Friday, March 4, 2011

Antara Al-Azhar, Israel Dan Pihak Berkuasa Palestine Selepas Revolusi Rakyat

1-Ways forward for Al-Azhar

Al-Azhar's stance during the Egyptian revolution delivered a further blow to the institution's dwindling credibility, though this may be about to change, says Gihan Shahine

Click to view caption
Military officers meet members of Al-Azhar who seek to make the institution independent of the government

There was something odd about the Azharite imam of a mosque in the district of Nasr City in Cairo instructing worshippers not to participate in the then- ongoing demonstrations in January this year on the grounds that "obedience to the ruler is a religious duty." His sermon provoked public uproar and worshippers asked him to step down from the podium.

This incident epitomises the widening gap between the government-affiliated institution of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's most prestigious seat of learning, and the Egyptian public as a whole. During the revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, Al-Azhar adopted a discourse that largely toed the government line, further damaging the institution's already dwindling credibility.

However, all this may be about to change. Last weekend, thousands of Al-Azhar scholars protested against their loss of independence and the intervention of the state security in their work in front of the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces building.

According to the scholars, interviewed by the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yom, under the previous regime state security "intervention included dictating the topics of Friday sermons to preachers." The "25 January Revolution has given us the hope of regaining our freedom," the scholars said.

However, this will be as a result of the revolution, for when the demonstrations peaked at the end of January the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, called for calm and issued statements about the need to end demonstrations and curb bloodshed. The statements did not mention the regime and kept silent about the bloody attacks orchestrated by the regime to scatter the demonstrators.

Instead of condemning the attacks, El-Tayeb rejected "civil strife", while the grand mufti at Al-Azhar, Ali Gomaa, issued an edict barring Muslims from praying in mosques on the "Friday of Departure", when demonstrators went out in their hundreds of thousands to put an end to the corrupt regime.

Sheikh Said Amer, the head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, which issues religious rulings, told the independent daily Al-Shorouk that protests were not a religiously acceptable means of expression. "They are haram [forbidden]," he told the newspaper, claiming that "religious scholars are unanimously against anti- government protests that may turn violent."

However, the prominent scholar Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, who heads the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), was quick to denounce such statements as either misguided or simply supportive of the authorities. Al-Azhar's official spokesman, Mohamed Rifaa El-Tahtawi, then also distanced himself from the institution's official discourse, submitting his resignation and joining the demonstrators. Several other Al-Azhar scholars similarly broke away from the institution's pro-government line, taking to the streets in their unique attire and calling for an end to the corrupt regime.

In the face of the official statements, El-Qaradawi, banned from preaching in Egypt for more than 30 years, broke through the barrier of fear and encouraged the demonstrators to continue their peaceful protests, which he defined as jihad in the face of tyranny, demanding an end to Mubarak's three-decade rule. The leader of the Shiite group Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, also stepped into the fray by giving a spirited speech defending the demonstrations as an act of jihad not just against corrupt autocratic rule, but also against Israel.

As the dust began to settle, Al-Azhar's official attitude towards the demonstrations hardly helped the credibility of the institution. Many agree with political analyst Hossam Tammam that "the official religious establishments, both Muslim and Christian, have been the biggest losers in the revolution." Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, gave blatant support to the regime when he asked Egyptian Christians not to engage in anti-Mubarak demonstrations.

Yet, few people, whether Muslims or Christian, seemed to give much attention to such official calls. In fact, says Tammam, "the Egyptian revolution has completely reconfigured the religious scene and clarified the public's position towards religious institutions and discourses in the country. The result has been surprising. No one expected that religious Egyptians would be capable of overriding the powers of the religious institutions and of challenging religious discourses that they suddenly perceived to be part of a corrupt and repressive regime."

Nevertheless, much of the public will not have expected more from Al-Azhar, whose credibility has long been declining owing to its being seen as a mouthpiece for the government. Dependent on the state for funding, the institution's scholars have been turned into government employees sometimes more worried about their livelihoods than about the clarity of their religious discourse.

The grand sheikh and the mufti, the institution's two most prominent voices, have both been appointed by the government since the 1952 Revolution. Whereas the mufti can be replaced at any time, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar remains in office for life.

As a result, many would agree with Nabil Abdel-Fattah of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies that Al-Azhar has long been "used by rulers as a tool to justify authoritarian policies and garner public support for an autocratic regime." Al-Azhar's former grand sheikh, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who served a long term in office from 1996 until his death in March 2010, was a controversial figure who was often lambasted for being a government official willing to compromise the principles of Islam for the sake of state policies.

Many critics said that although the state has long used Al-Azhar as its mouthpiece, in some cases Tantawi went further than need be by reportedly volunteering fatwas pleasing to the regime. One controversial fatwa that placed Tantawi under fire was his religious legitimisation of the barrier on the Egyptian border with Gaza, which many saw as having been issued in favour of the regime at the expense of the lives of Palestinians. Tantawi was not against normalisation with Israel, and he was a critic of suicide bombing carried out in resistance to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Tantawi also described the boycotting of presidential elections as a sin, while staying quiet on issues such as allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Agriculture and the use of carcinogenic pesticides. According to Abdel-Fattah, Tantawi also avoided issues including "the regime's systematic violations of human rights, the state security abuse of prisoners, the widening gap between rich and poor, the president's remaining in power for 30 years, and the possible transfer of power to his son."

As a result, many people welcomed the appointment of Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, who had served as president of Al-Azhar University from 2003, as grand sheikh last year. A French-educated scholar, who was also Egypt's mufti until September 2003, El-Tayeb is an enlightened and moderate scholar with a philosophical background. It was widely thought at the time of his appointment that he would improve the image of the institution, severely damaged during his predecessor's term in office.

There were critics, however, who were apprehensive about the new grand sheikh's affiliation to the government as a member of the former ruling National Democratic Party. One former Muslim Brotherhood MP, Hamdi Hassan, let out a sigh of relief that Egypt's revolution "did not erupt during Tantawi's era, which would have been a farce for Al-Azhar." Yet, Hassan is not critical of El-Tayeb. "Nobody expected the revolution to overthrow the regime, and the grand sheikh, as a government employee, had to respect red lines," he said.

There has been a consensus among analysts that Al-Azhar will not regain its former grandeur just by changing the man at the helm. Instead, many observers insist that in order for this to happen Al-Azhar must regain its financial independence, such that scholars will not need to heed government policies.

Hassan believes that the right moment may now have come for this all-important change. "Egypt now enjoys an environment of freedom that will definitely give the grand sheikh the opportunity to revise his discourse and allow for change inside the institution," he said.

Indeed, for the first time in many years, the Grand Sheikh has begun to talk about democracy, freedom and human rights, as he did during a press conference following the ousting of Mubarak's regime. Pressing for a speedy transition to civilian rule with free and fair elections, El-Tayeb also called for laws outlawing all forms of torture and stricter control of the police and security forces.

Yet, perhaps even more importantly was El-Tayeb's call for future grand sheikhs of Al-Azhar to be elected by a council of scholars in Islamic Sharia law. This council would also be responsible for restricting the tenure of individuals elected to the position, formerly held for life by virtue of a presidential decree issued in 1952.

El-Tayeb rebutted claims that Al-Azhar had supported the regime during the revolution. "We did not, and we will not toady to the regime," he said. "Al-Azhar is a 1,000-year-old institution that is responsible to Muslims all over the world. It is not a tool in anyone's hands. It decides its views based on what it thinks is right, and it remains above governments and revolutions."

El-Tayeb said that Al-Azhar had "supported the demands of the young people from day one of the demonstrations, but we kept a distance from both sides fearing more bloodshed or the disintegration of the country." Al-Azhar had condemned the killing of protesters and had described those killed as "martyrs" rather than "victims", he said

Many, however, remain unconvinced. Abdel-Fattah said that a desire to halt the bloodshed was not a justification for Al-Azhar's negative stance towards the revolution since "those young protesters who went out to free the country knew that freedom had a price, which they were ready to pay."

"Both Al-Azhar and the Orthodox Church were part of the 'republic of fear' that those young middle-class demonstrators went out to overthrow," he said. Instead of instructing the protesters to go home, said university professor and political activist Yehia Qazzaz, the grand sheikh should have followed his role as "correcting the ruler and calling upon the president to step down in order to stop the bloodshed."

Both Abdel-Fattah and Qazzaz say that the grand sheikh, together with those in leading positions at Al-Azhar, should now resign to save Al-Azhar's credibility. "The grand sheikh, though a respectable and pious person, shot himself in the foot when he toed the government line at the beginning of the revolution. He lost his credibility," Qazzaz said.

Qazzaz puts little stock in the grand sheikh's post- revolutionary discourse promoting human rights and democracy. "It is no more than an attempt to save the face of the institution," he said. "But nobody is listening."

By contrast, a rapt audience of more than a million people gathered in Tahrir Square to listen to the Friday sermon delivered by El-Qaradawi in celebration of the uprising. The sermon was the first address El-Qaradawi has made in Egypt for 30 years, and in it he praised the young demonstrators who had toppled a "tyrannical pharaoh" and called upon Arab leaders to listen to the will of the people.

El-Qaradawi was applauded when he called for the conquest of Jerusalem. "I want to give a Friday sermon at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem," he said.

According to Qazzaz, people have gathered around El-Qaradawi because he employs "a moderate rhetoric reflecting the true spirit of Islam, which rebels against tyranny and injustice. This is a spirit that was unfortunately absent from Al-Azhar's statements."

One week after El-Qaradawi's sermon, again away from state-run mosques, an audience of at least 10,000 worshippers flooded one of the biggest squares in Sohag in Upper Egypt to hear superstar preacher Amr Khaled lead Friday prayers and deliver a sermon urging people to help rebuild the country. The sermon, the first delivered by Khaled after being banned from preaching in Egypt over the past ten years, was also very well received.

Khaled, whose moderate preaching and clever use of barrier-breaking technology has influenced the lives of millions of young Muslims around the world, has shifted his discourse from a purely spiritual message of piety and devotion to God to social development based on faith. Today, young people are told that rebuilding their country is part of their worship of God.

Observers agree that Al-Azhar now also needs to modernise its discourse if it is to regain credibility, something which Abdel-Fattah says can only happen with a change in the establishment's educational system. "Rote-learning techniques and the reproduction of the same old discourse using wooden language that belongs to the Middle Ages should be abandoned and replaced with creativity," he said.

Replacing those in leading positions and regaining Al-Azhar's financial independence are two other major steps in the same direction, he said. The Ministry of Religious Endowments, attached to the government in 1913, should be re-affiliated to Al-Azhar to help it regain its financial independence.

If these steps are not carried out, then Al-Azhar's decline will leave a vacuum that could be filled by other, sometimes faulty foreign schools of thought.

2-Whither the Palestinian Authority?

Stripped of its stalwart Arab defender in Mubarak, the Palestinian Authority is under greater pressure than ever to cut all relations with Israel, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied Palestine

With its "bargaining position" vis-à-vis Hamas getting constantly weaker due to revolutionary changes in the Arab world, particularly Egypt, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) is voicing unprecedented willingness to offer drastic concessions to Hamas. This coincides with renewed and more determined popular calls for "ending divisions" in Palestinian politics.

However, it is premature to say for sure if this willingness is genuine or just a tactical response to unforeseen developments.

With the demise of the Hosni Mubarak regime, Fatah lost its chief Arab patron in the Arab region. Moreover, the so-called "Egyptian document" -- the reconciliation paper supposed to have led to rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas -- has now become effectively irrelevant.

Fatah had signed the document but Hamas showed reluctance to do so, arguing that the bridging proposal was too biased in Fatah's favour. In addition, Hamas felt that the Mubarak regime's approach towards the Islamist Palestinian movement was never friendly, probably as an extension of the regime's vindictive policy towards the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological precursor of Hamas.

Egypt also served as an apologist and even guarantor of PA "peace steps" with Israel, steps that met little acceptance among most Palestinians. Indeed, when the PA was criticised harshly following the revelation of the so-called "Palestine Papers" by Al-Jazeera Television recently, Abbas and other PA officials sought to defend themselves by arguing that "everything that we did was conveyed to our Arab brothers," a reference to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Now, in light of radical regime change in Egypt, the so-called moderate Arab camp has suffered a serious blow, which is undoubtedly bad news for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. All this seems to have seriously affected the PA's position vis-à-vis Hamas, which also explains Fatah's unusual overtures and ostensibly generous proposals for national reconciliation and restoration of Palestinian national unity.

The declared overtures towards Hamas include a recent statement by the prime minister of the Ramallah-based government, Salam Fayyad, who reportedly said that he would agree to form a government of national unity with Hamas even if that meant that Hamas would retain the Gaza Strip under its control.

It is not certain if Fayyad's statement reflected his personal view or was coordinated with the PA leadership. Fatah distanced itself from the statement, saying that it went too far and essentially reflected Fayyad's views.

Nabil Shaath, a leading Fatah politician and negotiator, was also quoted as saying that Fatah was willing to accept most -- if not all -- of Hamas's demands and objections relative to the Egyptian proposal. However, it seems that this is easier said than done given the adamant opposition by PA security agencies in the West Bank to any genuine rapprochement with Hamas, especially allowing the Islamist movement freedom of action within the occupied territory, which these agencies fear might enable Hamas to rebuild itself and reclaim its erstwhile influence.

Fatah, in cooperation with Israel and US General Keith Dayton, had been making strenuous efforts to weaken Hamas in the West Bank, arresting thousands of Islamist suspects and closing down hundreds of Islamic institutions.

More to the point, Abbas has said that no elections would take place in the West Bank unless elections took place in the Gaza Strip. His remarks to that effect were viewed as a vindication of Hamas's stand that national consensus must precede any future elections in the occupied territories since elections without agreement would only deepen the rift between Hamas and Fatah.

Abbas's remarks drew cool reactions from some of Fatah's leftist partners within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) who viewed the remarks as "surrender to the coup in Gaza".

Prior to the revolutionary changes taking place in several Arab countries, Fatah and the PA more or less adopted hostile attitudes towards Hamas, with some Fatah spokesmen accusing the Islamist group of wanting to build a terrorist Islamic emirate, Bin Laden style, in the Gaza Strip.

At one point, some PA officials went as far as warning Hamas that Fatah would seize Gaza by force, presumably either in cooperation with Israel and the former Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, or by fomenting local insurrection against Hamas. Such phraseology has now completely disappeared.

In addition, the recent veto by the United States of a draft resolution condemning Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, which was tabled by the PA, has seriously embarrassed the PA leadership, if only because it demonstrated that Palestinians can't really rely on the US to broker a just and dignified peace in the region.

One PA official commented on the American veto at the UN Security Council by saying that "we are deceiving ourselves if we think that the US will give us a state. In order to have a genuine Palestinian state, there must be genuine American pressure on Israel, but the US lacks the ability and perhaps the inclination to pressure Israel."

Then there is the Israeli factor. Israel continues to hold the PA by the throat to the extent that any serious movement by the Ramallah regime towards true and sincere rapprochement with Hamas would be resisted -- even violently -- by Israel. Needless to say, this puts the PA leadership in an unviable position, with little margin for manoeuvre.

Meanwhile, the PA security agencies continue daily arrests of Hamas members, though on a decreased pace. Similarly, security coordination with Israel, even in its most scandalous expressions, continues to be the norm rather than the exception.

Some observers argue that the PA is so deeply implicated in security coordination agreements with Israel that terminating these agreements might endanger its very existence. And it is well known that for Fatah to get closer to Hamas, it means moving away from Israel.

Fatah has always sought to find a magical formula whereby it could appease both Israel and Palestinian public opinion. However, given the current political realities in the Arab world, especially the demise of the Mubarak regime, what was possible three months ago is now not.

The moribund peace process with Israel, the blind American embrace of Israel, and the latter's hawkish and extremist policies, including unmitigated settlement expansion, are putting even more pressure on the PA to divorce itself from the US-Israeli axis. Whether it can do so and survive is another question.

3-Arabs challenge Israeli propaganda

The democratic revolutions sweeping North Africa have put paid to Tel Aviv's elaborate web of lies about the Arabs, writes Ramzy Baroud*

When the Libyan people took on their reviled dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, Israeli officials seemed puzzled by the alarming and unprecedented trend of popular awakenings in the Arab world.

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has claimed that these awakenings are only proof of the "weakening" of the Arabs -- even at a time when the international consensus points to the opposite conclusion.

According to the Israeli daily, Haaretz, Lieberman has claimed, "the Arab world is becoming increasingly weakened."

Worried perhaps that all rational analyses will show how Israel's decade-long aggression has been a major contributing factor to instability in the Middle East, Lieberman decided to dismiss the notion altogether. "Whoever thinks that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is part of the problem in the Middle East is trying to escape reality," he said.

It must be a strange "reality" Lieberman subscribes to, but he isn't the only Israeli official that sees the world through such tainted logic.

While Lieberman has settled on the realisation that "it is clear to everyone... that the greatest danger they are facing is not Zionism, but rather Hamas and Jihad," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pushed in a different direction, involving Iran and post-Mubarak Egypt.

Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations in Jerusalem, Netanyahu laboured desperately to link some imagined Iranian designs with the future of Egypt. "The leaders in the West and the leaders in Tehran do not want the same future for Egypt," he claimed, according to the Jewish Tribune.

"American and European leaders want an Egypt that is free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous... On the other hand, leaders in Tehran want to see an Egypt that is crushed by that same iron despotism that has crushed human rights in Iran for the last three decades," he said.

One is accustomed to hearing the flawed historical references of Israeli officials, but Netanyahu's latest comments are truly baffling. Tehran's political involvement in Egypt was and remains nominal. Yet again, Israeli officials are interpreting the Middle East solely from the self-serving viewpoint of the Israeli political establishment.

This Israeli discourse is as old as the Israeli state. The initial narrative was predicated on the assumption of a unified party of "Arabs" hell-bent on destroying a small, beleaguered Israel. The former represented all that was evil, extremist and anti-Western, while the latter embodied all that was good, democratic and civilised.

Maintaining this illusory discourse continues to be essential for Israel, for it serves multiple purposes and has long been the backbone of Israeli official hasbara, or propaganda. Even as the Israeli army demolished much of Gaza and killed or wounded nearly 7,000 Palestinian civilians in the 22-day military onslaught of 2008-09, the propaganda continued in full force. It suggested that the loss of so many civilian lives was a price worth paying in order to uproot Islamic "extremism" (supposedly represented by the democratically elected Hamas).

Although Israeli propaganda has always been relentless, the Israeli official message in the face of popular Arab uprisings seems befuddled and unclear. The reason for this might be the fact that the current push for democracy -- using largely non-violent means -- in several Arab countries took Israel by complete surprise. The Arab peoples' desire for reforms and democratic change is utterly inconsistent with the image of Arabs shrewdly crafted by Israel and its friends in the Western media. This image suggests that Arabs are simply incapable of affecting positive change, that they are inherently frenzied and undemocratic. Thus Israel, "the only democracy in the Middle East", can be trusted as an oasis of stability and democracy.

Israeli officials tried to infuse this tired message following the uprisings in North African Arab countries, but this time it seemed incoherent and was quickly overshadowed by the chants of millions of Arabs for democracy, freedom and social justice.

Another reason behind the current failure of Israel to capitalise on the ongoing turmoil is that Israeli propaganda tends to precede -- not follow -- such upheavals. Israeli hasbara is most useful when Israel takes the initiative, determining the nature, scope, timing and location of the battle.

The official propaganda that preceded the war on Gaza seemed more institutionalised than ever. Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman was reportedly summoned by Tel Aviv to lead the PR effort. He said that the diplomatic and political campaign had been underway for months. The Guardian 's Chris McGreal, reporting on the campaign from Jerusalem during the war, quoted Gillerman as saying, "I was recruited by the foreign minister to coordinate Israel's efforts and I have never seen all parts of a very complex machinery -- whether it is the Foreign Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the prime minister's office, the police or the army -- work in such coordination, being effective in sending out the message."

Israeli hasbara had then worked in tandem with the Israeli military, leading to a most coordinated campaign of war and deceit. But when the Arab people revolted, starting in Tunisia, the belated Israeli response was confused.

Israeli officials warned, yet again, of some Islamic extremist menace at work involving Hamas and Hizbullah, and others warned of an Iranian plot. Some praised their fallen Arab allies, while taking pride in Israel for being a fortress of stability, while others called to speed up the "peace process". Some denied any association between the absence of peace and Arab revolution. Meanwhile, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who duly accused Iran of attempting to exploit the situation, chastised Western countries for disowning their beleaguered allies in the region.

The fractured nature of the latest round of Israeli official propaganda could partly be blamed on the element of surprise. Israel, which bought into its own dehumanisation of its Arab enemies for so long, couldn't fathom such scenarios as popular non-violent revolutions underway in the Middle East.

But even if a solid, streamlined, and certainly well financed Israeli hasbara campaign is launched to better manage Israel's crisis, one wonders if it could really make much of a difference. If a multi-million dollar campaign to hide or "explain" the bloodbath wrought by Israel in Gaza in 2008-09 largely failed, Israel cannot possibly succeed in hiding the fact that it is no longer the "only democracy in the Arab world", or a true democracy to begin with.

* The writer is editor of

Catitan Sut:

Kita hendaklah memahami sesuatu suasana dengan sehampir mungkin yang dapat sebelum kita memutuskan hukuman. Kita perlu timbangkan segala faktor yang berkaitan dan saling berjaringan antara satu sama-lain.

Kadang-kadang kita telah membuat keputusan /hukuman terlebih dahulu sebelumpun kita mempertimbangan faktor-faktor yang sebenarnya mempengaruhi sesuatu suasana. Malanglah lagi sekiranya yang latah dalam membuat hukuman itu adalah orang yang disangka mempunyai authority.

Kita juga kerap bertemu pengalaman yang kerja kita di buat di tempat lain, hasilnya timbul di tempat yang lain pula. Dakwah Rasulullah Sollallahu 'alaihi wasallam dilakukan di Makkah, kemudian baginda ke Taif, tetapi masyarakat Madinah yang memeluk Islam dengan hangatnya. Saiyyidina Ibrahim menyeru manusia supaya datang melaksanakan ibadah haji secara berseorangan di jabal Qubais, tetapi seruan baginda telah disahut oleh manusia dari setiap pelusuk bumi sehingga lama berzaman selepas baginda.

Tiba-tiba pihak Berkuasa Palestine rasa tersempit, Israel pula merasakan yang mereka terancam. Tersempit dan rasa ancaman ini bukan kerana pihak Hamas bersiap untuk menyerang kedua pihak ini

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