Epic Call by Egypt, Tunisia Leaders for Islamic Reformation

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The newly elected President of Tunisia Beji Caid Essebsi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi recently issued loud calls for progressive reformations in Islamic thought to modernize outdated doctrine. Both of them explicitly identify the Islamist ideology as the core problem.

Raymond Ibrahim reports that Egyptian President El-Sisi gave a momentous speech during the celebrations of the birthday of Mohammed, the founder of Islam, where he told Muslims to have a “religious revolution” to change Islamic “thinking.”

The location is equally as important as the timing. He did this at Al-Azhar University, the world's most prominent Sunni school of learning.

El-Sisi confronted Islamist propaganda that changing Islamic doctrine is tantamount to blasphemy. He emphasized that there’s a difference between the interpretation of the religion and the religion itself. He argued that the ones who are actually hurting Islam are those who oppose the reformers.

See El-Sisi's Speech in Video Below (Translated)

“That thinking—I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!” El-Sisi declared.

He did not blame the troubles of the Muslim world on Western influence or a wild Zionist conspiracy against Islam as Islamist do. On the contrary, El-Sisi said the source of global conflict originates in ideologies from the Muslim world.

“I say – and repeat again – that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this ummah is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands,” he said.

Last year, El-Sisi declared that “Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people.” He said that an Islamic reformation is necessary to modernize doctrines that have not been revised for 800 years.

“In Islam, there was a civil state, not an Islamic one,” El-Sisi said. His government formed an independent commission that recommended banning Islamist political parties, “reforming religious discourse” and various measures to minimize the influence of political Islam (Islamism).

He also apologized to a woman who was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square and said her “honor” was violated; a challenge to the cultural theme of “honor” that forms the basis of women’s rights abuses.  

Separately, the Tunisian presidency was won by a secular-democratic candidate named Beji Caid Essebsi who defeated a pro-Hamas secularist with 55% of the vote versus 45%.

Shortly after his victory, Essebsi wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post crediting Western influence, specifically the Enlightenment and the separation of religion and state, with providing the basis for Tunisia’s secular-democratic transition.

Islamists, on the other hand, view Western influence as anti-Islamic and responsible for the Muslim world’s plights. When groups like the Muslim Brotherhood adopt Western concepts like “democracy,” they redefine them in accordance with sharia governance.

Essebsi’s op-ed blames Islamism and the previous Islamist government led by Ennahda, the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, for security threats. He writes that Tunisians are joining Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State because of foreign clerics who entered Tunisia under Ennahda’s rule.

“The same extremist ideology motivates others to take up arms — made readily available by the turmoil in nearby Libya — against their fellow Tunisians,” Essebsi says.

His new government will start “working to return our mosques to their spiritual function and barring entry of foreign preachers.” The terminology of “spiritual function” is meant to mean that mosques will be non-political. He’s talking about fighting political Islam.

Tunisians voted for an anti-Islamist platform. Essebsi did not hide his intentions. The expressed purpose of his political party is to build a “twenty-first century state, a progressive state” and promote a modernization of Islamic doctrine.

“What separates us from those [Islamist] people is 14 centuries,” he said.

He left no room for interpretation in understanding his objectives.

“They are for a religious state, and we are for a civil state… For example, they wanted to introduce sharia as the source of law. We are against that,” he explained.

The Tunisians voted for Essebsi because they rejected Islamism; the same Islamism they originally voted into power with a plurality.

Professor Yuksel Sezgin writes, “Tunisia has achieved the most impressive democratic transformation in the history of the region.” He correctly states that Tunisia, not Turkey, should be upheld as the model for the region.

The momentous symbolism of what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt is difficult to exaggerate.

Tunisia is where the “Arab Spring” was born and where the subsequent “Islamist Awakening” won its first electoral victory. It was first-hand experience that led to the removal of Islamists from power and their replacement with secular-democrats advocating a progressive reformation in Islamic doctrine.

Egypt, the largest Arab country and home to the most influential school in Sunni Islam, followed a very similar path.

For the first time, Arab leaders are talking about the need for a progressive Islamic reformation towards separation of mosque and state; not the "reform" of the Wahhabists and the Muslim Brotherhood. And it is a message that Muslim Arabs supported in the seas of protests and ballot boxes.

We’re no longer talking about the need for an ideological battle in the Muslim world between secular-democratic reformers and Islamists. It’s happening. The question now is which side will win.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.


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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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