Pope Francis and A-Azhar Grand Imam in UAE
“Your family could not find an Arabic name for you?” My teacher looked at me with disdain as he was trying to prnounce my “foreign” name, “Nervana.”
Moving to a public school in Cairo from a private nun-run Catholic school was challenging for me. I shall never forget the disdainful looks of my Arabic and religious studies teacher, especially when he knew I had previously been in a Catholic Italian school. He had a particular issue with Catholic schools. The idea of allowing nuns to run schools, and display the cross on their walls was abhorrent for him, in spite of the fact all those schools were following the same national curriculm as other public schools in Egypt.
I could not help but remember my old heated debates with my schoolteacher as I eagerly followed Pope Francis’ visit to the United Arab Emirates. Only those who have encountered the ideology of extremism and the doctrine of hatred can truly appreciate the religious significance of the Papal visit.
My teacher described Catholic schools as “satanic” tools used by “the colonizers” to fight Islam and brainwash Muslims. Even hospitals, such as the Greek and Italian hospitals in Cairo were not immune to his criticism. “Patient admitted for treament and discharged accepting the cross ,” he used to say. The collision between him and I was almost regular; he used to label me as “argumentative” because I simply rejected his theory that accepting other faiths could weaken one’s Islamic faith.
My personal experience was not an isolated incident. I encountered many similar cases. Moreover, in 2017, Egyptian writer Fatima Naoot openly described how a Salafi Sheikh mocked “Christian schools.” Over the years, I realised how my teacher’s views were not eccentric, but common among many followers of political Islam.
But it took me a while to understand the mindset of Islamists and their reasons for hating Catholism in particular. After endless debates with many Islamists, and listening to their lectures, I realized how Islamists divide Christians into two broad sections:
First, there are the Eastern Christians from Muslim-majority countries, whom they consider as a minority that should accept Islamic laws____even with force.
Second, there are the Western Christians, or “the Crusaders and Colonizers,” who are working to “undermine Islam.” Islamists consider Catholics as competitors who are trying to weaken the faith of native Muslims and prevent Islam from spreading globally.
To back their claims, Islamists cite a long history of conflict between medieval Muslim caliphates and their rival European Christian kingdoms, particulary in Andalusia. Furthermore, Islamists blurred the theological differences between Catholism, Visigothic Christianity, and Arianism, and simply divided the Christians of Spain into “monolithics” – “good Christians” who pledged loyalty to the Muslim conquerors, and the “bad trinity worshippers,” who opposed Muslim rule.
Islamist scholars, such as Egyptian Mohamed Emara, portrays the invasion of Andalusia as an effort to save the “monolithic local Christians” from the tyranny of their rulers who followed the ‘Trinity doctrine.” The goal of such ludicrious historical revisionism was to create the impression that the “true people of the Bible” had vanished following the victory of Catholicism in Andalusia and elsewhere, and that the new generations of Christians were simply total infidels.
Such historical context is crucial to understand the religious ramifications of the Pope’s visit to Arabia. Regrettably, we have two competing versions of Islam. One that indulges in in hatred and cynicism towards other faiths, and another that is willing to move on and embrace a future of harmony and tolerance, as demonstrated in the UAE’s Year of Tolerance and the Pope’s visit.
But to defeat the hate doctrine, the UAE cannot just rely on its domestic front; it also needs to spread concepts of tolerance and harmony among its allies___ particulary Egypt. Despite uprooting Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is still struggling with a deeply entrenchened social Islamism.
Egypt’s Grand Imam of al-Azhar was also invited to Abu-Dhabi, and he signed the historic Human Fraternity Document with Pope Francis. Therefore, he has now a duty to implement this document in Egypt.
Egypt is currently debating many constitutional amendments. Most observers are concerned about the proposed extension of presidential terms. However, the civil nature of the Egyptian state, and who should guard it are crucial aspects that are currently absent from the debate. The current constitution entrenches the rule of Al-Azhar, as mentioned in both its second and seventh chapters. Such rule should be clarified in any new amendment. We also need to amalgamate the signed Fraternity document in the proposed amendments.
Let’s be honest, no army can be the guardian of Egypt’s civilian state; only reformation of religious thoughts and the adoption of concepts of fraternity, tolerance, and harmony can stop Islamism from creeping into Egypt’s political scene again. It is about time for future generations to have different teachers than the one I had. Egypt needs an army of teachers, preachers, and social servants who can teach tolerance instead of hate, nurture harmony instead of divisions. If Egypt and the UAE can work together, follow through from the Pope’s visit and implement the Fraternity document, their rival Islamists stand no chance of winning anywhere else in the Middle East.
An Arabic version was earlier published in Al-Hurra