Sheik Mohamed Tantawi, who died March 10, was widely hailed as a leading “moderate” in the world of Sunni Islam. French president Nicolas Sarkozy called him a “man of peace and tolerance.” Nearly every obituary referred to his moderate views, often mentioning that he was highly respected.
The truth about Tantawi, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University and perhaps the most influential religious leader in the Sunni world, is far more complicated. Despite some arguably progressive attitudes, the man was a lifelong Jew-hater, and wishful thinking won’t do anyone any good.
Now more than ever, the West and Islam require clear thinking about what constitutes religious moderation. For reasons of morality and national interest, America and its allies must seek out those in the world of Islam who respect religious diversity, advance human rights, and advocate peaceful coexistence with nonbelievers.
Unfortunately, the search for Muslim moderates – even at the highest levels of government, media, and the universities – has often been carried out without much precision.
Michael Slackman of The New York Times, for example, described Tantawi as “a moderate voice at the nexus of religion and government” and one who once shook hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Yet Slackman’s lengthy obituary doesn’t even mention Tantawi’s hostility toward Jews.
Starting in his doctoral dissertation, the good sheik spoke of Judaism as an evil religion, stating that there were good Jews and bad Jews – but that the good ones all became Muslims.
Picking up on another theme from his doctoral thesis, in a sermon from his high position as the head of the prestigious Al-Azhar University, in April 2002, Tantawi called Jews (not just Israelis): “the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs.” The next year, Tantawi decided as a tactical matter to recommend against the widespread use of the “apes and pigs” designation for Jews. Yet he never rejected the sentiments behind the words.
Tantawi later explained away his brief interaction with Peres, saying he hadn’t known who the man was at the time of the handshake.
Still, the sheik did have some moderate ideas, especially in his last years.
For example, in July 2009, Tantawi responded favorably to President Obama’s proposals concerning the path to progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict. On that occasion, he also condemned terrorist violence.
There certainly are worse Jew-haters in the Islamic world.
For example, Sheik Mohamed Yussuf al-Qardawi, another Sunni religious authority, said last year on Al Jazeera television, that “[t]hroughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place…. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”
Compared to Qardawi, Tantawi was indeed liberal-minded.
Yet when a man uses his esteemed position to advocate bigotry, it is necessary – even in an obituary – to say so. If anyone spends the better part of his or her professional life preaching hostility toward a minority, how can that fact be allowed to go unmentioned -just because the man also had a few progressive ideas?
Too much optimism can block an honest reading of a person’s real message.
It is worth keeping in mind the advice of longtime Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross and his coauthor, David Makovsky. If the United States and other democracies hope to develop effective policies and promote peace, “We need reality-based assessments; we need to see the Middle East as it is, warts and all.” When a man with Tantawi’s ideas about Jews is universally hailed as a moderate, it tells you something about the degree of bigotry common in the Muslim world.