Melting ice with Westerners

Egypt 2006

By Michael Tackett

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, was holding forth in a rare interview with American journalists on the campus of Al-Azhar University, a 1,000-year-old college of Islamic learning.

Lean and more than 6 feet tall, with a serious and authoritative mien, he is one of the most important religious figures in Egypt, one with the power to issue edicts, and his views are respected throughout the Muslim world.

The session was part lecture, part interview and always a dexterous display of rhetorical skills that show a command of politics in addition to religion.

Whether the issue was terrorism, church and state separation, suicide bombings, female circumcision or the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East, his answers flowed in a manner that was both imperious and compassionate.

"As a mufti I am used to answering people's questions," he said through an Egyptian interpreter. "We live in a global world."

His responses had the sound-bite-tested quality of a man who knew well how to craft a message. "We are totally against terrorism," he said. "Now the term is ... Islamic terrorists. Why don't you say a Catholic terrorist or a Protestant terrorist?"

Some fear that he and others would like to see Egypt become an Islamic state. What of that prospect?

"Democracy doesn't tell you, `Do not be a religious person,'" he said. "I think Mr. Bush is very religious."

Like seemingly everyone Egyptian, he opposes the war in Iraq. "This is a big problem," he said. "I don't know what the solution is. We can't tell where the truth is. The blood is up to the knees. My heart is breaking. I hope the American youth go home and that is the end of the problem."

The mufti has been in the news most recently for his fatwa that was reported in some Egyptian news media as a possible call for the destruction of statues, a potentially crippling edict in a nation that derives much of its income from the tourism generated by its antiquities.

The mufti firmly said he was misquoted. The fatwa related to statues, he said, was merely among the 7,000 a month he issues on matters that range from whether a woman should consider herself divorced to the nature of jihad. A staff of 10 helps him handle the volume.

And they exploit technology to reach his followers. "We deliver fatwas by all means - oral, fax, e-mail or Web site," he said. His sermons are available on tape and CD.

He clearly saw some value in granting time for a group that is a prime source of news in the United States. He allowed himself to be filmed and his audio recorded. He emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace and that words so common to Islam, such as fatwa and mujahedeen, have been wrongly demonized.

Islam, he said, has certain immutable tenets, such as abstinence from alcohol. "We cannot change that," he said. But on other matters, such as the statues, there is room for nuance.

"We would not destroy our Pharaonic monuments," he said. "We find it really funny that the media now focus attention on a fatwa that has been there for 14 centuries. And why are you so concerned about this issue? When the Taliban destroyed statutes, we were the first to speak out against them.

"When people open a museum and put statues in them, I respect that. But why would you not respect me if I were to think in another way?"

He talked about political issues, but only selectively. When asked about the renewal last week of Egypt's Emergency Law, which has been in effect since 1981 and gives the government extraordinary powers to restrict the rights of citizens, he swept the question away.

"This is a political issue," he said. For clarity on matters related to Islam, such as the true meaning of jihad, he referred us to his Web site.

He called suicide bombings a "crime."

"There is a difference between fighting for a specific right and just going to blow yourself up, and that must be punished," he said.

And he said female circumcision is not required by Islamic law. "We should fight it," he said.

What about the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization of growing political power that recently won 20 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections?

"Can we judge people by their intentions? But if someone is doing good we should keep our hands off ... but if someone is doing wrong, we should step in and punish."

Our time was almost up.

The mufti said he enjoyed the session.

"The more we discuss, the more the ice melts," he said.

Then the mufti was gone.