- - Wednesday, January 7, 2015


How long will this sort of thing keep going on? While the Islamic State busily beheads Iraqi children who refuse to renounce their Christian faith, their Islamist brethren in Paris pursue their own jihadi offensive. Twelve people were massacred Wednesday in an attack targeting a weekly humor magazine famous for publishing satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad. Their battle cry: “The prophet has been avenged!”

Meanwhile, Americans obsess about our racial, ethnic and political divisions, preferring that the Islamic State be confronted by Persian rather than American boots on the ground, content to leave the larger questions about the future of civilization to be asked elsewhere.

Because our media faithfully reflects those reigning obsessions, you may have missed the startling New Year’s Day speech delivered in a most unlikely place. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi stood before a clerical audience at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, long regarded as the world’s leading center of Islamic thought. His purpose: to directly challenge those reigning orthodoxies. According to the translation published by Middle East Forum, Mr. el-Sissi told his audience that current Islamic thinking was antagonizing the entire world:

“I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah . I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move because this [Islamic world] is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.”

The videotapes show his clerical audience appearing shocked and uncomfortable, but Mr. el-Sissi fearlessly plunged forward:

“I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have [enshrined] over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world! I am saying these words here at Al-Azhar, before this assembly of scholars … . Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.”

If you have ever wondered when a prominent Muslim leader might stand forthrightly against the rising tide of Islamic terror, then wonder no longer. Mr. el-Sissi just did precisely that. Even better, he put his finger squarely on the root problem: Sedimentary layers of religious dogma that have transformed the supposed “religion of peace” into a well-honed weapon of war. What kind of God, for example, requires routine butchery from the Gaza Strip to the streets of Paris in ways that might have embarrassed the Nazis’ Waffen SS? Can the imams of Al-Azhar be wise and courageous enough to answer this challenge by engaging in a serious rethinking of their own doctrines? Wouldn’t the whole world benefit if they did?

Mr. el-Sissi well understands those potential stakes because recent history has given him an unforgettable object lesson about what happens when religious fanatics seize unlimited secular power. As Egypt’s top general, he witnessed at firsthand the Islamist excesses of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Its fatal error: Thinking that Mr. el-Sissi and the other generals would simply go along to get along. And so they did, but only for awhile. With the Egyptian economy tanking and civil war looming, Mr. el-Sissi led the revolt which removed Mr. Morsi from power, promptly followed by a constitutional referendum and, most recently, by the elections that elevated Mr. el-Sissi from general to president.

Those bold moves brought the new Egyptian government into direct conflict with the reigning U.S. establishment: President Obama, his State Department and the tony Georgetown salons where the diplomatic elites gather for white wine and brie. The Egyptian street believes to this day that Mr. Obama was a sympathizer of either the Muslim Brotherhood or Mr. Morsi. Their convictions grew stronger when the White House embargoed weapons transfers even while the Muslim Brotherhood fought back harder than ever. Facing a persistent insurgency, today many Egyptians consider the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood as indistinguishable enemies. And their view of Mr. Obama? Don’t even ask.

Despite the official cold shoulder from the American government, Egypt played a key go-between role during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas (while frisking Secretary of State John Kerry). But Americans should also be encouraged by two aspects of the former general’s recent Al-Azhar speech. For one thing, Mr. el-Sissi is a product of American war colleges, having been shaped not only by their democratic ideals but also by the lifelong military-to-military partnerships, which they invariably foster. But the el-Sissi speech also suggests the enduring legacy of Anwar Sadat, who gave his life to secure a lasting peace with Israel. Egyptians and Americans well remember President Sadat’s pointed reminders to his fellow Muslims, as well as to Jews and Christians, that all of us are “people of the book.”

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.



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