Friday, December 12, 2008

The sheikh's handshake

The Grand Imam of Cairo caused uproar by embracing Israel's president. But there's more behind the fuss than antisemitism

Jack Shenker, Thursday 11 December 2008

"......The ill-fated clasp took place at an interfaith conference in New York and the recipient was Israeli president Shimon Peres. Sheikh Tantawi, who as the Grand Imam of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque and university occupies the highest seat of learning in the Sunni world, claims the embrace was purely accidental. "I shook his hand like I did the others: at random, without even knowing him," Tantawi told the incredulous Egyptian press. Israeli reporters tell a different story, suggesting that it was Tantawi who approached Peres and that the two men had a warm and serious conversation throughout dinner.

Regardless of who is right, the handshake stirred up a storm of controversy that has dominated front pages for days in Egypt and beyond. The problem is that, intended or not, a friendly gesture between the Supreme Islamic Guide for the Muslim world on the one side and the president of a Zionist state on the other is seen by many in the Middle East as a painful propaganda gift to the Israelis, just as hundreds and thousands of Gazan Muslims remain trapped under brutal siege by the Israeli army. The pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi called Tantawi "absurd"; the Egyptian opposition daily, al-Dostour, is now running a high-profile campaign for his dismissal.......

The detachment many Muslims feel from the formal centre of Sunni Islam stems at least partly from its transformation into a government mouthpiece. Like many of his predecessors, Tantawi was appointed by Egypt's wildly unpopular President Mubarak, and — in contrast to the Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda, spiritual leader of Egypt's other major religious community — the sheikh has placidly toed the government line. Al-Quds al-Arabi has labelled him a mouthpiece of Egypt's authoritarian regime and the popular cynicism this has engendered among the general public has led many Muslims to seek new sources of religious guidance away from Al-Azhar......."

No comments: