The president of Egypt general Abdel Fattah al-SisiThe speech that General al-Sisi gave on 1 January 2015 in front of the principal religious authorities of Egypt is probably unprecedented in the contemporary history of the Arab-Islamic world. This was not the first time that the Egyptian President had expressed an opinion publicly and in a non-formal way on Islam and on the way it is lived out and interpreted. He did so, for example, last July, when speaking during the celebrations for the ‘night of destiny’ (the night when according the Muslims the Koran was revealed), during which he stated that ‘many people know the Koran by heart, but there are people who know the Koran by heart and kill us…The ways in which we practise Islam, and which are in reality against our religion, have brought upon us the criticisms of other people’. But this time al-Sisi went beyond this, asking his audience to engage in an authentic ‘religious revolution’.
The words of al-Sisi deserve to be valued and appreciated. The Egyptian President has been perhaps the only Muslim public figure (he himself is famous for being a devout Muslim) to recognise frankly that contemporary Islamic thought has a problem, the solution to which can no longer be postponed. But in order to assess the effects that this important initiative can produce we must first dwell upon certain aspects of it.
First of all, we will have to see whether the appeal of the President meets with a positive response or is disregarded, leaving apart the prompt willingness to participate demonstrated by the Egyptian religious institutions. In reality, as early as last December the authorities of al-Azhar had organised an international conference to discuss extremism and terrorism, with the participation not only of many ulama from all over the world, Sunnis and Shiites alike, but also some bishops of the Middle East. But evidently al-Sisi has in mind a further effort: not only opposing episodically the reading of Islam that is engaged in by the most extreme movements but also of deconstructing at the roots a religious discourse which in various forms and degrees has over the last decades become hegemonic in a significant part of the Islamic world. Naturally, there will be no shortage of internal opposition. On 5 January of this year a leader writer of the daily newspaper Al-Ahram, in an article entitled ‘The Appeal of al-Sisi are not Enough’, called attention to a telling fact: just a short time before the speech of the President some important members of the religious institutions that the President had addressed had severely attacked certain thinkers who were held to be guilty of proposing the revision of certain texts that are used in the Azharite institutes and contain ‘explicit instigations to hatred for other people’.
There is then another aspect which is no less significant. In Islam in general, and contemporary Islam in particular, the very notion of religious authority, or religious leaders, is very elusive. The mosque of al-Azhar tends to represent itself and is often portrayed as ‘the lighthouse’ of Sunni Islam, but its pronouncements, like those of other religious institutions, do not have a monopoly on the interpretation of Islam. To begin with the delegitimisation of the traditional authorities by the reformist movement and the Islamist movement, and then their exploitation by the political authorities, and finally the proliferation of satellite channels, internet sites and other digital platforms for Islamic preaching, all emptied the traditional institutions of their authoritativeness. It is likely that today a programme of an Islamic preacher on al-Jazeera commands more attention that a speech of the Imam of al-Azhar (it is perhaps no accident that after the speech given by al-Sisi, al-Azhar equipped itself with official accounts on the social networks, from twitter to facebook). This does not mean that the religious revolution wished for by the Egyptian President cannot take place. It does mean, however, that more than solving the problem of Islamist extremism by convincing it to abandon its cause, it would create a strong polarisation between the supporters and the opponents of a reformed religious approach. Today the Islamist ideologues are already defining the official religious authorities as ulama al-sulta, ‘the ulama of power’, with whom they feel no duty to engage in dialogue unless it is to criticise them.
But beyond this level, which relates to the theological and intellectual aspects of reform and the role of the ulama, there is another, which is perhaps more decisive and which the words of al-Sisi do not touch upon explicitly.
The spread of the Islamist discourse with all of its variants, from that of the Muslim Brothers to jihadist Salafism, has been allowed and even encouraged by Muslim and non-Muslim governments in order to obtain their own political goals. The success of Islamism is inexplicable if one does not take into account the political and financial support that it has received over the last forty years.
Furthermore, as the Egyptian historian Sherif Younis recently wrote, again in the pages of al-Ahram, regimes that in the past adopted for their own purposes a modernist and progressive vision of Islam (the Egypt of Nasser, the Tunisia of Bourguiba, erroneously seen as ‘secular’) in reality advantaged Islamism because in entrusting the management and interpretation of religion to the state they transformed it into a question of political dispute.
The problem is not the political production of a religious discourse of a character opposed to the Islamist discourse. The decisive point is the disassociation of the religious discourse from the state. This does not mean excluding religion from the public space but, rather, impeding a dual exploitation: of religion by the state and of the state by religion. Here the responsibility does not only fall on the religious dignitaries but also (and above all else) it involves the political authority. Does al-Sisi also have this in mind when he speaks about ‘religious revolution’? If this is the case, then this is good news. If, instead, he wants to call for the creation of the umpteenth ‘authorised’ Islamic discourse, one can with difficulty expect real change. The reform of Islamic thought goes hand in hand with political reform. From this point of view, the Egypt of al-Sisi is today experiencing a profound travail for complex reasons which we Europeans have difficulty in understanding, not least because we tend to become (rightly) indignant when Islamism strikes amongst us but very indulgent or distracted when it works beyond our frontiers.
A final observation. Egypt is a large country of eighty million inhabitants which because of its history and its rich culture has for years performed the role of being the leader of the Arab-Islamic world. But Egypt is today a socially and economically fragile country and this forces it into a condition of dependence on other political actors, amongst which Saudi Arabia. Whether it will be possible to achieve a revolution in Islamic thought as long as Riyadh continues to export tension throughout the Islamic world, and not only through the spread of Wahhabi doctrine, is the great question to which everybody, and not only al-Sisi, will have to give an answer.