CAIRO -- Many people in the West believe that Islam is a "religion of peace," one that condemns the murder of innocents and respects the intrinsic value of human life. Top Islamic clerics and scholars I interviewed recently in Cairo set me straight on this.
Having spent much of the past 20 years covering the Middle East conflict, I have heard my share of pronouncements that would be prosecuted as hate speech in the West. It still came as a bit of a shock 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 most dedicated practitioners.
The Egyptian state appoints the Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the land and a man who has the power to issue fatwas and interpretations of shari'a law. Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb was named by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the post earlier this year after his predecessor issued a ruling in favor of Palestinian suicide bombers. But if Mr. Mubarak was embarrassed by that Mufti's public embrace of murder, he may have to reconsider his new 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 through a government-provided translator, he repeated in excruciating detail his reasoning for encouraging Palestinians to murder innocent civilians through suicide attacks. He also displayed a remarkable flexibility 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, on the other hand, are justified in massacring Israeli civilians in cold blood "because they are defending their land and have no other weapons at their disposal." Pointedly he added: "If you do not do this, you have no loyalty to your country."
As I interviewed him I remembered that President Mubarak is ostensibly a U.S. "partner" in the war on terrorism. And yet he appointed this cleric who believes that Palestinian suicide bombers who enter restaurants, discotheques, and shopping malls to murder innocents -- children and adults, Israelis and tourists and whoever else happens to be around -- are doing God's work. Furthermore, the cleric openly condemns any Palestinian who refuses to take such a step as a traitor.
For its "partnership" in the war, Egypt receives an average $2 billion each year from Uncle Sam. U.S. officials in the region insist that Mr. Mubarak has provided "invaluable assistance" in helping to interrogate al-Qaeda terrorists currently held in Egyptian jails. If that is true, it only makes it all the more strange that not only the Mufti but also government-owned Egyptian newspapers are spreading a very different message.
I also went to speak with a group of Islamic scholars at Al Azhar University, and asked them the same questions. Mohammed Abu Laila is a professor of comparative religion and head of the English-language department at Al Azhar. He earned his Ph.D. at Britain's Exeter University, and did his thesis on Christianity.
Perhaps for that reason he sometimes picked his words better. "We don't hate Jews because they are Jews," he said. "We hate what they do against Palestinians. If a Muslim did this, we would hate them, too."
Mr. Abu Laila also condemned the September 11 attacks.But then he also believes America has launched a "war on Islam" and that President George W. Bush has "never presented evidence" of Bin Laden's involvement. This is a widely held view throughout the Muslim world. "I need him [Bin Laden] to appear in court and say, 'I did it,'" Mr. Abu Laila said.
As for the Palestinian suicide bombers, he takes the view that their methods are legitimate. "If your country or property is under attack," Mr. Abu Laila says, "then it is just to defend it through any means. This is not terrorism. Holy Jihad is defensive. You misunderstand 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 for his cause, to defend his family and his land," he said.Perhaps reading my mind, Mr. Abu Laila assured me that "Life is sacred in Islam. But we are facing the Israeli state, which is militarily based. Israeli citizens are like warriors. They have their weapons with them at all times. So who are civilians, the Palestinians or the Israelis?"
My interviews with these scholars made it clear that Westerners concerned by the violence in the Middle East need to understand that the two parties to this conflict do not use the same logic, nor do they believe in the same moral code. Those of us who have been brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition have been taught that respect 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 of innocent civilians. Targeting is the key word here. Civilians die in all wars, something known as "collateral deaths." But according to these scholars, Islam accepts purposely seeking out innocent civilians in order to sow terror in their society.
Obeying a different moral operating system, the Arab leaders who continue to promote and finance Palestinian suicide bombers will not stop until they have achieved total victory, or total defeat.
Mr. Abu Laila put it well: "If the Israelis do not give in to Arab demands, the conflict in this area will continue until the end of time. We all believe in Armageddon."
Mr. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight Magazine.
Updated November 4, 2002
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