When I began working with the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism in 2015, at the invitation of Saint-Prot and Zeina al-Tibi from the Observatory for Geopolitical Studies, known for their closeness to the secular and socialist regimes of the Arab world, including the Egyptian one, I had no idea that the age-old institution, which had passed into the Sunni camp under the aegis of the legendary Saladin some 8 centuries earlier, was in the hot seat. I remembered that the Grand Imam, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, had been one of the first and most virulent opponents of the new Muslim Brotherhood, during Mohammed Morsi’s presidency, and I had welcomed, like any Arab patriot, his many strong gestures towards Egypt’s indigenous Christian community, the Coptic Orthodox, whose leader, the successor of Saint Mark, is not only Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa but has also been dubbed Pope of the Arabs, ever since the Syrian Grand Mufti acknowledged this status in a now-famous meeting. Egypt and its Christians occupy a prominent place in the Arab national story. Indeed, don’t the Bible and the Koran acknowledge that the Arabs are descended from Abraham’s first son, Ishmael? And wasn’t Ishmael’s mother Hagar the Egyptian, whom certain Jewish traditions identify as a sister of Pharaoh? What’s more, didn’t this same Ishmael marry one of his mother’s compatriots? The Arabs’ affiliation with ancient Egypt is therefore a deeply rooted idea, at least in Judeo-Christian and Muslim religious cultures.
I had experienced some tensions with the Egyptian embassy, while organizing the first Al-Azhar conference at the French Parliament in June 2015. I was more readily referred to as the Grand Mufti of the Republic than the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. In fact, I myself preferred the former to the latter, as he was much more aware of the situation and the issues at stake, and took a stronger stand than his Azhari counterpart, whose religion of the middle ground often proved to be immobilizing and consensual. A French bishop, whose name I won’t mention, once told me, in a tone of annoyance, that etymologically, « middle ground » meant nothing other than mediocrity. Was Al-Azhar providing proof that this link was not merely etymological? I didn’t dare ask the prelate, but reminded him that consensus (إِجْمَاع) was a fundamental principle for Sunni Islam. As fundamental as collegiality is for the Catholic Church, and I dared to ask him if this collegiality wasn’t an euphemism for the middle ground.
I later learned from a senior Egyptian official visiting Paris that the Egyptian government had a serious problem with Al-Azhar because of its huge network of nurseries, and primary and secondary schools. More than 10,000 establishments, where almost two million pupils are currently enrolled, give it considerable influence over society. This influence has become problematic because Al-Azhar’s religious curricula have remained faithful to the Shariah Law and canonical theological schools, which have undergone no substantial modifications since the 12th century and al-Ghazali’s “counter-reformation”. Many secular Arab intellectuals, or those close to socialist regimes such as Egypt and Syria, were moved by the fact that these were the same texts that inspired the Islamic State, and the boldest ones even wondered aloud whether Al-Azhar was not teaching the Islam of Daesh, and whether the difference between Egypt and this Islamist organization was not simply that the Egyptian judiciary, that is civil by the way, did not apply the teachings of Al-Azhar. The Egyptian government therefore wished to put an end to this influence, deemed harmful and perhaps even dangerous to state security and national unity in the long run. Would it go so far as to dissolve these schools? The question arose.
Al-Azhar, well aware of the government’s plans, began to seek help from outside the country as if inspired by the case of the Oufkir children: in the East, salvation from the arbitrariness of the prince (or tyrant) can only come from foreign (and Christian, which here also has the charitable meaning) power. Seeing that the Catholic Church liked to present the institution as the Vatican of Sunni Islam, even though Al-Azhar had unjustly and brutally severed relations with it following the Regensburg lecture, its ulemas, at first reluctant to use this qualifier because of a Muslim tradition according to which one should not seek to resemble the unbelievers, finally understood all the interest they could derive from it. So they decided to resume relations with Rome.
To this end and as a gesture of goodwill, the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism, attached to the Faculty of Languages, was created. This new body was placed under the direction of the Dean of the Department of French Language and Literature, a man of very good will, but who was not involved in the real decisions. The Church fell for it, as did many others, including myself.
In line with the Francophile history of its reformers (the great Muslim thinkers of the Nahda were educated at French universities, the trip to Paris having replaced the trip to the East in the Arab _cursus honorum_) and because the French Church had the most experience in relations with Muslims, both abroad (the French mandate in Lebanon and Syria) and at home (France is the European country with the largest Muslim community, and its suburbs are home to a particularly devout Black and Christian population, as Monseigneur Dubost likes to point out, as well as extremely religious Oriental and Muslim populations), Al-Azhar chose the French episcopate as an intermediary with Rome.
Perhaps it’s also due to the influence of the Dominicans in Cairo (where there are many French members), who are very involved with Al-Azhar and are decried in certain French Catholic circles because of it. I have observed in some of their prominent members a kind of Orientalist fascination tinged with nostalgic admiration, as they observe the Azhar fortress, which resists the pressures of power and the intelligentsia, and rejects a Vatican II for Islam, judging that the _de facto_ separation of State and Church in Egypt, recognized, supported and even called for by Al-Azhar, is quite sufficient, made them long for a certain ante-conciliar era. By separation of State and Church, we do not of course mean French-style secularism, but the fact that the Law is not directly derived from Sharia Law, nor made by the ulama, but debated and voted in Parliament.
The Al-Azhar Observatory was soon followed by the creation of the Muslim Wise Men Council, an organization based in Abu Dhabi and financed by the United Arab Emirates, where the Pope would make a historic visit in February 2019: the first visit by a Pope of the Catholic Church since the Muslim conquest of the Arabian Peninsula. Before the Muslim conquest, the territory of today’s United Arab Emirates was part of the Nestorian diocese of Beth Qatraye, from which Qatar takes its name.
Relations with the Catholic Church have finally resumed with great fanfare, as on May 23, 2016, Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb was received at the Vatican by Pope Francis. This was the first visit by a Grand Imam of Al-Azhar to the Vatican. The following day, he travelled to Paris for a conference organized by Sant’Egidio.
The only concession was a speech in favour of the abolition of dhimmitude, requested and defended by a group of Franco-Arab intellectuals, which I chaired. It was finally a televised statement, broadcast on Friday, January 13, 2017, in which the Grand Imam clearly states that dhimmitude “is now obsolete”, adding that “Christians in Egypt are not and cannot be dhimmis, nor even considered a minority, a term laden with negative connotations” and that “Christians are citizens, and there is no justification for an anachronistic return to the imposition of the jizya”. The Holy See waited for this speech, which it relayed (otherwise it would have gone unnoticed), before agreeing to Pope Francis’ visit to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
It was a very special visit, as the Holy Father took part in an international conference organized by the university mosque on its premises and broadcast on Mondovision. The conference was conceived as a launch pad for Al-Azhar, which wanted to take advantage of the media interest in the Pope to highlight his existence and importance on the world religious scene. By placing itself in the papal spotlight, with the international press even travelling to its historic buildings, the Azhar fortress protected itself for a long time against any danger that might emanate from the Egyptian government.
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