tantawi 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The leading cleric in Sunni Islam, Grand Imam Sheikh Muhammad Sayid Tantawi, rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, is coming under increasing pressure from Egyptian opposition forces to resign, for shaking hands with Shimon Peres, at a Saudi-sponsored UN conference in November in New York. Israel's enemies in Egypt did not like seeing a photo of their most famous sheikh being friendly with Israel's president. Hatred of Israel is particularly virulent in Egypt now, because of constant coverage of the deprivations of the citizens of Gaza.
"The hand that shook Peres's hand is tainted with the blood of Palestinians and reeks of the smell of their corpses," commented independent Egyptian newspaper al-Dustour recently. It called for Tantawi "to purify his hands," by resigning. The message had particular force, as it was issued on Id al-Adha, when Muslims concentrate on purification from sins. Other papers have also called for him to step down.
An Egyptian MP, Mustafa Bakri said, "This meeting was like Al-Azhar's clear normalization with the Zionist enemy... In the past, the sheikh has insisted on meeting with rabbis, with Rabbi [Yisrael Meir] Lau at the top of the list, but his meeting with the Zionist president is demeaning to all Muslims." Another MP, Hamdi Hassan, insisted Tantawi apologize to the entire world.
TANTAWI ORIGINALLY claimed "I shook his hand without knowing what he looked like. The handshake was in passing... because I don't know him." But a photo shows them smiling at each other. Tantawi now says : "And suppose I knew him? So what... Isn't he from a country that we recognize?"
Tantawi is not known for his love of Israel, and even called for jihad against it, after excavations two years ago at Temple Mount. His Islamic credentials are beyond question, but hatred of Israel is unbounded in many Islamist circles, both Sunni and Shi'ite. Clerics in the Iranian parliament have also denounced the sheikh's handshake.
To his credit, he does attend multifaith conferences. (I've met him at one myself, and he even shook my hand!) Less laudible, he is reported to have accused, on Egyptian TV, Ma'ariv's editorial staff of being "liars and sons of 60 dogs" for reporting that he had taken the initiative in approaching Peres.
THE POST of head of Al-Azhar, which carries with it the prestige of senior cleric in all Sunni Islam is a government appointment. I predict that Tantawi will neither resign nor be dismissed under the current government. President Hosni Mubarak has met Peres many times, and would himself be greatly discomforted were Tantawi to resign. The Egyptian regime is a bulwark against Islamist extremism. Mubarak and Tantawi are both representatives of a far more moderate Islam, with which the West can and does do business. If the extreme Islamists succeed in taking over, Israel will have an Egypt on its borders, intent on war and seeking nuclear weaponry.
The Egyptian Gazette reports Egyptian Ambassador Fadel el-Kadi has now stepped forward in defense of the grand sheikh. The ambassador is credited with writing that Muhammad "sincerely shook hands and talked peace with Jews." Richard the Lion Heart, king of England, waged war on Islam during the Crusades and tried to take Jerusalem from the Muslims. Their leader at that time was the Kurdish hero Saladin. When Richard was ill, Saladin sent him his personal physician to help him recover. The ambassador continued, "That gesture drew the aggressor's attention to Islam's values of tolerance, peace and kindness."
PERES HAS been compared to many things in his life, but never yet a king of England. But the ambassador's sensible defense of the grand imam shows that there is at least one senior establishment figure here, prepared to openly defend those talking peace with Israel.
It is sad, however, that after 30 years of a peace treaty between the two countries, many Egyptians continue to speak as if the state of war continues. For them, it really does continue.
The writer is a British international barrister and former fellow of the Harry S Truman Institute for Peace.