‘Top Muslim scholars’ seem to be telling us that dialogue with them is a waste of time

Sheik Ahmad Mohamed el-Tayeb, president of al-Azhar University in Cairo, is flanked by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, at a conference in Washington DC (Photo: CNS)

The decision, reported on this page, of certain “top Muslim scholars” to suspend all dialogue with the Vatican in protest against Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnation of anti-Christian violence in Egypt is deeply depressing, but I suppose we ought to have expected it. I recently reported, in a mood of probably foolish optimism, that there had been a backlash against anti-Christian attacks, not just among the Copts, but among Egyptian Muslims, too. There had been widespread calls by Muslim intellectuals and activists for Egyptian Muslims at large to flock to Coptic churches across the country to attend Coptic Christmas Eve mass, to show solidarity with the nation’s Coptic minority, and also to serve as “human shields” against possible attacks by Islamist militants.
“Are there here,” I asked, “signs of hope?” Perhaps, I ventured, “this is the beginning of a new era”. I also added: “Then again, maybe it isn’t. We shall see.” Well, now I fear we have seen, despite those brave “human shields”: for, in the end, I fear, this has been a welcome but impermanent moment of tolerance which has by now almost certainly dissolved.

The decision of Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, president of the al-Azhar University in Cairo, and members of the Islamic Research Academy to suspend dialogue with the Vatican was made unanimously in response to the Pope’s reference “to the discrimination endured by Coptic Christians in Egypt” after a bombing at a Coptic Orthodox church left 23 people dead. Sheik el-Tayeb had earlier criticised the Pope’s remarks as “unacceptable interference in Egypt’s affairs”.
So: it’s OK for Muslim “scholars” to comment on anything that happens to Muslims anywhere in the world, on the ground that wherever there are Muslims is part of the “Umma”, the Muslim world, so that isn’t interfering in anyone else’s internal affairs, but for the Pope to complain about the oppression of fellow Christians is precisely such an interference.
And the point is, of course, that whether or not they are for some reason engaging in “dialogue”, these same “scholars” think they have a right and a duty not merely to urge the oppression of other religions but in the end to eliminate them entirely on their territory. Just as Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb was breaking off dialogue with Rome, one of his colleagues in the al-Azhar University, Dr Imad Mustafa, was issuing a fatwa. “He began,” reports the Jerusalem Post:

“… by stating the well-known doctrine of ‘defensive jihad’, that is Muslims must go to war against infidels who attack them. Of course, the word ‘attack’ is often spread rather thinly to justify aggression.

But now Mustafa has publicly and explicitly come up with a new concept, one that up until now was supposedly restricted to groups like al-Qaida: ‘Then there is another type of fighting against the non-Muslims known as offensive jihad… which is to pursue the infidels into their own land without any aggression [on their part]…
‘Two schools [of Islamic jurisprudence] have ruled that offensive jihad is permissible in order to secure Islam’s border, to extend God’s religion to people in cases where the governments do not allow it, such as the Pharaoh did with the children of Israel, and to remove every religion but Islam from the Arabian peninsula.’ “

“And to remove every religion but Islam”: what a detestable euphemism for murder. And that, in the end, it seems, is the ambition of the “scholars” of this important Islamic “university”. I put these words into inverted commas to indicate what is rapidly becoming very obvious, even to those determined to put as optimistic a gloss on interfaith relations as possible: that the words really don’t seem to mean to the Muslim world anything remotely like what we mean by them.

Perhaps I am wrong to write thus in anger: but there is such a thing as righteous, or justified anger. If I am indeed wrong in what I have said here about the Muslim world, it is now up to that section of Islamic opinion which fundamentally disagrees with the views emanating from the al-Azhar University to make its views known as vigorously as the “scholars” have done. The ball is now in the court of “moderate” Islamic opinion. Is there anyone out there? If so, for heaven’s sake, say something.