At a much-heralded interfaith meeting in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019, Pope Francis and the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, took a small, symbolic step toward religious tolerance by signing an agreement on “human fraternity” and laying the cornerstones of a mosque and church that are to be built side-by-side in the city. That was the “feel good” moment in an historic meeting where Grand Sheikh El-Tayeb missed a strategic opportunity.
While Francis specifically denounced the ongoing violence and religious warfare (i.e. terrorism) in places like Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Syria at the forum, the tone of El-Tayeb’s speech was far different. The top scholar of Sunni Islam blamed the Western media for distorting Islam’s peaceful message after the attacks of 9/11 and portraying Muslims “as savage barbarians who pose a danger and threat to modern societies.” He also said that “armed groups,” regardless of what religion they may follow, are “murderers and butchers” when they kill innocent victims of other faiths.
Really? So, Islam’s image problem in the West is really our fault after 19 young men who claimed to be Muslims hijacked passenger aircraft and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killed 3000 innocent Americans? And just how is the media supposed to portray those calling themselves Muslims when they behead a hostage or assault a hotel in Nairobi?
The Grand Sheikh had a rare and strategic opportunity to specifically and irrevocably denounce groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Al-Shabaab – and their followers and sympathizers – as apostates who are not Muslims and have nothing to do with Islam. He had the chance to pull the rug of religious legitimacy right out from under them. Instead, he deflected the blame for Islam’s poor image on the Western media and avoided any responsibility for Islam to clean up its own house. That sort of responsibility is precisely what the West has been waiting for. Instead, his generic, ambiguous comments were an affront to the victims of Islamist terrorism everywhere.
El-Tayeb had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to draw a line in the sand and differentiate between real Islam and the extremism of the Islamist ideology and he didn’t even make the effort. His unwillingness to do so only adds to Islam’s image problem, not only in the West, but around the world.