Could the Islamic winds be shifting?

Norman Bailey  illustration: Gil Gibli
Dr. Norman Bailey

Egyptian leader all-Sisi's call for a modern Islam has not met the opposition one might have expected.

I never cease to be amazed at the well-honed ability of the media to devote most of its time and space to completely unimportant matters (yes, fans, such as the Super Bowl), while downplaying or completely ignoring events of potentially great significance.

In recent days, an Al-Jazeera news anchor wondered live on camera why the Arab armies can't be as humanitarian as the Israeli army--trying its best to avoid civilian casualties. As far as we know he was not fired.

Youssef Zeidan, a prominent Egyptian scholar and author, declared in a televised interview that Muslim anti=Semitism and anti-Israel attitudes were attributable to indoctrination, ignorance "...and stupidity".

Such statements are not rare from Arab and Persian scholars and others living outside the region, but they are very rare from persons within the Arab or Iranian world. Nevertheless, perhaps crowding out incidents such as these in favor of endless commentary on SodaStream vs. Oxfam or whom the prime minister's sons date, could be excused on the ground that such examples are few and far between and the individuals involved are not all that significant.

However, the same cannot by any stretch of journalistic malfeasance be said of the relative lack of emphasis on an astonishing statement made publicly by one of the most powerful figures in the Arab universe: Egyptian Field Marshall and soon to be president, Abdel Fattah all-Sisi, to wit: "Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, pointing to the need for a new vision and a modern comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam--rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years." He refers to the year 1258, when the ruling Islamic scholars of the day declared all questions of interpretation of Islam had been settled and the gates of "ijtihad" (interpretation) had been closed.

Even completely secular Arab rulers such as the Assads, Ghaddafi and Saddam Hossein never dared to say anything of the kind, and on the contrary, supported their domestic religious establishments.

Equally significant is that Marshall al-Sisi was not contradicted or condemned by the scholars of Al-Azhar University, by far the most prestigious center of Sunni Islamic learning. Indeed, late last year some of those same scholars joined a group of twenty-five Egyptian Sunni scholars who proclaimed that ijtihad needed to be resumed, including in such areas as separation of religion and state, women's rights, relations with non-Muslims and jihad.

This could not have happened in a more significant Muslim country, outside of Saudi Arabia. Is it a straw in the wind, or simply an isolated incident? If it indeed indicates a shift in the Islamic winds, that would be a monumentally important event for Israel and the rest of the world. Islam never had a reformation and Arabic civilization never had a renaissance. They are both frozen in the high middle ages.

Might we be seeing the faint beginnings of such a reformation and renaissance? Stay closely tuned.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, University of Haifa.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 4, 2014

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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Norman Bailey  illustration: Gil Gibli
Norman Bailey illustration: Gil Gibli
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