On Tuesday, FDD’s Michael Ledeen noticed that the media were not covering what seemed like an important story: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s speech to Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University on Islam. The speaker and the venue were made all the more significant because of the content of the speech. Sisi castigated the assembled Islamic leaders, and by extension their global co-religionists, for breeding an extreme and intolerant Islam. The tragic events in Paris yesterday only reinforce the substance of Sisi’s message.
The lack of coverage of Sisi’s speech was such that Ledeen found himself having lunch “with three gentlemen who are very well read, who follow the news attentively, and who would shudder to think they are victims of ideological censorship. Yet not one of them — and the trio includes a very famous former reporter (a first-class reporter at that) for one of the country’s top newspapers — had heard a word about” the speech. “All three watch TV news and read the leading dailies, so they were surprised that they hadn’t heard about it. They agreed that the story warranted banner headlines. World-wide.”
That lack of coverage–perhaps censorship is too strong a word to describe it, but it comes close–is also given new significance by the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office in which Islamist terrorists murdered twelve for the sin of insulting Mohammed. The resulting self-censorship, at a time when basic fortitude was called for, is a crucial part of the story. The scourge of political correctness cannot be held blameless for the media’s decision to ignore Sisi’s criticism of Islamic extremism.
According to Raymond Ibrahim, who provided a translation from Michele Antaki, Sisi said:
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!
That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!
I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.
He added that Muslim clerics needed to approach Islam “from a more enlightened perspective”–a term likely chosen very carefully, and quite daringly–and that this necessitates a “religious revolution.”
So what is Sisi up to? Part of it, surely, is that he hopes his words are heeded. This is not an unselfish gesture: he wants his enemies, like the Muslim Brotherhood and their even more extreme allies and offshoots (including Hamas in Gaza, right on Egypt’s border), to do some of his work for him by tempering their own passions. It is dangerous for Sisi to say what he said, but he is already a marked man. I imagine he ran an improvised cost-benefit analysis in his head and decided, probably correctly, that the Hail Mary (forgive the analogy) was worth it.
Another explanation is the role terrorism plays in forging alliances. We saw one example at the end of December when an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian UN Security Council resolution was on track to pass (though it likely would have been vetoed by the U.S.), its momentum helped by a yes-vote from France. But the resolution failed when Nigeria surprised even the Israelis and voted against the Palestinian resolution. Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram reportedly was a factor:
Part of the change stemmed from the tightening relationship between Israel and Nigeria and from the common interests of the countries in the fight against global terrorism. Israel was one of the first nations in the world to offer the Nigerians help in the struggle against the Boko Haram terrorist group.
Sisi is looking abroad, especially to the West. Since the army’s coup deposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and handed Sisi the reins, and especially since Sisi’s violent crackdown on the Brotherhood and dissent more broadly following the coup, Sisi has not exactly been embraced by Western governments made doubly uneasy by military coups and by being seen as taking a stand against Islamists. Appeasement and capitulation are the trend among the Western left, though as France is learning this appeasement is not earning them any goodwill among Islamists.
And Sisi is also trying to get his house in some order. As long as ethnic and religious minorities will be violently persecuted by Egypt’s Muslim establishment and Brotherhood networks, the country will be an economic basket case. Sisi also cannot claim to stand with the West while allowing his country to be part of the bloody global war on Christians currently engulfing the Middle East and Central Asia most violently of all. That’s probably why Sisi made another historic gesture: he became the first Egyptian president to attend a Coptic Christmas mass.
Whatever the reasons for the speech and whatever its outcome, the brutal terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest proof of the fact that Sisi at least has the virtue of being right.