With the Cairo Conference and the participation of more than 200 personalities from more than 60 countries, al-Azhar University and the Muslim Council of Elders aim to rescue a troubled Arab world. The Lebanese presence, with dignitaries and high profile personalities, confirms the role and the message of Lebanon as a normative example in a hostile environment or in a democratic transition.
The inaugural speeches open the conference after several recent statements by al-Azhar. What is at stake is “to re-state the message of Islam” (Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayyib), “to undertake a joint action at the level of religious and civil authorities, and to tear apart the veil of deception” (Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Raï), “to liberate religion from political conflict” (Sheikh Abdul Latif Deryan, Grand Mufti of Lebanon), “to ensure that al-Azhar returns to being the ultimate reference for all Muslims in our societies under attack, as it was and still is the case in Palestine” (Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan, Shi’ite), “to promote a modern enlightened discourse” (Pope Tawadros II), “to recognize and practice the primacy of law” (Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary-General of the Arab League), at the beginning of the XXI century “in which religious pluralism becomes universal” (Bistop Cebus Sarkissian). The Iraqi representatives’ excruciating cry adds to the relevance of the interventions the daily suffering of the Iraqi people.
The Political Science of Religion
Does all this mean that al-Azhar is trying to earn a political role again, in the conventional sense of the past? Not at all. The statement is categorical: “No political role, understood as power, from al-Azhar, which exerts a moral judiciary in view of citizenship, civil peace and coexistence.” The atrocities taking place are called “crimes” and not Islamic extremism, Islamic politics, or worse, Islamic State (Gregory Laham, Melkite Patriarch). However, al-Azhar never speaks of a religious state, but has a sense of public space and of religious policy in the public sphere (Ridwan al-Sayyid, Lebanese intellectual). The much polluted notions of “People of the Book” (Muhammad al-Sammak, Lebanese intellectual), sharia (religious prescription) as source of values for the legislation, and tashrī‘ (law) as the source of law enforcement, should be developed deeply.
How to reconcile sharia with citizenship? (Gregory III Laham). In the future, we will surely need to distinguish between two components of citizenship: the legal aspect of equality in terms of rights, freedom and participation, and that of a culture of citizenship, of civic behaviors and of new generations’ socialization. It is underlined that “citizenship is based on education” (Khaled Ziadé, Lebanese diplomat) and that we will need to “rethink the teaching programs” (Mar Louis Raphäel Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon). Since 2013, committees have been formed to pursue this goal, including the reform of al-Azhar’s programs. A dogmatic religious teaching, often lacking the spirituality of faith, does not contribute to the formation of young people.
Especially the need for networking and partnership will allow to make concrete changes, because “we must work together for a common future” (Msgr. Paul Matar, Archbishop of Beirut for the Maronites). It is a matter of “building bridges between al-Azhar, the Church and Christian institutions” (Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, Patriarch of Alexandria for the Copts) and of “rooting the Christian participation” (rev. Habib Badr, National Evangelical Church of Beirut). Ridwan al-Sayyid underlines that “we are responsible, but to say that we are not working is not correct.”
Looking at the future, Egypt holds a pioneering role, as Lebanon – “a point of encounter for the Lebanese people, different and complementary, which enabled it to recover from disasters” (Hares Chehab, Secretary-General of the Islamic-Christian National Committee for dialogue). A Jordanian participant says: “When the Maronites were accused of isolationism I started to worry” (Saleh al-Kalab, former Minister of Information and Culture of Jordan). In spite of the inferiority complex of intellectuals and academics who propagate an alienated and alienating ideology of nation-building, Lebanon remains the normative example, despite the numerous inflexibilities and laborious actions of experts in manipulating pluralism under the pretext of participation, consensus and dialogue.
There will also be the need to think of an Arab renaissance project, “to meet the challenges of our time, to put into practice the truth, to live in a time of change” (Vittorio Ianari). The Saint Egidio representative finally raises the question of whether after The drama of atheist humanism (by Henri de Lubac, 1944) and the decline of all ideologies, “it is possible to found a humanism without faith at the beginning of the XXI century.”
What Is to Be Done?
The Declaration of al-Azhar University on March 1, 2017, read and proclaimed by the Imam of al-Azhar himself at the end of the conference, wants to promote seven action points in the Arab world, in universities and research centers, in the actions of religious, civil, cultural and educational authorities, in the media and in Muslim-Christian dialogues.