Al-Azhar’s modern twist on book burning
Earlier this month, Egypt summoned an Iranian diplomat to protest against an Iranian documentary about the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, saying it would hurt improving ties between the two countries. Official statements from Cairo gave few details as to the contents of the film, other than suggesting it glorified Sadat’s assassins and portrayed Sadat as a traitor who sold out the Palestinian cause.
But apparently calling in the Iranian diplomat was deemed insufficient censure of the film, and al-Azhar, the thousand-year-old edifice of Islamic learning, was called into the fray as well. The government-appointed Sheikh of al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, known for his close ties to the state, convened an emergency session of al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy to address the issue. The resulting statement was published in the state’s flagship al-Ahram daily.
Condemning the “deviant group” that produced the movie, the academy said the film was the worst kind of un-Islamic behaviour imaginable, the “worst kind of crime.” Sadat was a martyr who deserved praise for welcoming the shah of Iran and for making peace with Israel, it said. Those acts were evidence of his courage and wisdom, “of which the world of wise men stood in awe.”
Sadat was slain by Islamist assassins in October 1981, when his popularity reached its lowest point with Egyptians following his purge of and extensive crackdown on political opponents of his controversial peace with Israel. His welcoming of the deposed shah in Egypt earned him the enmity of the Iranian regime.
But here’s the kicker: “(The rulers of Iran) must know that this ugly film will be a cause for the collapse of any efforts at rapprochement (between Sunnis and Shiites)… and this rift will not be healed without the burning of this ridiculous film.”
The wording of the preamble to the statement suggests that no one in the academy has actually seen the film, as it quotes media reports about it being offensive.
An Iranian newspaper later quoted an Iranian official as saying “The documentary has been produced by a private organisation… and does not represent Iran’s official stance.” The article seemed to confirm that the documentary praised Sadat’s assassins.
That’s actually one of the cultural issues that pops up every time something like this happens. During the Danish cartoons controversy, various figures in the religious or political establishments of Muslim countries demanded the offending paper and artists be prosecuted. They seemed to operate on the assumption that all states can control media output in their countries, as many Muslim and Arab governments do.
Despite Iran’s official disdain for Sadat, it’s possible that Tehran wasn’t too happy about this, given that Iran has been racheting up efforts to achieve a rapprochement with Egypt, possibly to break its international isolation.
The episode is another in a long line of cases where the state enlists what was once a prestigious and independent (well, depending on when) collective of Islamic scholars into echoing the government’s grievances with an added Islamic flavour. It is arguably al-Azhar’s apparent willingness to engage in such overtly nationalist and populist political manoeuvres that has left it suffering a serious credibility crisis with most Muslims.
It’s tempting to say few will have much sympathy for Al-Azhar’s statement when it rarely speaks out so vociferously against the political, social and economic ills that afflict Egypt. But nationalism backed up by powerful state-controlled media has historically had a good record at whipping up popular support.