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Macron and El-Sisi Face Uphill Battles for Religious Reform

avatar by Hany Ghoraba


French President Emmanuel Macron attends a virtual meeting with European leaders to discuss the bloc’s budget and recovery fund, in Paris, France, June 19, 2020. Photo: Eliot Blondet / Pool via Reuters.

At first glance, comparing respective religious reform efforts in Egypt and France seems far-fetched, but Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and French President Emanuel Macron each want to reform Islamic education in their countries.

Macron aims to curb the growing radicalism among some French Muslims. France has endured a series of jihadist terrorist attacks that peaked in Paris on November 13, 2015, when coordinated attacks killed 130 people. On Wednesday, Macron gave the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) a 15-day ultimatum to accept the charter of French “Republican values.” The charter stipulates that Islam is a religion and not a political movement. The charter also prohibits “foreign interference” in French Muslim groups.

Macron believes that it is imperative to foster an enlightened and tolerant version of Islam that coexists with French tenets of secularism and free speech.

France has been rocked by two deadly Islamist terror attacks: the October 16 beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who had included images of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad during a class on free expression; and the October 29 killing of three people during a stabbing spree at a Nice church.

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El-Sisi has a similar problem in Egypt, but on a much larger scale given his country’s demographics, history, and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus far, el-Sisi’s efforts have met with limited success due to an uncooperative Sunni religious institute which he tasked with the mission of reform.

France is a predominantly Christian country with a secular constitution, while Egypt is a Muslim majority country with Islam as its official religion.

El-Sisi demanded reforms in 2015 from Al Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyib. Al Azhar is the world’s oldest and most influential Sunni Muslim institution. Established in 975 AD, it receives nearly $1 billion annually in public funding. El-Sisi wants Al-Azhar’s help in combating radical Islamist ideology, especially when it comes to the rights of women, tolerance towards other religions, and accepting modern ways of living.

“I am referring here to the religious clerics,” el-Sisi said in a 2015 speech at Al-Azhar. “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred [religion] should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world.”

But al-Tayyib made only cosmetic changes to Al Azhar’s curricula while maintaining the same close-minded outlook on modern issues regarding tolerance of other faiths and clearly denouncing terrorism.

Ironically, al-Tayyib in 2015 reiterated exactly what president el-Sisi called for during a conference in Saudi Arabia, when he blamed Islamist terrorism on “bad interpretations” of the Koran.

Macron is facing a similar challenge getting support from some French Muslim leaders after announcing his war on what he called “Islamist separatism.” For too long, he said, France failed to challenge Islamist ideology and allowed the country’s Muslim population to stay in insular immigrant communities. He says he is seeking to foster an “enlightened Islam” that is more compatible with the French tenets of secularism and freedom of expression. He aims to curb the influence of foreign imams, particularly from North Africa and Turkey, who spread Islamist ideologies.

Al Azhar condemned Macron’s remarks on the separatism and isolationism of French Muslims. Later in October, al-Tayyib called for international legislation to protect Muslims against acts of hate and discrimination. Al Azhar will sue the Paris-based Charlie Hebdo magazine for publishing cartoons of Muhammad, al-Tayyib said.

“If you consider blaspheming our Prophet as freedom of expression,” he said during a meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Cairo, “then we adamantly refuse this freedom and will take the perpetrators to international courts as a legal way to defend our honorable Prophet.”

Al Azhar is governed by a panel of senior imams that include a number of Muslim Brotherhood clerics. Al Azhar’s ties with the now banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were cemented during the early days of al-Tayyib’s tenure at Al Azhar. In 2011, al-Tayyib received former Muslim Brotherhood General Guides Mehdi Akef and his successor Mohamed Badie in his office.

In July 2012, one month after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi took power, Al Tayyib reinstated the defunct Association of the Elder Scholars of Al Azhar ,which had been disbanded in 1961 by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The panel included the Brotherhood’s Qatari-based spiritual leader Yusuf Al Qaradawi and other Brotherhood-affiliated clerics.

According to Egypt’s constitution, Al Azhar is the main source for Islamic affairs in Egypt and its grand imam cannot be removed by the president. Al-Tayyib rejected calls to label Islamic State terrorists as apostates in 2015 because, according to him, they believe in God.

Macron wants to close 51 Islamist organizations, including the Qatar-funded Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), whose founder — Sami Debah — has been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, Islamists and some media critics have accused Macron of collective punishment and infringing on religious freedoms.

“As an organization, we no longer feel we can conduct our work in a safe environment, as our lives are threatened and the government designates us as an enemy,” claimed CCIF in a statement.

But it is French imams who dare to condemn the barbaric nature of terrorist attacks in France, who face death threats from radicals. Hassan Chalghoumi, a moderate imam who condemned Paty’s murder, calling him “a martyr for freedom of expression,” sought police protection.

Like el-Sisi, Macron had to ask an Islamic institution for help carrying out his religious reform strategy. There, it was the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM).

CFCM suffers from similar drawbacks to Al Azhar. CFCM-sponsored institutions include the French branch of Turkey’s Islamist organization Milli Gorus, which is considered to be the long arm of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime.

CFCM is tasked with training and certifying imams to work in French mosques, but given its links to Islamist groups, there is skepticism about its ability to deliver on reform. The CFCM endorsed Macron’s strategy, however. Half of CFCM leaders are elected by representatives of several major mosques and Islamic groups in France. The rest are appointed by affiliated French Islamic institutions.

One of Macron’s main goals in his reform initiative is stopping certain foreign funding for French Islamic institutions in France. Ironically, that vision was rejected last year by some CFCM members. New CFCM president Mohamed Moussaoui maintains strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Moroccan government. Following Paty’s murder, Moussaoui said the “freedom to caricature like other freedoms are not absolute. It must be framed and proportionate to the imperatives of public order and the duty of fraternity.”

He apologized the next day for his “clumsiness,” saying Muhammad “always ignored insults against him, never yielded to provocation or tolerated acts of revenge. Therefore, it is indecent and unworthy to question what our compatriot Samuel Paty has shown his students so that a pack of extremists throws his name to the vindictiveness and provokes his cowardly and barbaric murder.”

If CFCM doesn’t come through, Macron may have other organizations he can turn to, or form himself, such as the proposed National Council of Imams. On the other hand, el-Sisi may be stuck with Al Azhar and the current assortment of conservative clerics.

Any government attempt to alter religious education and practices is going to meet resistance. Both Macron and el-Sisi seem to believe it’s worth the criticism to steer their countries to a more tolerant, peaceful path.

Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy, and a regular contributor to the BBC.

A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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