The cards are stacked against Islamic reformers in 2016. Even the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is encouraging a reformation in Islamic education and preaching, is currently facing a strong movement of discontent from Al Azhar’s Islamic leadership.
It is against the grain of Islam for Muslims to self-criticize, and those who do must constantly apologize and emphasize that they are not speaking about Islam the religion, but are speaking about the interpretation. This is because those who call for any reformation are automatically accused of apostasy by Muslim leadership. Islam resists and refuses to focus on self-criticism or internal analysis in its preaching to its followers. Only one form of criticism is allowed in Islam, and that is the one directed against the non-Muslim outside world. That has always been the common form of preaching in Islam.
Not only Muslim preachers, but also Muslim political leaders, are expected to give fiery speeches against the outside world, but never against internal causes of trouble, especially if they’re related to Islam or Sharia.
Al-Sisi is the first Muslim leader in recent history who openly speaks of the need for a reformation in Islamic education. That makes him a new kind of Muslim leader, and unquestionably an exceptional and courageous one.
A year ago, Al-Sisi spoke before the leadership of the highest Islamic Sunni institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, and challenged the clerics to take the lead in an effort to examine their own teachings and source materials for interpreting Islam. He emphasized he was not critiquing the religion (of Islam) but the need for a “religious revolution” in the thinking that is “antagonizing the entire world.” Again, just a couple of weeks ago on December 22, al-Sisi reiterated his appeal to Islamic leaders to modernize and promote “changes in approach” for the sake of peaceful coexistence with all races and religions.
Even though Al-Sisi is widely popular among the majority of Egyptians who are fed up with the impact of political Islam on Egyptian society, there are forces of insurgency coming from Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is far from being a dead movement in Egypt.
Egypt is at a crossroads, and the efforts to keep Egypt moderate are being constantly challenged from all directions: radical Muslim groups from inside Egypt, the impact of ISIS in the Sinai, the instability and terror on the border with Hamas in Gaza and the terror challenge on Egypt’s Western border with Libya. Even the Southern border of Egypt is not free of turmoil coming from the Islamic State of The Sudan.
Even though the West and the so-called “moderate” Muslims are hopeful for an Islamic reformation movement coming out of the Middle East, the prospects are grim. Reformists are being strangled from all directions, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was condemned as an illegal terrorist organization by the Egyptian government, is getting stronger globally with global headquarters, not in Saudi Arabia, but in London and Istanbul.
Worst of all is the Obama administration’s refusal to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, have given it acceptance and even respectability at the international level and also inside the Middle East.
The weak state of Egypt’s economy and its shrinking income from tourism after several terror attacks on tourists in the Sinai are additional factors making it difficult for Al-Sisi’s reformation plans to succeed.
The stunning and rapid success of ISIS, its successful terrorism on the West, the sleeper cells in Europe and the US, Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle East, and his reluctance to fight ISIS, all are additional factors in favor of ISIS winning the Middle East. The same factors are working against the political stability of Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, which just recently beheaded a Shiite cleric, together with a total of 47 Shiite protesters.
The year 2016 is the last year for the Obama administration, and Islam jihadists know that their golden opportunity to run wild and form a lasting Islamic State in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East will probably end with Obama’s term in office. We are looking at a very rocky 2016.
AFDI Geller Fellow Nonie Darwish is the author “The Devil We Don’t Know” and president of “Former Muslims United,” a program of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.