What do you know, the world’s leading reformer of Islam is turning out to be a general. He is not a learned mullah. He is not a suicide bomber. He does not even have a weaponized bicycle. He is Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who, somewhat reminiscent of our own General George Washington, turned in his uniform for civilian garb and was elected president of Egypt with a huge majority.
President Sisi’s new role as reformer should not be terribly surprising. After all, the last great reformer in the Arab world was the Egyptian statesman Anwar Sadat. Sadat restricted his reforms to politics, initiating a démarche with Israel. Those reforms ended abruptly when assassins shot him as he appeared at a public ceremony in Cairo in 1981. To be sure President Sisi’s reforms are political, but they are also religious. He has called upon religious clerics assembled at the premier Cairo university of Al-Azhar to commit Islam to a “revolution.”
The Egyptian president’s political reforms have brought his country into a closer alignment with Israel than ever before. Today he has outdone even President Sadat by sharing intelligence with Israel and sending Egyptian troops into Gaza to demolish the system of tunnels through which Hamas supplies lethal weaponry to its agents in Israel. In Israel’s recent blow-up with Hamas, Egypt led a coalition of Arab moderates including Jordan, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia in cheering for—albeit discreetly—Israel. He has sent his air force against Islamic State targets in Libya after ISIS beheaded Egyptian Christians. He is no pushover.
All of this is to the good, but what is even more salutary is President Sisi’s foray into religious reform. As of January he has become the preeminent Arab leader to call for reform in Islam. Virtually no Arab personage—religious or political—has spoken out against the fundamentalist currents in Islam. President Sisi did at Al-Azhar where he called on the clerics to reform Islam, which is still rooted in the wilds of the seventh century. President Sisi carries a peculiar credential for speaking out on Islam. On his forehead he bears the zabiba, the darkened spot of skin that comes from sedulous prayer on a Muslim prayer rug. President Sisi is a pious Muslim.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal President Sisi made clear his differences with his opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood. “There are misconceptions and misperceptions about the real Islam,” he said. “Religion is guarded by its spirit, by its core, not by human beings. Human beings only take the core and deviate it to the right or left.” And he went on: “The real Islamic religion grants absolute freedom for the whole people to believe or not. Never does it dictate to kill others because they do not believe in Islam. Never does it dictate that [Muslims] have the right to dictate” to the world…. Never does it say that only Muslims will go to paradise and others go to hell.” My earlier comparison of the Egyptian president to George Washington was not such a stretch after all, no?
The vast majority of Muslims are what Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls “Mecca Muslims” in her new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. They are devout practicing Muslims, followers of the Koran, who do not advocate jihad and eschew violence. Still, they have a problem. Their world of dietary regulations, religious dress, daily prayer—withal traditional values based on hierarchies decided by age, gender, and inherited status clashes frequently with the modern world of Western values and material success. Ali claims that the Mecca Muslims “cocoon” themselves away from the demands of modern Western commercial life, whereby they “attempt to wall off outside influences, permitting only an Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider Muslim community.” That pretty much sums up President Sisi’s challenge to the Muslim clerics of Al-Azhar and to the generality of Mecca Muslims. The traditional world of the Mecca Muslims needs to reconcile itself with modernity, if it wants to partake of the good things to come with modernity. If it does not, it will continue in the world of the cocoon, a world of frustration whenever modernity intrudes, a world of growing bitterness that invites the jihadism.
This is the challenge President Sisi presented to the clerics of Al-Azhar this January. They must contemplate the reform that Christians and Jews did at an earlier time. They must revise their traditional way of life to accommodate the modern world. It will be difficult, but it is possible. The President closes on an optimistic note: Egypt’s “… past three years have been a critical test to those people who were promoting religious ideas. Egyptians experienced it totally and said those people [the Muslim Brotherhood] do not deserve sympathy and we will not allow it.” Well said, President Sisi.