By Didier Leroy
Dr Mahmoud Azab, interfaith dialogue counsellor for the Great Imam of Al-Azhar University (often considered the highest authority in Sunni Islam), passed away on 29 June in Cairo. The day before, Didier Leroy, researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium (RMA) and teaching assistant at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), had the privilege to collect his last thoughts on the political unrest Egypt has faced these past few years.
A former teacher in Semitic languages in Cairo, Mahmoud Azab lived in France for more than twenty-five years, where he obtained his PhD at the Sorbonne and taught at the National Institute for Eastern Languages and Civilizations (INALCO). Besides his impressive academic career, he was an emblem for tolerance and a leading figure in interfaith dialogue – an aspect of society in which Egypt has encountered difficulties. Here are the salient points of this interview, published as a tribute to this “Azhari” of letters and values, who also had the integrity to defend the philosophical and political stance of his Alma Mater.
DL: What is your position at Al-Azhar and what is the main message your institution wishes to communicate?
MA: Since my return to Egypt, three years ago, after the [25 January] Revolution, my position has been to encourage interfaith dialogue. On one side, I work on the internal dialogue between Egyptian Muslims, since several doctrinal schools coexist. On the other, it is about strengthening the dialogue between Muslims and Christians, a dialogue in which I distinguish three dimensions. Firstly, dialogue with Egyptian Christians is our top priority, because our national unity is at stake. Secondly, there is Arab or Eastern Christianity; we should not forget the tremendous translation effort made by Christian monks throughout history. Thirdly, [we have] the dialogue with Christianity worldwide. Al-Azhar promotes first and foremost a pluralistic Islam rather than any doctrinal Islam, and pluralism in Egypt can only rely on both moderate Islam and moderate Christianity. The Egyptian people is a religious people, both Muslim and Christian. Through its action, Al-Azhar is able to unite actors and factions that do not join up elsewhere.
DL: How would you describe the role played by Al-Azhar in Egyptian politics?
MA: My institution does not play a political role like the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi parties, but rather a national one. It is paramount not to confuse these two roles. The current leader of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, has devoted the last three years to ensuring that our institution regains this very important role, one which it had begun to lose somewhat over the last quarter century. There are four key moments to remember [in its recent history]. Firstly, Al-Azhar was the cradle of resistance against the invader during the Bonaparte epoch. The second historical moment took place in 1919, when Al-Azhar organised the resistance against the English. At the time, the Coptic Pope met with the Al-Azhar authorities and together they created the flag uniting the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent, along with the slogan “Religion is for God, the Nation is for all”. That flag reappeared for the first time in Tahrir Square three years ago. The third historical moment was in 1958, when Egypt massively backed President Nasser during the Suez War. The fourth and final moment started in January 2011, with the revolution.
DL: Could you comment the stance taken by Al-Azhar during the “coup” in the summer of 2013?
MA: For decades, Egypt has waited for the awakening of democracy and freedom. That is why, when the [first] new constitution was being voted on after the revolution, we – Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church – both opted out. Egypt needed a constitution based upon citizenship. Whether or not Europe was misled by parts of the media, we were here and we saw more than 25 million people on the streets on 30 June last year. Egypt was about to burst, and the army intervened in order to maintain internal security. There is currently some criticism of it, but our army is a national army, counting, among others, peasants’ sons. In every Egyptian family, there is a cousin or an uncle who is a soldier or an officer in the army. It is not a sectarian or ethnic force that is opposed to the people. For us, 30 June was a revolution. And if you absolutely insist on using the term “coup”, then it was a “coup” demanded by the people. Al-Azhar and the Church were next to the army, to defend the people. Other parties’ leaders were also there, the Salafis included, despite our differences on a vast number of topics.
DL: What is Al-Azhar’s stance towards “Islamist” political actors?
MA: Being a representative for Al-Azhar, I stand for an Islam that is not involved in political issues. When Islam meddles with politics, Islam loses. We are thus against all currents that seek to exploit Islam for their political goals. The declaration issued by Al-Azhar in June 2011 shows that we stand for a democratic Egypt. We do not want Egypt to be governed by a religious state, like what happened in Europe during the Middle Ages. Islam does not require a special form of government, it rather insists on justice. It is important to neutralise the Islamic values that are misused.
DL: What message would Al-Azhar like to send to Europe?
MA: Egypt, in its Mediterranean dimension, shares many values with Europe, even in times of conflict. But what happened in Iraq in 2003, in Libya in 2011 and later in Syria? In just a few years, three major armies in the region have been dismantled. Only the Egyptian army remains, and that is why we need to protect it. When the EU talks about democracy and legitimacy, it seems to give the impression that democracy is something that can simply be captured in ballot boxes. In my opinion, voting symbolises the act of signing the social contract, and not democracy itself. If the people consent and sign through their ballots, they can also withdraw this consent. I remain convinced, however, that Europe understands the Middle East and its problems. Even in hardship, in times of invasion and colonisation, we have found ways to get along. I expect that Europe notices the changes – the real changes – that we see today and that it will adapt its vocabulary and terminology when talking to us. Myself having lived in Europe for a long time, I remain convinced about the values we share and I hope to see new paths of understanding appear. In that perspective, we should, above all, encourage a return of a pluralistic and tolerant Islam.
Didier Leroy is a researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium and a teaching assistant at Université Libre de Bruxelles.