh Tantawi.

Others have highlighted the trajectory of Tayeb's career — he is a former Mufti of Egypt and most recently was the dean of al-Azhar University. There, he was best known for tolerating security crackdowns on students from the Muslim Brothers that led to their stupid "martial arts demonstration" that provided the excuse for mass arrests, including senior leaders such as Khairat al-Shater.

The new Sheikh al-Azhar, Ahmed al-TayebAside from his animosity towards the Ikhwan, he is also generally known as a "moderate" and pledged to keep al-Azhar "centrist." I'm not sure what the means — it seems to indicate he is generally against clashes of civilizations, al-Qaeda and other things one would expect out of any decent religious leader. Things are not going to get very far if the standard for reform of al-Azhar is simply ensuring that it rejects salafi jihadist thinking. Much is being made of his PhD from the Sorbonne, though.

Anyway, having done a little search on my personal database I came across this article from al-Sharq al-Awsat's 26 August 2002 edition, chronicling what was then a public spat between al-Tayeb and Sheikh Tantawi:

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 

He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 
He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

I wonder if he still believes in boycotting US products.

The other interesting thing yesterday is that all state imams were told to pray for Mubarak's health during their Friday sermon. One wonders what to make of it: should it be a sign that the situation is quite bad? Probably not. I would guess it's either a directive from on high to show fealty to Mubarak, or perhaps the initiative of Minister of Awqaf (and until yesterday candidate for Sheikh al-Azhar) Hamdi ZaqZouq, who is the official in control of such things. Either way, when you're trying to reassure the nation that Mubarak is fine, surely having all public mosques pray for his health sounds a dissonent message...

Sheikh Tantawi, 1928-2010

Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi

This morning, Muhammad Tantawi, Sheikh of al-Azhar, passed away in Riyadh from a heart attack. He was one of what may be, symbolically at least, the three most important men in Egypt, along with President Hosni Mubarak and Coptic Pope Shenouda III. All three were about the same age, and ill.

Tantawi leaves a mixed legacy behind him: overall, the immediate verdict may be that he was too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals, too compliant with the regime for those who want al-Azhar to be independent, and too independent for those in the regime who needed Azharite support to enact policy changes on issues as varied as Palestine, banking and TV game shows. The overall image is of a man besieged on all sides, but adept at fighting bureaucratic battles in the bloated, clerical civil service that al-Azhar has become.

Tantawi was of the generation of men that have ruled Egypt for at least three decades, and had an incredible influence over twentieth century Egypt. He came of age in the 1940s, and considered himself privileged to have been a young Muslim Brother and benefited from direct contact with the movement's founder, Hassan al-Banna. He shared with al-Banna and many other Brothers at the time a provincial origin, a fierce nationalism and disdain for the cosmopolitanism of Egypt's ruling elite under the monarchy. He would eventually grow into one of the Brotherhood's favorite targets, accused of selling out Sunnism's most hallowed institution of learning to the regime. His record as the state Mufti between 1986 and 1995 was, in the Islamists' eyes, an era of unprecedented politicization of religious institution, and they never forgave him for it (never mind that they were fighting a battle to politicize these institutions against the regime all throughout that time.)

When Tantawi became Sheikh al-Azhar in 1995, replacing the conservative Gad al-Haqq, he immediately began what would amount to an internal purge. Al-Haqq had promoted the al-Azhar Scholar's Front, a conservative group opposed to the co-optation of al-Azhar, since 1992, in part in reaction to the murder of the leading secularist thinker Farag Fouda, whose martyrdom he feared would boost secularists in the regime. The Scholar's Front had been set up in 1946 as a group of anti-secularist scholars and thinkers to counter the ideas of Taha Hussein. Tantawi immediately broke with the front, and instead leaned on the Islamic Research Academy, seen as marginally more reformist, to sanctify his ideas.

Sheikh Metwalli ShaarawiThe context of Tantawi's rise in al-Azhar is important. Tantawi's career had been from government post to government post, and he had never distinguished himself as an opponent of the regime. Some saw him as too pliant, including the person who is perhaps Egypt's most influential religious figure of the late twentieth century, Sheikh Metwally Shaarawi. Shaarawi, who died in 1997, was a populist TV preacher whose posters still adorn many shops in lower-income neighborhoods. His influence — in my opinion for the worse, as his brand of religion, while accessible, was often crass and small-minded — cannot be under-estimated, and Tantawi had to deal with it. The story is that Tantawi chose to placate Shaarawi by appointing his son at the head of the Academy. With his help, Tantawi eroded the authority of the Scholars' Front, eventually succeeding in getting the government to withdraw its license. He also pursued some of its leaders — his main critics — in the courts, winning libel trials against them. But he would also clash with Shaarawi Jr.

Throughout his tenure at al-Azhar, Tantawi would provoke controversies, and he could not always count on the support of the Academy and his fellow Azharites. His detractors accused him of blindly supporting government policies, no matter what Islamic traditions said. For instance, he decreed that banks could charge interest without this being riba (usury), but rather ribh (profit). Later, he would also sanction the mortgage law, allowing Egyptians to borrow to finance home purchases (a major, and many think necessary, reform to avoid other types of loans or only being able to buy property with cash.) Some reformist thinkers, like the "red Sheikh" Khalil Abdel Karim, backed him tentatively because he agreed (but not all the time) that new ijtihad (re-interpretation of Islamic tenets) was necessary.

Other clashes with conservatives were more esoteric, or mundane. Tantawi was the first Sheikh of al-Azhar to attend conferences hosted by groups such as the Rotary Club, which have long been considered as suspect by many conservatives Muslims who consider them as beachheads for Freemasonry and its deism (and also because of the role Freemason-inspired secret societies played in politics under the monarchy.) He was tut-tutted for approving of TV game shows like "Who wants to be a millionaire?" Most recently, he became controversial for ripping a young girl's niqab of her face and saying no girl should wear the full-face veil. He was also constantly battling influential clerics like Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy — "Sheikh al-Jazeera" — on women's issues, as for instance when he decreed that women could be eligible for the presidency (an issue the Muslim Brothers still fight over). It was under his tenure that al-Azhar finally, without reservation, condemned Female Genital Mutilation, although his critics say that took longer that it should have.

Peres and TantawiPerhaps most public was his battle with al-Qaradawy, Islamists, nationalists, and many on the left over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1996, Tantawi became the first major Sunni figure to oppose suicide bombings in reaction to a particularly bloody attack on Israeli civilians that year. But within weeks, he backtracked in the face of a press campaign against him and called the bomber a "martyr." He battled the Mufti at the time, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, over whether suicide bombings were acceptable. His meetings with Israeli figures, such as Israel's head rabbi or Shimon Peres, made many indignant, particularly after the Oslo process collapsed. It made it worse that he constantly waffled on the issue, pretending not to have recognized Peres. In the context of the war in Gaza and Egypt's shift of policy towards the Palestinians, as well as Peres' bloody past, this was seen as outrageous. The irony is that there has long been a rumor that Tantawi's doctoral thesis, titled "The Children of Israel in the Quran and Sunna", is believed to have been removed from al-Azhar's library because of its un-PC views of Jews.

It is likely that Tantawi will be remembered for these controversies and his clashes with journalists — he frequently yelled at them and is said to have hit one — as well as his sometimes coarse language. He leaves behind an unreformed al-Azhar — an institution that includes a university and a school system as well as a theological center — whose credibility has hit rock-bottom. This may be because Tantawi was too pliant towards the regime, or because of the growth of various trends in contemporary Islam that reject al-Azhar's centrality. While the Muslim Brothers dream of restoring al-Azhar to its former (imagined?) glories, Salafists and groups like the Quranists would do away with its mediation of religion altogether. The debate over al-Azhar and the trahison des clercs is far from over. Whoever replaces him — perhaps Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, another tentative modernizer — will have much work to repair al-Azhar's standing and its vitality as a place of learning. It will also have to make difficult political decisions, especially on the issue of presidential succession, at a time when clerics are beginning to voice an opinion on the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency.

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Karsh, Rosen, and essentialism

It's been a busy week, so I'm glad that Nir Rosen took the time to skewer Efraim Karsh so I don't have to. Karsh — among the most prominent Israel apologists in British academia and a leading critics of Israel's New Historians — wrote Muslims Won't Play Together, which basically a loosely argued case for not being afraid of the Islamic response to a strike on Iran, which he backs:

So, if the Muslim bloc is just as fractious as any other group of seemingly aligned nations, what does it mean for United States policy in the Islamic world?

For one, it should give us more impetus to take a harder line with Iran. Just as the Muslim governments couldn’t muster the minimum sense of commonality for holding an all-Islamic sports tournament, so they would be unlikely to rush to Iran’s aid in the event of sanctions, or even a military strike.

Beyond the customary lip service about Western imperialism and “Crusaderism,” most other Muslim countries would be quietly relieved to see the extremist regime checked. It’s worth noting that the two dominant Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been at the forefront of recent international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the idea that bringing peace between the two parties will bring about a flowering of cooperation in the region and take away one of Al Qaeda’s primary gripes against the West totally misreads history and present-day politics. Muslim states threaten Israel’s existence not so much out of concern for the Palestinians, but rather as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the House of Islam.

In these circumstances, one can only welcome the latest changes in the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy, which combine a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear subterfuge with a less imperious approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rosen took Karsh to task for all of his biased assumptions in the piece — the idea of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being a Muslim-Jewish one (rather than one over the land and human rights of the Palestinian people as a whole), the idea of the US having "an imperious approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," his understanding of Iranian politics and countless other sloppy lines. Do read Nir's post.

The thing that shocks me the most, though, is Karsh's framing of the Islamic world as one where the classic theological-legal term for what Western scholars have called "the Islamic law of war" has everyday reverence. Thus, he makes constant use of the House of Islam / House of War dichotomy. It was as if my next door neighbor, when he traveled abroad, said "Well, I'm off to Dar al-Harb, see ya later!"

It's typical of the way scholars with an axe to grind are making use of terms with little everyday relevance (never mind of use in the decision-making of the governments of Muslim-majority countries) to portray an Islamic threat. It reminds me how, at a certain time in America (and I'm sure elsewhere) after 9/11, the word "dhimmitude" was bandied about as if the dhimmi laws still applied in most of the the Islamic world. It's ridiculous and apparently serves the likes of Karsh to impart a scary otherness to people on this side of the planet. And the people who seem to have most liked to eat up this kind of stuff appear to be the editorial board of the New York Times.