Egypt's Grand Mufti Counters the Tide of Islamic Extremism

Why doesn't the West recognize who the moderate Muslims are, much less what they are trying to say?


The Al-Azhar Mosque.

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CAIRO—"Maybe we just need to buy CNN," says Sheik Ali Gomaa, more than a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice. After taking more than an hour to explain to yet another western journalist why a traditional conception of sharia law—along with knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence—is the best antidote to Islamic extremism, the grand mufti of Egypt is not able to disguise his frustration. Why, he wonders, does the West still not recognize who the moderate Muslims are, much less heed what they are trying to say? Shrugging his shoulders, he answers his own question: "The western media has paid no attention."

But it's even worse than that, Gomaa suggests. The West is aiding the most reactionary elements, the Salafis and Wahhabis, "out of political necessity," he says, alluding to America's elaborate codependent relationship with the oil-rich Saudis, who finance the vast outreach apparatus of the puritanical Wahhabi establishment. "And that," the mufti adds, "leaves behind our kind of Islam."

Rising from the conference table after a long discussion of his views about Islam and the contemporary world, the 55-year-old Gomaa cuts a stately figure in his Al-Azhar University scholar's garb, a dark caftan covering his white, ankle-length djellaba and a white and red cap atop his roundish head. As the grand mufti, Gomaa heads the Dar al Ifta (literally, the house of fatwas), a government agency charged with issuing nonbinding religious legal opinions on any question, large or small, that might come up in the life of a faithful Muslim. Part scholar and theologian, part jurist and administrator, he is a completely busy man—not least because his office issues some 5,000 fatwas a week, including both the official ones that he himself crafts on important issues and the more routine ones handled via phone and Internet by a dozen or so subordinate muftis. When not overseeing this operation, the sheik also appears on radio and television, participates in conferences, sometimes preaches and teaches (including at nearby Al-Ahzar University, Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning, where he was once a student and professor), and gives speeches abroad, mostly in the cause of promoting his broad-minded, pragmatic, and, he insists, traditionalist understanding of Islam and sharia law.

Ever since Osama bin Laden's minions committed their murderous acts, western politicians and commentators have asked the same questions repeatedly: "Where are the voices of moderate Islam?" Yet the West—including, more specifically, the U.S. government—has done little to locate or assist such moderates. In some notable cases, such as its denial of a visa to the prominent European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan in 2004, Washington has even gone out of its way to insult them.

Western official ineptitude aside, a more urgent question remains unanswered: What influence do moderates such as Gomaa—and particularly those coming from the traditional learned class, or ulema—have within the vast community of Muslim believers? While Gomaa himself voices concerns about the rise of Islamic extremism in the West, he marshals a raft of statistics to support his view that respect for traditionalism is large and growing in the core of the Muslim world. These include a massive growth in the demand for fatwas issued by his office, a mushrooming of secondary feeder schools for the traditionalist Al-Azhar University, and the growth of Al-Azhar itself from three colleges in 1950 to 72 today. "Can we say that the traditional ulema has lost its popularity?" he asks. (His broad confidence might be further corroborated by a new Gallup study, which found that 93 percent of Muslims from 35 different nations call themselves moderates.)

But other observers, including prominent Egyptian journalists and intellectuals, are far more skeptical about the impact of the mufti and other ulema, even within Egypt itself. They suggest that their association with corrupt authoritarian regimes lowers their standing among the people and taints their teaching. In light of such sharply differing views, the question of who will triumph in the struggle to define Islam is far from resolved.