This man is simply enforcing the unchanging Law of Allah, the Sharia. Do note the opposition from other, more Westernised Egyptian Muslims. Once again, Muslims are not the issue, Sharia and those who advocate it are the problem.
There’s nothing like knowing Arabic—that is, being privy to the Muslim world’s internal conversations on a daily basis—to disabuse oneself of the supposed differences between so-called “moderate” and “radical” Muslims.
Consider the case of Egypt’s Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb. Hardly one to be dismissed as a fanatic who is ignorant of the true tenets of Islam, Tayeb’s credentials and career are impressive: he holds a Ph. D in Islamic philosophy from the Paris-Sorbonne University; formerly served as Grand Imam of Egypt, meaning he was the supreme interpreter of Islamic law; and since 2003 has been president of Al-Azhar University, considered the world’s leading institution of Islamic learning. A 2013 survey named Tayeb the “most influential Muslim in the world.”
He is also regularly described by Western media and academia as a “moderate.” Georgetown University presents him as “a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue.” According to The National, “He is considered to be one of the most moderate and enlightened Sunni clerics in Egypt.” In February 2015, the Wall Street Journal praised him for making “one of the most sweeping calls yet for educational reform in the Muslim world to combat the escalation of extremist violence.”
Most recently he was invited to the Vatican and warmly embraced by Pope Francis. Al Azhar had angrily cut off all ties with the Vatican five years earlier when, in the words of U.S. News, former Pope Benedict “had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year’s bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased.”
Pope Francis referenced his meeting with Tayeb as proof that Muslims are peaceful: “I had a long conversation with the imam, the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar University, and I know how they think. They [Muslims] seek peace, encounter.”
How does one reconcile Tayeb’s benevolent image in the West with his reality in Egypt?
For instance, all throughout the month of Ramadan last June, Tayeb appeared on Egyptian TV explaining all things Islamic—often in ways that do not suggest that Islam seeks “peace, encounter.”
During one episode, he reaffirmed a phrase that is almost exclusively associated with radicals: in Arabic, al-din wa’l-dawla, meaning “the religion and the polity”—a phrase that holds Islam to be both a religion and a body of rules governing society and state.
Raziq was vehemently criticized by many clerics and even fired from Al Azhar. Concluded Tayeb, with assent:
Al Azhar’s position was to reject his position, saying he forfeited his credentials and his creed. A great many ulema—in and out of Egypt and in Al Azhar—rejected his work and its claim, that Islam is a religion but not a polity. Instead, they reaffirmed that Islam is both a religion and a polity [literally, al-din wa’l-dawla].
The problem with the idea that Islam must govern the whole of society should be obvious: Sharia, or Islamic law, which is what every Muslim including Tayeb refer to when they say that Islam is a polity, is fundamentally at odds with modern notions of human rights and, due to its supremacist and “anti-infidel” aspects, the source of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims the world over.
That this is the case was made clear during another of Tayeb’s recent episodes. On the question of apostasy in Islam—whether a Muslim has the right to abandon Islam for another or no religion—the “radical” position is well known: unrepentant apostates are to be punished with death.
Yet Tayeb made the same pronouncement. During another Ramadan episode he said that “Contemporary apostasy presents itself in the guise of crimes, assaults, and grand treason, so we deal with it now as a crime that must be opposed and punished.”
While his main point was that those who do not follow Islam are prone to being criminals, he especially emphasized those who exhibit their apostasy as being a “great danger to Islamic society. And that’s because his apostasy is a result of his hatred for Islam and a reflection of his opposition to it. In my opinion, this is grand treason.”
Tayeb added what all Muslims know: “Those learned in Islamic law [al-fuqaha] and the imams of the four schools of jurisprudence consider apostasy a crime and agree that the apostate must either renounce his apostasy or else be killed.” He even cited a hadith, or tradition, of Islam’s prophet Muhammad calling for the execution of Muslims who quit Islam.
Meanwhile, when speaking to Western and non-Muslim audiences, as he did during his recent European tour, Tayeb tells them what they want to hear. Recently speaking before an international forum he asserted that “The Quran states that there is no compulsion in religion,” and that “attempts to force people into a religion are against the will of God.” Similarly, when meeting with the Italian Senate’s Foreign Policy Commission Pier Ferdinando Casini and his accompanying delegation, Tayeb “asserted that Islam is the religion of peace, cooperation and mercy…. Islam believes in freedom of expression and human rights, and recognizes the rights of all human beings.”
While such open hypocrisy—also known as taqiyya—may go unnoticed in the West, in Egypt, human rights groups often call him out. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights recently issued a statement accusing Al Azhar of having two faces: one directed at the West and which preaches freedom and tolerance, and one directed to Muslims and which sounds not unlike ISIS:
In March 2016 before the German parliament, Sheikh al-Tayeb made unequivocally clear that religious freedom is guaranteed by the Koran, while in Cairo he makes the exact opposite claims…. Combating terrorism and radical religious ideologies will not be accomplished by directing at the West and its international institutions religious dialogues that are open, support international peace and respect freedoms and rights, while internally promoting ideas that contribute to the dissemination of violent extremism through the media and educational curricula of Al Azhar and the mosques.
At any rate, if Tayeb holds such draconian views on apostasy from Islam—that is, when he’s speaking in Arabic to fellow Muslims—what is his position concerning the Islamic State? Last December, Tayeb was asked why Al Azhar refuses to issue a formal statement denouncing the genocidal terrorist organization as lapsing into a state of kufr, that is, of becoming un-Islamic, or “infidel.” Tayeb responded:
Al Azhar cannot accuse any [Muslim] of being a kafir [infidel], as long as he believes in Allah and the Last Day—even if he commits every atrocity…. I cannot denounce ISIS as un-Islamic, but I can say that they cause corruption on earth.
As critics, such as Egyptian talk show host Ibrahim Eissa pointed out, however, “It’s amazing. Al Azhar insists ISIS are Muslims and refuses to denounce them. Yet Al Azhar never ceases to shoot out statements accusing novelists, writers, thinkers—anyone who says anything that contradicts their views—of lapsing into a state of infidelity. But not when it comes to ISIS!”