Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 September 2005
Issue No. 761
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Not normal

A storm of controversy is raging over an edict by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar supporting normalisation with Israel. Gihan Shahine samples the opinions

Last week's Israeli withdrawal from Gaza appears to have received the approval of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who was quick to rule that normalisation with Israel was religiously acceptable.

"Islam does not prohibit normalisation with other countries, especially Israel, as long as this normalisation is in non- religious domains and serves some worldly interests," Tantawi told a gathering at a festival held to mark the national day of Al-Sharqiya governorate.

Tantawi's statement immediately provoked heated debate inside and outside the Sunni world's most prestigious seat of Islamic learning.

Prominent Palestinian Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi, who is also head of the Palestinian Scholars League (PSL), was quick to denounce the fatwa on the grounds that it "greatly serves the Israeli occupation, which is unacceptable in Islam," and urged the Grand Imam to retract it.

"It is obvious that the fatwa was issued following increased American and Israeli pressure on Arab leaders who already have relations with the Zionist state," El-Beitawi said in a PSL statement. He condemned the fatwa as contradictory to Islamic tenets "because it is the religious duty of all Muslims to help their brothers in driving the enemy out of their lands."

The PSL statement also criticised Egypt's agreement to deploy border guards along the Gaza Strip, saying it expected Tantawi to issue a fatwa that would instead "call for the mobilisation of Muslim armies to expel the Jews from the rest of the lands of Palestine instead of deploying troops to defend the enemy's borders."

Tantawi's ruling seems to have created rifts within Al-Azhar where many scholars criticised the edict, saying it only reflected the personal opinion of the Grand Imam and not Al-Azhar as an institution.

Sayed Khodeir, former head of the research and translation section at the Islamic Research Academy (IRA), said Tantawi's ruling "was political rather than religious. "It is religiously correct to normalise relations with a country you have peace with but not when this country is usurping Muslim lands and killing Muslim brothers and children," Khodeir explained, saying it would perhaps be in the interest of Egypt to have peace and economic ties with Israel but from a religious viewpoint. "Those who don't care about the affairs of their Muslim brothers do not actually belong to them," Khodeir said.

"As Muslims we consider ourselves in a state of conflict with Israel so long as it insists on occupying Muslim lands, desecrating Al-Aqsa Mosque and Islamic shrines and massacring Muslims," Khodeir said. "Egypt cannot be regarded as separate from what is going on in neighbouring Palestinian lands."

Prominent Al-Azhar scholar Abdel-Azim El-Mataani added that normalising relations with Israel "is not religiously -- or even logically -- acceptable at this particular time when it is using all sorts of aggression and tyranny against Muslims and posing a threat to Arab national security."

El-Mataani said the IRA had formerly issued an edict condemning normalisation with Israel. Former IRA member Sheikh Ali Abul-Hassan had previously issued a fatwa forbidding an Israeli judo team from playing in Egypt or any other Arab and Muslim country. He described such an invitation as an acceptance of what Israel has done and is still doing to Muslims, including usurping land, money and honour.

"This IRA fatwa sounds more logical because we should never accept the Israeli humiliation of Arab and Muslim nations," El-Mataani said.

Omar El-Bastawisi, spokesman of the IRA secretary-general, would only say that "scholars at the academy should not bypass the Grand Sheikh and issue a contradictory fatwa."

Tantawi was not available for comment but a senior cleric in his office explained that his statement on normalisation was mentioned at a festival speech and thus would not be considered a formal edict. He added that Tantawi's opinion was probably based on the fact that Israel is currently leaning toward peace, having already withdrawn from Gaza, and that it would be religiously acceptable to normalise relations with any nation in times of peace.

Many religious scholars and political analysts, however, were not persuaded. Many observers regard the latest edict as further proof that Al-Azhar is increasingly becoming a mouthpiece of the government. Fully dependent on the state for its funding, Al-Azhar's scholars are government employees who may, in some cases, adopt a pro-government discourse. The Grand Sheikh and the mufti -- the institution's two most prominent voices -- are both selected and appointed by the government, which was not the case before the 1952 Revolution: the Grand Sheikh then was elected by a committee of senior clergy and his authority was fully independent of the state.

Amr El-Choubaki of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies says the once-venerated institution has increasingly lost its credibility after adopting a discourse that would only justify government policies. "As the leader of the Muslim Sunni world, Al-Azhar should remain neutral on such controversial issues that would create a storm of criticism," El-Choubaki said. By legitimising normalisation with Israel, El-Choubaki said, the Grand Sheikh is taking sides -- something he should not do.

Tantawi himself has been repeatedly lambasted for being a government official willing to compromise the principles of Islam for the sake of state policies. Many critics point to his controversial edict equating the boycotting of May's vote on a presidential referendum with "withholding testimony" in court while remaining silent on many of the regime's violations of human rights and state security abuse of prisoners.

For many observers, the very fact that Al-Azhar may issue two conflicting fatwas on the same topic on different occasions is equally perplexing. For instance, Al-Azhar contradicted itself when it first slammed any reconciliation with Israel following the 1967 War, then legitimised it when former President Anwar El-Sadat sought a peace treaty with Israel. Again, in the 1990s, Al-Azhar retracted an earlier fatwa legitimising nationalisation when the current government needed to change those laws on nationalisation.

Prominent Islamic thinker Tareq El-Bishri, however, explained in the last chapter of his book, The National Cluster: Exclusion and Integration that the change of fatwa should not be the issue since edicts normally depend on the circumstances and timing in which they are passed. Imam El-Shafie' would provide different edicts simultaneously in Iraq and Egypt according to the circumstances present in each country. "Those conflicts (in edicts)," wrote El-Bishri, "stem from a difference in the perception of reality -- not an explanation of text -- and thus do not mean that one edict is right and the other is wrong."

Not that El-Bishri is in favour of Tantawi's edict. He told the Weekly, "We cannot actually consider ourselves in peace with Israel so long as occupation persists."

Some analysts speculate the Grand Imam made his statement about normalisation in order to provide a legitimate cover for state policies regarding the deployment of border police along the now free Gaza Strip to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Egyptian territory. Abdel-Aziz Shadi, an assistant professor of political science at Cairo University, said Al-Azhar usually serves as a tool to justify government policies in issues pertaining to higher politics. "Al-Azhar must depend on state information in issues related to foreign, strategic and economic policies that have to do with national security because it does not have the financial or professional means to gather its own data. Therefore, its edicts in those domains must be in line with government policies," Shadi told the Weekly.

It is in domestic politics, according to Shadi, that Al-Azhar would have the upper hand, issuing edicts independently from state hegemony. "Al-Azhar usually has the final say on issues related to society, family, gender and so on," said Shadi. "It is in those fields that people still resort to Al-Azhar as the most reliable source of fatwa."

On Tantawi's latest religious opinion on normalisation, Shadi speculated it was based on "state information that Israel is leaning toward peace now and that it would present a good image of Islam to show some tolerance in response."

It remains questionable, however, whether the Grand Imam was not equally aware of the fact that Israel is still occupying most Palestinian lands, desecrating Islamic shrines and killing women and children. Shadi conceded that "Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh is part of Egypt's political elite and consequently it is expected that his opinions would fall in line with government policy." That said, however, Shadi explained that it is also the character of the Grand Imam that equally decides the degree of Al-Azhar's independence.

"The former Grand Sheikh, for instance, showed more independence in his edicts than Tantawi who regards himself as no more than a government employee -- not a man on a mission or a leader of the Sunni world," Shadi said.

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