After a visit to the Vatican on September 20, a delegation of the Muslim World League (MWL), an international NGO based in, and funded by, Saudi Arabia, lauded Pope Francis for his past statements rejecting the link between Islam and violence. During their "historic meeting," MWL Secretary-General Muhammad Abdul-Kareem Al-Issa and the Pope exchanged gifts and reportedly vowed to enhance cooperation "in all areas to achieve common goals, notably the spread of peace and harmony."
The next day, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the WML held an "informal meeting... during which it was repeated that:
- Religion and violence are incompatible;
- Religions have moral resources capable of contributing to fraternity and peace;
- The phenomenon of fundamentalism, particularly when violent, is troubling and joint efforts are required to counter it, and
- Situations exist where freedom of conscience and of religion are not entirely respected and protected, so there is an urgent need to remedy this, renewing 'religious discourse' and reviewing school books."
The two groups then agreed to establish a joint permanent committee "in the near future" to address these issues.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the leaders of Cairo's al-Azhar University -- the world's leading Islamic center of learning for Sunni Muslims -- at its International Peace Conference in April, after Pope Francis delivered an address for which the audience awarded him much applause. According to an account in the National Catholic Register, "Probably to avoid offending its Muslim members, who consider Jesus only a prophet, [Pope Francis] seemed to deliberately omit any explicit mention of the Lord's name, preferring to focus more generally on 'God' and the 'Absolute.'"
The report went on to summarize "key points" of the Pontiff's speech, among them:
"Despite the need for the Absolute, we must reject any 'absolutizing' that would justify violence which is the 'negation of every authentic religious expression.'"
"Religion is not meant to only unmask evil but promote peace, perhaps today 'more than ever,' but without 'giving in to forms of facile syncretism' [and instead] 'praying for one another.'"
"It is of little or no use to raise our voices and run about to find weapons for our protection: what is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters and not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction."
Thanking the Pope for his "defense of Islam against the accusation of violence and terrorism," the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad al-Tayyib, said in his speech that humanity ought to "stress the value of peace, justice, equality and human rights regardless of religion, color, race, or language." He added:
"We need to liberate the image of religions from false concepts, misunderstandings, malpractices, and false religiosity attached to them. These evils bestir conflicts, spread hate, and instigate violence... [W]e should not hold religion accountable for the crimes of any small group of followers."
The twin messages at each occasion -- Al-Azhar in Cairo and the Vatican in Rome -- were the same: that religion is the vessel through which peace is achieved, and that Islam is no more violent than Christianity.
This is not merely ironic, as less than three weeks earlier in Egypt, Islamist terrorists bombed Coptic churches and killed dozens of innocent people on Palm Sunday, and Saudi Arabia, which finances and bases the MWL, is the global purveyor of extremist Wahhabism. More importantly, it sends a signal to persecuted Christians and moderate Muslims that they really have nowhere to turn.
As appropriate as it is for the head of the Catholic Church to hail peace and coexistence while railing against intolerance, it is worse than meaningless if he does so while forging ties with the types of extremists he claims to be denouncing. In his attempt at appeasing Muslims, then, the Pope is actually emboldening the "arsonists," not the "firefighters".
Pope Francis speaks with Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, Grand Imam of Cairo's al-Azhar University, at the Vatican on May 23, 2016. (Image source: RT video screenshot)
The Muslim World League, founded in 1962 and based in Mecca, describes itself as follows:
"The Muslim World League is an international non-governmental Islamic organization based in the Holy City of Makkah. Its goal is to clarify the true message of Islam. It is engaged in propagating the religion of Islam, elucidating its principles and tenets, refuting suspicious and false allegations made against the religion. The League also strives to persuade people to abide by the commandments of their Lord, and to keep away from prohibited deeds. ...The League, which employs all means that are not at variance with the Sharia (Islamic law) to further its aims, is well known for rejecting all acts of violence and promoting dialogue with the people of other cultures. ... those in charge of MWL seek to establish a brand of Islam that adheres to the precepts of God (Allah) and the tradition of the Prophet Mohammad."
According to the David Horowitz Freedom Center's website, Discover the Networks:
"MWL has a long history of ties to, and financial support for, Islamic extremists, terrorist operatives, and terrorist organizations including Hamas, the Abu Sayyaf Group, al-Ittihaad al-Islami, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Jemaat-al-Islamiyya, and al Qaeda.... MWL has often provided a platform for hateful, inflammatory rhetoric directed against Jews and the state of Israel."
Al-Azhar, too, is a virtual training camp for extremism, according to a report in the American Thinker. In a recent article, author Cynthia Farahat -- a fellow at the Middle East Forum -- writes that it "is where many of the world's most brutal terrorists received their formal religious training."
This, she says, "is to be expected, given the nature of the material taught there [and the fact that it has been] unofficially controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood for decades." She provides many examples of the Islamic center's curriculum and teachings -- revealed in a 2015 investigative report conducted by the Egyptian newspaper El-Youn el-Sabi -- among them a book for high school students that promotes cannibalism. "Any Muslim can kill an apostate and eat him, as well kill infidel warriors even if they are young or female and they can also be eaten, because they are not granted any protection," is one passage in the book.
The Egyptian report also quotes the same book as stating:
"To preserve one's self from the evil of an infidel, any Muslim can gouge their eyes out, or mutilate their hands and legs, or sever one arm and one leg."
Another book teaches:
"Any Muslim is allowed to kill a fornicator, a warrior, or a [Muslim] who misses prayer, even without permission of the [ruling] Imam."
Farahat then lists a number of the "world's most brutal Islamists [who] either worked for or graduated from al-Azhar." For example, Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, is a graduate, and the first leader of al-Qaeda, the late Abdulla Azzam, studied there, as did Abu Osama al-Masri, the likely mastermind of the Russian plane crash over the Sinai in 2015. Osama Bin Laden's mentor, Omar Abdel Rahman (the "Blind Sheikh"), a leader of the international arm of al-Qaeda, was a scholar at the institution.
Al-Azhar is so closely associated with fundamentalism and violence, she explains, that public figures and academics in Egypt have called on the government of President Abdel Fattah el Sisi to designate Al-Azhar a terrorist organization.
If Pope Francis wishes to create and join interfaith coalitions against dangerous fundamentalism, he should cease giving his blessing to Muslim groups that perpetrate political Islam in its most destructive form.
A.Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.