CAIRO -- Many people in the West believe that Islam is a"religion of peace," one that condemns the murder of innocents andrespects the intrinsic value of human life. Top Islamic clerics andscholars I interviewed recently in Cairo set me straight on this.
Having spent much of the past 20 years covering the Middle Eastconflict, I have heard my share of pronouncements that would beprosecuted as hate speech in the West. It still came as a bit of ashock to find out that senior government-appointed clerics,especially here in this second-largest receiver of U.S. foreign aid,Egypt, would not just tolerate hate speech, but have become its mostdedicated practitioners.
The Egyptian state appoints the Grand Mufti, the highest religiousauthority in the land and a man who has the power to issue fatwas andinterpretations of shari'a law. Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyebwas named by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the post earlierthis year after his predecessor issued a ruling in favor ofPalestinian suicide bombers. But if Mr. Mubarak was embarrassed bythat Mufti's public embrace of murder, he may have to reconsider hisnew choice.
Mr. Al-Tayyeb received me in his office near Al Azhar University,the oldest institution of higher learning in the Arab world.Throughout a 90-minute interview, conducted mostly in Arabic througha government-provided translator, he repeated in excruciating detailhis reasoning for encouraging Palestinians to murder innocentcivilians through suicide attacks. He also displayed a remarkableflexibility when it came to defining terrorism.
To him, American Christian leader Jerry Falwell is a "terrorist"because he has said things that offended Muslims. Palestinians, onthe other hand, are justified in massacring Israeli civilians in coldblood "because they are defending their land and have no otherweapons at their disposal." Pointedly he added: "If you do not dothis, you have no loyalty to your country."
As I interviewed him I remembered that President Mubarak isostensibly a U.S. "partner" in the war on terrorism. And yet heappointed this cleric who believes that Palestinian suicide bomberswho enter restaurants, discotheques, and shopping malls to murderinnocents -- children and adults, Israelis and tourists and whoeverelse happens to be around -- are doing God's work. Furthermore, thecleric openly condemns any Palestinian who refuses to take such astep as a traitor.
For its "partnership" in the war, Egypt receives an average $2billion each year from Uncle Sam. U.S. officials in the region insistthat Mr. Mubarak has provided "invaluable assistance" in helping tointerrogate al-Qaeda terrorists currently held in Egyptian jails. Ifthat is true, it only makes it all the more strange that not only theMufti but also government-owned Egyptian newspapers are spreading avery different message.
I also went to speak with a group of Islamic scholars at Al AzharUniversity, and asked them the same questions. Mohammed Abu Laila isa professor of comparative religion and head of the English-languagedepartment at Al Azhar. He earned his Ph.D. at Britain's ExeterUniversity, and did his thesis on Christianity.
Perhaps for that reason he sometimes picked his words better. "Wedon't hate Jews because they are Jews," he said. "We hate what theydo against Palestinians. If a Muslim did this, we would hate them,too."
Mr. Abu Laila also condemned the September 11 attacks.But then healso believes America has launched a "war on Islam" and thatPresident George W. Bush has "never presented evidence" of BinLaden's involvement. This is a widely held view throughout the Muslimworld. "I need him [Bin Laden] to appear in court and say, 'Idid it,'" Mr. Abu Laila said.
As for the Palestinian suicide bombers, he takes the view thattheir methods are legitimate. "If your country or property is underattack," Mr. Abu Laila says, "then it is just to defend it throughany means. This is not terrorism. Holy Jihad is defensive. Youmisunderstand this in the West.
"Like Hamas leaders do when they defend these terrorists acts, Mr.Abu Laila never uses the term "suicide" but refers only to "martyrs"who are engaged in a just war. "The martyr is donating himself forhis cause, to defend his family and his land," he said.Perhapsreading my mind, Mr. Abu Laila assured me that "Life is sacred inIslam. But we are facing the Israeli state, which is militarilybased. Israeli citizens are like warriors. They have their weaponswith them at all times. So who are civilians, the Palestinians or theIsraelis?"
My interviews with these scholars made it clear that Westernersconcerned by the violence in the Middle East need to understand thatthe two parties to this conflict do not use the same logic, nor dothey believe in the same moral code. Those of us who have beenbrought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition have been taught thatrespect for life is one of God's most basic commandments.
But according to these Islamic scholars -- and they are not alone-- the search for "justice" legitimizes the wanton targeting ofinnocent civilians. Targeting is the key word here. Civilians die inall wars, something known as "collateral deaths." But according tothese scholars, Islam accepts purposely seeking out innocentcivilians in order to sow terror in their society.
Obeying a different moral operating system, the Arab leaders whocontinue to promote and finance Palestinian suicide bombers will notstop until they have achieved total victory, or total defeat.
Mr. Abu Laila put it well: "If the Israelis do not give in to Arabdemands, the conflict in this area will continue until the end oftime. We all believe in Armageddon."
Mr. Timmerman is a senior writer for InsightMagazine.
Updated November 4, 2002
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