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?

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The Al-Azhar Mosque.

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Still, his renown did not reach far beyond Egypt or even Cairo until, as mufti, he began to appear on popular broadcast and satellite programs. Bright, well-educated, and younger Muslims in particular found his manner refreshing and his message liberating. "I never used to listen to his predecessor," a 27-year-old Cairo physician says. "But when Ali Gomaa comes on, I pay attention. And not just me."

Loyal following. Another person who paid attention, and who then went on to promote the mufti's style of orthodoxy, is Moez Masoud, a 30-year-old advertising executive who, between writing and producing commercials, has become a highly successful Muslim televangelist. From his first satellite broadcast in 2002 through last fall's 20-part series The Right Way, Masoud has built a loyal following among young Muslims whose lives share many features of his own. Educated in American schools throughout the Middle East, including the American University in Cairo, he excelled at everything he touched, from sports to music to academics. But while devouring western philosophy, cultivating postmodern irony, and experimenting with the hedonistic lifestyle glamorized in western media, he felt a gnawing emptiness for which religion increasingly seemed the cure. The only problem was that the Islam most forcefully on display was that of the simplifiers and Islamists, whose aggressive efforts to recruit the clearly charismatic student ultimately repelled him.

Crediting his education and a fairly strong religious upbringing for arming him against the emotionally seductive appeals of the extremists, he says his big breakthrough was coming upon an audio lecture by Gomaa, then still a professor at Al-Azhar. Before long, Masoud was attending the sheik's knowledge circles and memorizing the Koran on his own. He became a committed Muslim in 1996, four years before taking to the air to bring his understanding of traditional Islam to issues like dating, drinking, homosexuality, and the pressures of living in a fast-paced, materialistic world. "The traditional voice was not dominant back then," Masoud says over tea in his sparely decorated Cairo apartment, "but it was providential that it found me. That's what drives me, and that's the voice that I want to make dominant."

But the voices of skepticism are not to be dismissed. One is Khairy Ramadan, a prominent editor and columnist at Al-Ahram and Al-Masry Al-Youm as well as a widely regarded talk-show fixture. "The mufti has enlightened views and great fatwas," he says, "but the people receive them with hesitation because they feel they come from the establishment." Like the mufti, Ramadan believes the West ignores the enlightened strain of Islam that still runs strong in the Middle East, but he insists that the biggest inducement to extremism is not a shortage of moderate clerics or respect for traditional jurisprudence but the economic and social inequalities arising out of a lack of democracy—a condition that, in his view, America cynically condones.

Equally wary is the popular novelist Alaa Al Aswany, author of the Arabic-language bestseller The Yacoubian Building. Addressing a small gathering at the office of an Egyptian opposition party, he is unsparing about the role of Egypt's ulema: "Some sheiks are put in office because they reduce the problems of life to daily rituals," he says, adding that the teaching of such clerics merely "distracts people from what matters." Though he finds much to admire about Gomaa's ideas, he says that the mufti would have far more authority among the people if he were elected by his peers and not installed by the government. "That determines everything," Al Aswany adds, "whether you are part of the government or are opposed to it."

But Abdullah Schleifer, a former journalist and emeritus professor of media studies at American University in Cairo, rejects what he calls the knee-jerk judgments of the secularist left. "I know Ali Gomaa has changed lives," he says. "He's been on the cutting edge of what young people are dealing with who are orthodox, or want to be, but are very influenced by the West. He's the link between the sweet orthodoxy of the young and the scholarly tradition."