In the wake of the ISIS's Palm Sunday bombings of Coptic churches in Egypt, Cairo's Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's most revered institution, not only refused to denounce the terrorist organization as "un-Islamic," but repeated its implausible boast of being a bulwark against extremism in the Muslim-Arab world, and accused those calling for religious reform of treason.
One such "traitor" was Egyptian TV presenter Islam Behery, a British-educated writer and Sunni Muslim who had been exposing the roots of violence within Islamic tradition itself, until he was forced off the air after protests by Al-Azhar in 2015.
According to Behery, who was later convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to a year in prison, the tradition in question
"has very little good amid a multitude of evil, least of which is the insistence by all the four schools of Sunni Islam that Christians can be killed with impunity [as] a Muslim life is 'superior' to that of a non-Muslim." (Kol Youm show, ON TV with Amr Adib, 25 April).
On his television program, "With Islam," Behery had called for an overhaul of the millennia-old compilation of hadiths [sayings and deeds] of Muhammad, and proposed the reconstruction of Islam, to separate it from its onerous legacy cemented in the 9th century.
This March, an Iraqi Shiite cleric and former parliamentarian, Ayad Jamal Aldin, expressed similar views on a TV program hosted by Brother Rachid, a Moroccan convert to Christianity living in exile. The two men -- one an outspoken supporter of the separation between mosque and state, and the other a former Muslim -- discussed how to remove the theological justification for violence in Islam and peacefully integrate Muslims of different streams.
Like Behery, Aldin holds to the theory that lust for power and sex motivated ancient clerics to tamper with Islam:
"Every crime a Muslim ruler wished to commit was first legalized as Sharia. Every unconscionable action had first been validated by Islamic jurists; through a process of making something automatically lawful by ascribing it to the Prophet. You'd be amazed at the amount of erotica written by the Abbasids [the third of the Islamic caliphates, descended from Muhammad's youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib] in praise of the charms of a 'fiver' – what they called a five-span-tall slave girl, a child, measuring some 60 centimeters in height."
Ayad Jamal Aldin, Iraqi Shiite cleric and former parliamentarian. (Image source: MEMRI video screenshot)
Today, what has come to be called "political Islam" is based on the idea that the religion was originally charged with governing both mosque and state. According to Aldin, however, this is historically untrue, as the Prophet Muhammad was not a theocratic ruler or warlord, but a "king of hearts" who "sought to foster a good society."
Nevertheless, Aldin continued, Islam has been entrenched in militancy, and it will take more than mere goodwill to extricate it:
"Today, Muslim public opinion is shaped by schools, mosques and the media. Everywhere in the Islamic world, these three channels are state-controlled. This triad is how terrorism is bred. In other words, Muslim states themselves, wittingly or unwittingly, stand behind the spread of Islamic terror... [and] embellish the Caliphate as a time of universal good, a bygone era of Muslim might."
This, he said, is utterly false and self-defeating. "People need to know that, compared to how caliphates really were, today is the 'Golden Age' of Islam."
Aldin went on to say that while most Muslim countries "unconsciously undermine themselves in favor of an imaginary super-state," some, such as Saudi Arabia, have an agenda for promoting their interests abroad.
For more than the past six decades, the Saudis have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to spread what Aldin described as
"by far the ugliest manifestation of the religion, or of any religion, for that matter... Wahhabism... the veritable mothership of all Sunni Islam's terror movements, including ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab -- in places as far away as Mali, France and everywhere."
The Muslim Brotherhood, too, is linked to the House of Saud, which, Aldin said,
"offers every kind of required support to the White House. In exchange, they enjoy the U.S.'s cover, which they use to spread Wahhabism even farther. From Minnesota, to Canada, to Latin American, to Asia, Africa, and Europe -- they claim they only build mosques. Through their literature, they constitute a more lethal danger than that posed by nuclear technology proliferation."
Turning to the Iran, Aldin called it, "the hotbed of modern Shia terror, just as Saudi Arabia is the hotbed of modern Sunni terror." He then expressed disappointment in the "confusion" in Washington on this issue. Pointing to talk in the American administration of an anti-Iran "Sunni alliance," he said it is tantamount to "rely[ing] on one terrorist to fight another."
"If Trump can clearly see that there can be no 'good terrorism' and 'bad terrorism' -- that [Sunni] terrorism is equal to [Shiite] terrorism... [and that] all terrorism is pure evil -- America can be the key to finding a way out of this impasse we are in."
Still, Aldin and Behery are among the many less-touted Muslims who agree with Trump's use of the term "radical Islamic terrorism" to define what they see as the problem; they are looking to the West for assistance in encouraging a new and peaceful reading and interpretation of Islamic texts and the religion as a whole.
"Let the U.S., or some other powerful state, dedicate itself to supporting a new movement within Islam, and you will see the end of this terrorism as we know it today," Aldin said. "Let the U.S. and others pressure the Iranians and Saudis to stop their support for extremist movements. You will be surprised how soon people will start to think and act differently."
The West has a stake in reforming Islam, not only due to pluralistic values, he claimed, but because "home-grown" terrorism is on the rise in Europe and the United States.
The entire Muslim world, too, must decide where it stands, said Aldin.
"Today 55 Muslim States are members of the United Nations, a club that is signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the core of which is equality. It is equality in all its forms, religious, racial, gender, etc. This paramount principle of equality must be 'imposed' on Islamic States. They will have to choose to either stay as part of the world community – on the condition of effective adoption of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims – or make their own club, their own 'United Nations Under Sharia,' if you like."
Aldin concluded that a new "Islamism," as he and others such as Behery envision it -- one not determined by the likes of Al-Azhar -- is possible through the joint efforts of Western leaders and Muslims "crying in the wilderness" for a different, peaceful paradigm and prism through which their religion is viewed and judged.
Saher Fares is a specialist on the Middle East, Arabic and English journalism, Islamic jihad and political current affairs. He had held posts in Egypt, Cyprus and the United Kingdom.