One of the most controversial, and yet indisputable, observations that can be made about the current state of global affairs is that Islam has problems with violence and aggression. (That’s not redundant – cultural and political aggression without physical violence are possible, and troublesome.)
This observation does not imply that all Muslims are universally violent or aggressive – that’s the straw-man argument apologists for Islam and critics of the West would rather deal with. But there are aspects of Islamic practice that make it useful to those who would pursue the path of violent domination. It doesn’t take much effort to find passages in the Koran that can serve as signposts along that path.
Contrary to the endless harangues of their domestic critics, people in the West are not comfortable with the notion of a “bad religion.” Religious tolerance is an important value across the European diaspora, and it was written into the ideological DNA of the United States. Granted, this ideal of tolerance has not always been observed with the greatest fidelity, but everyone gets the general idea that their neighbors should be respectfully allowed to pursue whatever religious faith they choose. Criticism of any faith from the outside is uncomfortable.
But here we are, looking back over quite a bit of Islamic violence around the world, unable to find parallel behavior in any other contemporary religious practice. (It’s telling that the nearly universal responses to a discussion of Islamic violence are What about the Crusades? or What about the Inquisition? Whatever else one can say about those chapters of history, they indisputably took place a long time ago.) Something is different with Islam, and not in a good way. It’s so obvious, and yet so politically incorrect to point it out, that it has reached elephant-in-the-room status.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is willing to talk about the elephant in the room, and he didn’t mince words when he spoke on the topic of Islamic violence in Cairo on New Year’s Day:
It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
That thinking – I am not saying “religion” but “thinking” – that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
Is it possible that 1.6 billion people should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!
This is all the more remarkable because al-Sisi was addressing a gathering of Islamic scholars and clerics. He went on to tell them a “religious revolution” was needed, and “the entire world” was waiting for it.
In fairness, let us remember that al-Sisi became the president of Egypt after a military usurpation, in which the elected Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown. (He has since prevailed in a popular election to retain his seat.) He has compelling secular reasons to denounce the ideology they rode to power. It’s hardly unprecedented for feuding factions of the Islamic world to sternly criticize each other.
Also, al-Sisi’s domestic opponents, along with Egypt’s adversaries, have always thought Egypt aligned itself too strongly with the Western world. There will be those who charge that al-Sisi is just saying what his Western allies want to hear, so they’ll keep the foreign aid coming. Some American critics of foreign aid to Egypt might say the same. They’ll want more from al-Sisi that a few provocative speeches.
It is nevertheless remarkable to hear a leader of al-Sisi’s prominence and devout religious background to call for a worldwide Islamic reformation. Note that he’s not using the “hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists” dodge, or saying that violent jihadists are aberrations bound to wither away on the “wrong side of history.” He’s calling for revolutionary action across the Muslim world, and calling out fundamentalists who believe Islamic law and tradition were chiseled in stone centuries ago.
Maybe he’ll get what he’s asking for. The horrors unleashed by ISIS, and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran, have led to a few gut-checks across the Middle East. Reformation is a long and painful process. It has to start somewhere. And it really needs to start soon.