For years, intellectuals have called on Cairo's Al-Azhar University to change its pre-medieval mindset of jihadism, without any success. This time might be different.
In December 2014, Egypt's President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, gave a speech at Al-Azhar and told clerics there that it is time to modernize the Muslim faith, which has put itself at odds with the rest of humanity.
It was the perfect venue for the speech. Al-Azhar is the pinnacle of Sunni Islam's education system. It is influential not just in Egypt, but throughout the world. Al-Azhar has educated many of the leaders of Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups.
Egypt's President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, delivered a historic speech to top Islamic scholars and clergy at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, December 28, 2014. (Image source: MEMRI)
For the first time in the history, a heroic head of state stood before Al-Azhar's scholars, insisting they acknowledge that there is a real problem with Al-Azhar's teachings and asking them to reform the religious ideology, primarily through changing its core domain, education. Sisi had the courage to call for a religious revolution within Al-Azhar. In the house of the religious scholars, he took them on.
What made his speech remarkable is that he pointed to the problem within, and did not blame a Western or Jewish conspiracy for the problems facing Muslims.
About a month after Sisi's heroic speech, in which he said, "We must revolutionize our religion," Ibrahim Eissa, an Egyptian journalist and another hero of the Middle East, backed him up. Eissa said on Egyptian television, on February 3, that no one in Egypt has had the courage to admit that the ideology and activities of ISIS are based on Islamic sources. Eissa added,
"when the people of ISIS perpetrate slaughter, murder, rape, immolation, and all those barbaric crimes, they say that they are relying on the sharia. They say that this is based on a certain hadith, on a certain Quranic chapter, on a certain saying of Ibn Taymiyyah, or on some historical event. To tell the truth, everything that ISIS says is correct."
On February 11, Eissa named the extremists among the Al-Azhar leadership, and noted that Al-Azhar had become a shelter of an extremist ideology. In addition, Eissa questioned why Al-Azhar refused to denounce ISIS as "Kufar" or "un-Islamic."
President Sisi is not alone in his call for a religious revolution. Professor Dr. Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, made a similar statement, in Saudi holy city of Mecca, no less. There, he spoke of "bad interpretations of the Koran and the sunna [the teachings of Muhammad]."
"There has been a historical accumulation of excessive trends," al-Tayyeb told a Saudi conference, and said that a reform in education was needed.
The major difference between the visionary Sisi and al-Tayyeb is that al-Tayyeb still could not resist blaming others. "We face major international plots targeting Arabs and Muslims, in a way that agrees with the new world colonialism that is allied with world Zionism," he said, relying on the worn-out conspiracy theories that everyone -- especially after the "Arab Spring" -- can see are not true. Such conspiracy theories are merely used to deflect blame from the real source of the problem: the many leaders in the Arab and Muslim world who still practice corrupt and capricious governance.
The real heroes remain Egypt's president, who got the process started, and Ibrahim Eissa, for speaking the truth. Sisi's call for religious revolution encouraged others in Egypt finally to state publicly that Al-Azhar had been hijacked by radicals. Egyptians, for the first time, were also able to state publicly what else everyone knew: that Al-Azhar was producing books promoting hatred and violence. Most Egyptians, however, expect that a great thinker such as al-Tayyeb, who had the courage to come such a long way, will also soon rise to the same stature as President Sisi.
Both Sisi's and al-Tayyeb's statements represent the real "Arab Spring": the beginning of a historic shift in how Sunni Islam will henceforth be interpreted, taught and practiced.
Coinciding with this intellectual assault, a U.S.-led coalition has been bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for the past several months. These attacks have killed an unknown number of the group's members, but at the same time also actually gaining new recruits for the organization, even in the West.
ISIS has been able to attract new followers mainly because of its online presence, through which it promotes its ideology to restless, disaffected young Muslims across the world. ISIS has gained followers by videotaping and airing its barbaric beheadings of a number of victims -- including American hostages and Egyptian Coptic Christians -- as well as the burning of a Jordanian pilot, and reportedly 45 others in the Iraqi town of al-Baghdadi.
Most people are shocked by these actions, but ISIS takes pride in slaughtering and burning its victims, as it seeks to establish a caliphate in its first step toward world domination. As a totalitarian organization, ISIS is more than a threat to the national security of America and its allies; it is a threat, as Sisi was among the first to see, first of all to Muslims, and then to the rest of humanity.
Sadly, the U.S. has failed to enunciate a comprehensive strategy for defeating this rapacious organization. On February 11, the Obama Administration formally asked Congress to authorize military force to "degrade and defeat" ISIS. Clearly, military force is necessary, but President Obama needs to be honest with himself and the public, and admit that ISIS will not be defeated by a military campaign alone. Bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria may kill its members, but it will not defeat its ideology.
Obama, for his legacy, would do well to take a leading role in supporting Sisi in the ideological war against Islamic extremists and their ideology. He is fortunate to have a potential Muslim ally in the Egyptian President, as well in the Muslim Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, yet another hero who clearly wants his people to have far-reaching opportunities.
Sisi is continuing with his heroic campaign. On January 22, he spoke for the first time of the genius of the late President Sadat's vision of peace in the Middle East. He also spoke of not allowing jihadists to use the Sinai peninsula to attack Egypt's neighbors, referring to Israel.
Sisi also refuses to follow in the footsteps of former President Hosni Mubarak, who used the threat of Islamic extremism to blackmail the West. Sisi wants to defeat extremism, not use it as a tool of statecraft.
Sisi understands the importance of defeating this expansionist ideology, and deserves the full support of America and the international community in this struggle.
Michael Armanious, a U.S.-based news analyst, was born and raised in Egypt.