- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

CAIRO — Al Azhar’s grand sheik, one of Islam’s most influential figures, is unequivocal: His faith stands for peace and justice. But the definitions seem up for debate at this historic university and mosque in these troubled times for Muslims.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks focused attention on Islamic extremism, Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi — who perhaps more than any other leader embodies moderate, official Islam — has often condemned terrorism and al Qaeda.

He repeated his denunciations in a rare interview, but he also called “occupying others’ lands” — meaning Israel in Palestinian territory — the “ugliest kind of terrorism.”

The mixed signals Sheik Tantawi sends can be confusing — reflecting the crosscurrents and political mood among mainstream Muslims.

At a time when Osama bin Laden is capturing imaginations with his calls on Muslims to strike the West, moderate Islamic thinkers say al Azhar should be helping Muslims move beyond rhetoric and find a peaceful way forward.

But al Azhar, confident in its hold on the silent majority, seems to see little need to directly debate the vocal minority of extremist ideologues, including Egyptians like top bin Laden aide Ayman al-Zawahri.

Egypt has not suffered an Islamic terrorist attack since the 1997 shootings that killed 58 foreign tourists at Luxor.

Among the 300,000 male and female university students of al Azhar, a sense of grievance is unmistakable.

“There is a war against Islam,” said Ahmed Hussein, 22, a third-year accounting student. He accuses the United States of targeting Muslims in Iraq, of bias toward Israel and against Arabs in the Palestinian territories, and of labeling anyone who fights back a terrorist.

Sheik Tantawi, appointed grand sheik by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1996, rejects the idea that conflict between Islam and the West is inevitable, saying his institution works to spread universal ideas of “peace, justice and communication and cooperation between all the peoples of the world.”

Yet his comments can sometimes send a different message.

Two years ago, in a Friday sermon at the mosque, Sheik Tantawi declared: “One who blows himself up among those [Israeli] aggressors is a martyr, martyr, martyr … .” He later backed off slightly, saying suicide bombers should not target women and children.

More recently, Sheik Tantawi called for Muslims “to support and defend the people of Iraq” as the U.S.-led war there began last year.

Fahmi Howeidi, a Cairo-based writer on Islamic affairs, said intellectuals and hard-line Muslims believe al Azhar has lost its independence because of its alliance with the Egyptian government. That has undermined al Azhar’s authority, creating a vacuum, he said.

“In this vacuum, the extremists found a good opportunity to try to propagate their views and to try to lead the Muslim world,” Mr. Howeidi said.

Radwan Masmoudi, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a Washington think tank, said al Azhar has the reach and prestige to be a leader in discussions about Islam and modernity, but has not been “innovative enough or forward-thinking enough.”

“It’s vital for the Muslim and for Islam that we have a modern interpretation of Islam and that modern interpretation of Islam is seen as genuine, coming from within Islam, not from outside, not from the West,” Mr. Masmoudi said.

Old institutions can be slow to change. The university grew out of groups of scholars who discussed and debated around the pillars of al Azhar Mosque, where prayers were first held in 972.

The main university campus’s modern, dust-colored concrete buildings are located on reclaimed desert in a newer part of Cairo, a short drive from the ancient mosque.

Azharis — people of al Azhar — say that with the institution’s international prominence and history, their vision of Islam is sure to prevail over extremism. Al Azhar, after all, is no upstart like Yemen’s 9-year-old Iman University, regarded as a haven for radicals, or the one-room madrassas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that produced the Taliban.

Asef Bayat, director of the Netherlands-based International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, said the Azharis may have a point. For many, particularly in Egypt, al Azhar remains a main source, if not the main source, of religious guidance and knowledge, Mr. Bayat said.

As angry as he is at what he sees as the West’s assault on his faith, al Azhar student Mr. Hussein — beardless and sporting chic eyewear — is focused on a middle-class future, not taking up arms against the West.

“The thing I have learned here at al Azhar is that if I concentrate on God, I will be successful,” Mr. Hussein said. “If you really know God, you will be a really successful doctor or teacher or accountant.”

It was seen as an aberration when five Russians studying at al Azhar were arrested late last year on suspicion of belonging to a radical Muslim group that advocates violence.

In the late 1990s, Sheik Tantawi banned a campus organization of professors who were more radical. Mr. Bayat of the Dutch think tank said a minority of fundamentalists remain at al Azhar and its graduates may go forth to preach extreme views.

But Mr. Bayat said Sheik Tantawi has largely succeeded at suppressing the influence of those who argue, for example, that al Azhar should be actively working to implement strict Islamic law, not just educating pious accountants.

“You shall have always in any assembly one or two who are extreme,” said Ali el Samman, an adviser to Sheik Tantawi.

“We are 1 billion,” Mr. Samman added, referring to the number of Muslims in the world. “If you imagine al Azhar can control all that, that’s difficult.”

Sheik Tantawi has reached out to other faiths, angering extremists who have said he should be stripped of his position for meeting with rabbis.

He counts among al Azhar’s most important activities formal exchanges with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders begun in 1998 through his Permanent Committee for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions.

“Al Azhar is an institution of dialogue, and dialogue has become the magic word in international relations,” particularly since the September 11 attacks, said Mr. Samman.

Sheik Tantawi, his bearded face grave under the Azharis’ traditional red fez wrapped in a white turban, is given to pausing before responding to questions, seeming to weigh each syllable of his answers. His comments are cited as religious rulings, or fatwas, by followers of the main Sunni branch of Islam around the world.

But he is no pope. Islam has no such hierarchy. Sheik Tantawi’s authority rests only on his power to persuade and on al Azhar’s prestige. Any Muslim who disagrees with him is free to seek another fatwa elsewhere.

Sheik Tantawi’s critics can be vocal, as when he backed a French ban on Islamic head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols from French secular schools. Sheik Tantawi asked Muslim women in France to comply, saying minorities living in the West should respect local laws and customs.

The French law provoked protests across the Islamic world, including on al Azhar’s Cairo campus. Some accused Sheik Tantawi of speaking not out of religious conviction, but at the behest of an Egyptian government hoping to defuse tensions.

Its close ties to the government rob al Azhar of credibility in the eyes of militants, who say Egyptian and other Arab governments should be toppled and replaced with theocracies. Al Azhar gets funding and support from the government, but says that doesn’t affect its independence.

Mr. Mubarak does not want to see a resurgence of the Islamic violence his government crushed in the 1990s, and counts on al Azhar to counsel moderation to an increasingly conservative Egyptian faithful.

At Sheik Tantawi’s offices, a brass inscription in ornate Arabic script covers one marble wall. The legend is not a verse from the Koran or a saying of the prophet Muhammad.

It quotes Mr. Mubarak pledging to spread the word of God and work to raise the stature of al Azhar.

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