We are publishing the text of the speech delivered by the sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib at the conference on “Freedom, Citizenship, Diversity and Integration” which was held at al-Azhar from February 28 to March 1, 2017.
[…] This conference […] takes place in exceptional circumstances, and during extremely hard times for the Middle East and the whole world, since our Arab and Islamic world has been set on fire with a war without any reasonable cause, any justification that is logical or acceptable for a twenty-first century man.
The way in which religion is portrayed in this framework of desolation is surprising, not to say sad and painful: as if religion was the ember that lit these wars. People’s heads are filled with the idea that Islam is the instrument of destruction that took down the Twin Towers, with which the Bataclan and subway stations were blown up, and that according to its teachings innocent bodies were crushed in Nice and other cities, in the West and the East. Within this dramatic scenario, a terrifying one that is only getting bigger and darker, what makes us grieve is the increase of extremism and the reduction of a space for a correct understanding of the truth of religion and of the meaning of the prophets’ messages, which contrast dramatically with all the false interpretations which divert religion from its path and with which sacred texts are being misappropriated, […] as if such sacred texts were rental weapons for those who are willing to pay the price demanded by the wars’ traffickers, arms dealers, and by the neo-colonial philosophies’ theorists. […]
We are not here to analyze the phenomenon of Islamophobia, nor that of terrorism, which feeds it. […] But, while the Christian and Jewish extremisms have been overcome in a peaceful and quiet way in the West, without having the images of their corresponding heavenly religions stained, now their third brother is facing trial alone, being the one who is still insulted and defamed.
Yes! The most horrific images of Christian and Jewish violence were overcome peacefully, making a clear distinction between religion and terrorism. To give some examples, the case of explosive attacks against abortion clinics done by Micheal Bray, or the case of Timothy James McVeigh who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma, or David Koresh and the events that occurred in Texas after his religious proclamations; not to mention religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, or the involvement of some religious institutions in the extermination and rape of over 250,000 Muslim men and women from Bosnia. […]
With this introduction, that has perhaps lasted longer than it should have, it was not my intent – God be my witness – to reopen wounds or fuel the conflict among humankind. Indeed, this is not the mission of the heavenly religions, nor of al-Azhar, nor of the tolerant East, nor the West, advanced and rational. Instead, I meant to say that if religious institutions, in the East and in the West, do not work together to address the challenge of Islamophobia, sooner or later this will expand its threat against Christianity and Judaism. And on that day it will be worth nothing to say, “I was eaten the day the white bull was eaten1.” Atheists, proclaimers of the death of God, advocates of materialist philosophies that emerge from Nazi and Communist underground, preachers of the legalization of drugs, of the destruction of the family (which they would want to replace with a collective sexual order), of the killing of the fetus in the maternal womb, those who promote abortion and the right to become male or female depending on the time or the personal taste, those who work to replace national memberships with a global order, erasing the differences between peoples after having destroyed their culture and bypassing their characteristics in terms of history, religion and civilization: all of them are waiting for the right moment to attack religion. And today, there is an increasingly urgent appeal to include all of these issues within the power of the European Union. […]
Such appeals make their way forcefully, and they will wipe out first of all the heavenly religions, which, from the perspective of the enemies of religion, are the cause of wars: Christianity generated the Crusades, Islam spreads blood and terror, and the only solution would be to eliminate religion from the face of the earth. However, these people are silent as graves in front of the casualties from non-religious wars, unleashed by atheists and ultra-secularists in the first half of the last century. […]
I think that you may agree with me when I say that, in front of such brutal challenges, exonerating religion from terrorism is no longer sufficient. We must take initiative and go a step further, bringing the principles and ethics of religions in this stormy reality. This step requires – from my personal point of view – preliminary actions, starting from smoothening tensions and conflicts that still exist among leaders of different religions, and have no reason to exist today. If there is no peace among those who preach religions, it will be impossible for them to transmit peace. For one who does not possess something cannot give it to others! This step can happen only by a mutual understanding of each other, which implies cooperation and integration and represents a religious requirement of primary importance. This is what Islam calls our attention to in those Qur’anic verses that Muslims and Christians know well because of how many times they have been evoked in our meetings: “O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. But the noblest among you in the sight of God is the one who fears God the most. God is All-knowing, All-aware” (Q. 49:13). In the same way, it draws our attention to an original right that God has gifted men: a right that concerns freedom and liberation from constraints, and especially the right to freedom of religion, belief and confession: “No compulsion is there in religion” (2:256); “And if thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them all together. Wouldst thou then constrain the people, until they are believers?” (10:99); “Thou are not charged to oversee them” (88:22); “It is for thee only to deliver the Message” (42:48).
In the text that the Prophet – peace and prayer be upon him – addressed to the people of Yemen, there was the following provision: “The one, among the Jews or Christians, who hates Islam will not be forced to change his religion”. These and other religious texts are at the foundation of the right for freedom and liberation. When al-Azhar encourages the replacement of the terms “minority” or “minorities” with the concept of citizenship, it refers to a constitutional principle applied by Islam’s Prophet – peace and prayer be upon him – to the first Muslim society in history, the State of Medina, when he established equality between Muslims, whether they were muhajirun (those who had emigrated with him from Mecca, Ed) or ansar (the auxiliary, those who welcomed his predication in Medina, Ed), as well as with Jews from every tribe, considering them citizens with equal rights and duties. On this topic, the Islamic tradition has preserved a document, written in the form of a constitution, unknown to any system prior to Islam. […]
1 The saying is taken from a famous story. Once there were three bulls, one red, one black and one white, who lived in a forest next to a lion. One day the lion went to red bull and the black one and told them, “Your color is similar to mine, but the white bull is of a different color and is likely to draw against you the wild beasts, therefore let me eat it”. The two bulls agreed and the lion ate the white bull. For a few days, the lion was full, but when he was hungry again, it went to the red bull and said, “Your color is the same as mine, and from a distance you look like a lion. But the black bull is different, let me eat him”. The red bull agreed, and the lion ate the black bull. When a few days later the lion was hungry again, it went straight to the red bull and attacked it, this time without resorting to tricks. While the lion was attacking it, the bull screamed: “I was eaten the day the white bull was eaten”. This story recalls Winston Churchill's aphorism on the crocodile: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”.