Before Paris attack, Egypt's president called on religious leaders to lead.
By Jonah Goldberg
January 6, 2015
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II. (photo credit:REUTERS)
The slaughter in Paris Wednesday shocks the conscience but hardly shocks the intellect. In other words, no one is surprised that Muslim extremists are capable of doing this sort of thing. And nearly everyone expected in the early moments of this story that the culprits would be revealed to be Islamic extremists.
It is a sad commentary that the more shocking and, arguably more significant, event came a week earlier in Cairo. Egyptian President (and strongman) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered a possibly epochal speech at Al-Azhar University on New Year's Day. More than a thousand years old, Al-Azhar is considered by many to be the epicenter of scholarly Islam.
Addressing the assemblage of imams in the room, al-Sisi called for a "religious revolution" in which Muslim clerics take the lead in rethinking the direction Islam has taken recently. An excerpt (as translated by Raymon Ibrahim's website):
"I am referring here to the religious clerics. … 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! ... All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.
"I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands."
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Words are cheap, particularly in a region where the currency is measured in blood. But al-Sisi has also backed up his words with deeds. On Tuesday, al-Sisi attended a Coptic Christian Christmas Mass, the first time anything like that has been done by an Egyptian president. He spoke of his love of Christian Egyptians and the need to see "all Egyptians" as part of "one hand."
Is al-Sisi the "Muslim Martin Luther" people have been waiting for? Almost surely not, for the simple reason that the Muslim Martin Luther was always a Western idea ill-suited to Muslim realities (which is why some of us have argued Islam needs a pope more than a Luther). Al-Sisi, a military man, not a cleric, could be more like an Egyptian Atatürk — the Turkish strongman who modernized and secularized Turkey a century ago (and whose work is currently being dismantled by the soft-Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan).
Or maybe we're just in uncharted territory? Who knows? What is clear, however, is that this is a big deal. Al-Sisi is doing exactly what Westerners have been crying out for since at least Sept. 11, 2001, if not before that. And yet his speech has been almost entirely ignored by the mainstream new media. The commentators and analysts at PJ Media have been all over the story, but there's been silence from The New York Times, Washington Post, the news networks and other major outlets.
Why? No doubt part of the explanation is that he gave his speech on New Year's Day, when most journalists are hung over, following football not the foreign press. But another part of the explanation probably has to do with the fact that al-Sisi isn't the kind of authentic Muslim reformer many Westerners wanted.
Indeed, he's too Western for some and clearly too autocratic for many (his treatment of the press is outrageous). They wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to succeed in Egypt, not be brought to heel by an Arab Pinochet. Moreover, al-Sisi sees Israel as a de facto ally in their shared battle against Muslim extremism, and that muddies the narrative that Israel is the cause of Middle East extremism, not the victim of it.
Whatever your own view of the man, and whether you think he's sincere, al-Sisi's efforts to combat Muslim extremism — militarily and rhetorically — deserve closer attention, if not now then after the images from Paris fade.
Jonah Goldberg, American Enterprise Institute fellow and National Review contributing editor, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.