One of the most remarkable aspects of the revolutionary spirit that has swept Egypt over the past two months has been the unprecedented participation in public life of all segments of Egyptian society. People from all backgrounds and social circles, and from all parts of the country, have come together to demonstrate that they are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their political future. This is an encouraging, indeed inspiring, development.
Unfortunately, however, the well-meaning and legitimate protests have been misused by some to put on display some deeply anti-democratic and un-Islamic behavior. A true democracy is built on a commitment to mutual respect among all citizens. While we have undoubtedly witnessed a resurgence of this sentiment among the vast majority of Egyptians, a vocal few have taken the opportunity provided by a time of uncertainty and transition to play on some of the basest, most selfish and chauvinistic desires in pursuit of their political goals.
Most disturbingly, the past few weeks have seen a very disturbing rise in violence from extremist quarters targeted at places of religious significance. Both Coptic churches and the graves of important Muslim personalities have been attacked. These are alarming developments, and especially so in light of the fragile state of our country at this crucial juncture. They need close attention and to be stopped so that the religious, social and political integrity of the country remains intact.
Those who carry out such heinous attacks are nothing but opportunists and extremists, who have nothing to do with the great Islamic tradition. The true understanding of Islam that can be legitimately attributed to our predecessors is one which interacts with the world with understanding and discernment, accommodating new realities as they emerge. It advocates a holistic way of life which considers living in harmony with one’s community, not merely necessity for worldly peace, but also for spiritual advancement and religious piety. Unfortunately, those who undertake such barbaric attacks against the Egyptian people and their cultural and religious institutions aim not simply to romanticize the past, but at a complete return to it in all its details and particulars. Such backward thinking is problematic in itself but far worse when put forward as the standard to which all Muslims must adhere, while those who do not are castigated and have their religious legitimacy questioned. These forces sow dissension in society and isolate some segments of the Muslim community from others.
When the idealistic view of society envisioned by those who call themselves Salafis fails to come to pass this can then cause dangerous further radicalism. The fact that the past they idealize is a figment of their imagination and thus necessarily unattainable becomes an engine of radicalization fuelled by their inevitable frustration.
A trend to isolationism is a further result which can dictate a removal of oneself from one’s compatriots, co-religionists, and indeed the rest of humanity, for these latter are seen as part of the problem of the world, and not fellow wayfarers on the path to God. It sees no place for culture and civilization and far too often even basic human propriety. Such self-imposed isolation can also lead to a spirit of “victimhood” and a worldview based on conspiracy theories in which the great Islamic traditions of rationality and reasonableness are shunted aside.
Rather than confront the problems of the world by working to develop our institutions and nations in a positive manner in line with our Islamic values, the various ingredients of this worldview forestall any possibility of evolution, terming any change a reprehensible innovation destined for damnation.
Sadly, this dangerous mix of isolationism and idealism can also feed into an undeserved self-confidence, indeed arrogance. Taken together all this comprises a spiritual malaise which is integral to the disease of extremism, and can only be countered by a truly Islamic spiritual base.
This sort of thinking needs to be resisted at every turn, for the sake of the future of our country and indeed of our religion. To do so, we must return to our tried and true values and institutions.
For centuries, Egypt has thrived under the religious guidance of the methodology of the great al-Azhar University, which has long been the standard bearer for Sunni Islam. The institutions borne of this heritage have repeatedly demonstrated their care for the Muslim community and a deep concern for the weighty matters confronting it in our era. This approach is premised on a profound commitment to rationality, human dignity and the protection of the universal values of Islam (life, mind, religion, property and family). Students at Al-Azhar, both men and women, all have an equal chance to pursue education. They have been taught not only how to master Arabic and Islamic studies, but have also been given instruction in Islamic ethics and spirituality as well, which are considered integral parts of effective religious leadership essential to building a culture of tolerance and dialogue. Combined with an understanding of contemporary issues, this holistic approach to religious education continues to draw students from all over the world to study at Al-Azhar. These students return to their countries with not only knowledge, but also the example of a balanced religiosity that, while remaining true to its principles, is able to address the current needs of the Muslim community.
Al-Azhar has long been active in reaching out to other religious communities, both within the Islamic world, and on an international scale. This spirit of dialogue can be found in the statements and fatwas of Al-Azhar Sheikhs, as well as in the activities of its scholars.
A re-assertion of these values will be the most effective way of countering all the disastrous behavior that is being perpetrated in the name of “religion” but is more properly named “extremism”.