By Kenneth R. Timmerman, November 4, 2002
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.
Now, 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 did still come 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, pool halls,
discotheques, and shopping malls to murder innocents — children and adults,
Israelis and foreign tourists and whoever else happens to be around — are doing
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.
The Mufti is not alone. I also went to speak with a group of Islamic scholars at
Al Azhar University, and asked them the same question. Mohammed Abu Laila
is a professor of comparative religion and head of the English-language
department at Al Azhar. He earned his PhD 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.
A few days before coming to Egypt, I had dinner with an Israeli settler I’ve
known for several years. He has spent years getting to know his Arab
neighbors and counts them among his closest friends.
The evening I met him, he was preparing to distribute clothes to local
Bedouin families, the kind of thing he does on a regular basis. Dov Weinstock
(known as “Dubak” to his friends) has a simple phrase to describe this
difference in logic. “To understand the way the Arabs think, you’ve got to
change the diskette,” he says.
Indeed, 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.”