Want to know what’s cynical? Asking if General (President) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is about to stir real change in Islam by calling for a “religious revolution” to displace violence from the religion’s central discourse. I’m not sure which phrase in English would be best describe this type of typical Arab politics, but I’ll start with “the pot calling the kettle black.”
Al-Sisi rules a country where the modern Muslim Brotherhood has its roots, mainly on account of Egypt’s legacy of destroying Islamic scholarship. Since the coup in 1952 that overthrew the Egyptian king, the often military-based dictators of the country have kept the country’s most enlightened students out of Al-Azhar University, the Sorbonne of the Sunni Muslim world. The most gifted students were sent to other professions, kept out of the religious institution’s halls, dooming Egyptian Islam to be influenced by a political charlatan and pretender by the name of Sayyid Kutb. His complete and utter lack of qualifications, combined with his charisma and philosophy, infused Sunni Islam with a new political militancy. This wasn’t the puritanical militancy the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia brought to the table, but something else. It’s the way Egypt’s regime has abused its population since Arab Nationalism’s hayday that has driven political Islam toward the same ISIS he pretends to know how to fight.
He says nothing about political freedoms or one day getting out of the way of actual democracy in Egyptian society, much less Arab society, much less general Islamic society. He is a pretender as a progressive. He is as petty a dictator as we have seen in the past from the likes of Nasser or Mubarak.
I can’t say for sure what Islam needs. It’s tough to prescribe something to 1 billion people. I am on the outside looking in. My expertise is limited and academic, stunted by being less of a thorough researcher than I have been in the past as a full-time student. Regardless of those points, I will risk a suggestion and say the best thing both Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam could do for themselves today is reinforce the right to dissent.
That means dissent in religious thought. That means dissent in religious interpretation. That means dissent within Islamic movements. There is little tolerance of it. As far as cultures where Islam is dominant, it’s hard to tell if the political environment presses more on Islam or Islam on the politics, so it’s fair to say that tolerating dissent would go far in any society. It for sure is an inherent component of being ‘open to suggestions,’ and supportive of free thought.
ISIS is hardly representative of the entire Sunni world. It’s worldview is definitely a more pervasive one today than it has been in the past. But it’s societal barriers (including political suppression) that started this situation in the first place.
Judaism, for all its flaws, clearly has less of an issue with dissent. Sure, Jews can be just as stubborn as any other religious or political subculture when it comes to different ideas. When some congregation of Reform Judaism hears something a little too conservative, or some congregation of Orthodox Judaism hears something a little too open-minded, the dissenters will hear grief. But this is hardly the situation in several Muslim communities. In all probability, the majority of any town under Taliban or ISIS rule secretly doesn’t mind someone’s expression of different opinions even in religion. It’s irrelevant though when those societies tolerate suppression more than variety.
Judaism and Christianity are hardly perfect. They might be too tolerant of dissent, where someone with a very mild difference of opinion might walk out the door and start his own congregation, or even his or her own denomination! (Here’s looking at you Open Orthodoxy). Regardless, it’s a healthier environment. You can’t force people to march in lockstep. ISIS represents a distancing from Islamic thought and jurisprudence, not an awakening of it. Shiite Islam has its own problems, but its revolutionary streak is entirely different and far more intellectual than what is happening in Sunni Islam today (though as the Iranian government has shown everyone with its arbitrary house arrests of other prominent Ayatollahs who have spoken against policies of the late Ayatollah Khomeini or the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, they very much are experiencing suppression of dissent as well).
So spare me your rhetoric Mr. President (General?). Without an intellectual opening of major Sunni institutions, there won’t be any rollback of ISIS intellectually. Egypt and a number of other countries are too enthralled by their own fascism to ever allow honest religious thought. Sisi can prove me wrong, but I doubt he is going to. Not until he takes control of the state media spreading the same anti-Semitism, paranoia, hatred and other cornerstones of the insurgent Islam he claims he wants to change.