Throughout the Arab world, Islam is not just the state religion. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the Koran is by law the state constitution and the practice of other faiths is a serious crime. Egypt always has prided itself on greater tolerance than the Saudis, in part because Egypt also is home to a large Coptic Christian community, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the country's population. While the Copts periodically complain of government harassment, and in recent years many of their churches have been burned, they make a significant contribution to Egypt's economy.
Egypt matters to Americans for many reasons. For starters, it is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel. Every year since the Camp David accords in 1979, Egypt has received upward of $2 billion in U.S. taxpayer funding. Some of this money has gone to buy U.S. weapons for the Egyptian army and air force. Other funds have been used to build schools, help farmers, bring solutions to Cairo's horrendous traffic problems and rebuild its antiquated sewer system, which used to spring more than 500 leaks per day before the United States stepped in to help. (Some of those leaks were so huge that they would flood entire streets knee-deep with raw sewage.)
Earlier this year Egypt requested an emergency supplemental appropriation of $300 million to help it fight terrorism, to match a similar grant made by Congress to Israel. Congress refused the Egyptian request citing the country's human-rights violations, and singling out the prosecution of a U.S.-Egyptian dual national, professor Saad Eddine Ibrahim, who was jailed by the regime after he poked fun at President Hosni Mubarak in an article that appeared in an Arabic-language publication in London [see sidebar].
Egypt long has complained that it is one of the main victims of al-Qaeda-style terrorists, who assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and continued a vicious campaign against the secular regime up through the October 1997 massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor, which was carried out by "graduates" of Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Even now, it complains that European countries such as Britain and Denmark have granted political asylum to terrorists wanted in Egypt.
In recent weeks, Mubarak has thanked the United States for its financial and political support by touring Arab nations and "warning" against helping the Iraqi people fight a war of liberation against Saddam Hussein. "You need to read his words carefully," a U.S. official in the region tells Insight. "He is advising us against war and is summoning Iraq to comply with U.N. weapons inspections. But he is not saying no."
Egyptian political scientists and opposition journalists interviewed in Cairo suggest that Mubarak shares the fear of many Arab leaders: that a wave of democracy, flowing outward from a liberated Iraq, could sweep across their countries, leaving most of their governments in the dustbin of history.
Religion is a powerful force in this part of the world, especially since Islam makes no distinction between religion and politics. "Islam is a total system. It is a way of life, not just a religion," clerics and Islamic scholars repeat like a mantra.
When Palestinians first began blowing themselves up to murder innocent Israeli civilians in April 1994, consternation gripped many official spokesmen of Islam. Moderate Islamic scholars emphasized that Islam long has considered suicide to be a sin. Several clerics in Saudi Arabia even joined the chorus, condemning the attacks. But then something happened. It became political, and Arab leaders realized they had a new way of controlling the masses and directing their anger away from their own leadership. The rest, as they say, is history — a history of innocent victims and state-sponsored murder — all in the name of political opposition to Israel.
As in most other Arab countries, it is the Egyptian state that appoints the Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the land and a man who has the power to issue fatwas and interpretations of shari'a law. Mubarak named Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb to the post earlier this year after his predecessor issued a ruling in favor of suicide bombings by Palestinians. Insight has learned that if Mubarak was embarrassed by the public embrace of murder by the previous state-appointed Mufti, he may have to reconsider his new choice.
Al-Tayyeb received Insight on Oct. 28 in his office near Al-Azhar University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the Arab world. Throughout the 90-minute interview, conducted mostly in Arabic through a government-provided translator, he repeated in excruciating detail his reasoning for encouraging Palestinians to murder innocent civilians through suicide attacks. He also displayed a remarkable flexibility when it came to defining terrorism.
To him, American Christian leader Jerry Falwell is a terrorist because his views about Islam have offended Muslims. Palestinians, on the other hand, are justified in massacring Israeli civilians in cold blood "because they are defending their land and have no other weapons at their disposal." The Grand Mufti pointedly condemned as a traitor any Palestinian who refuses to take such a step. "Why do the Americans always speak about Islamic terrorism? Why don't they speak about the extreme right-wing Christian terrorists?" he asked.
Insight: Give me an example. Who do you mean?
Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb: I'm not talking about an example, but about an extreme that is directing Western policy.
Q: You said terrorism. Terrorism is murder. Who are you talking about?
A: You need to be open-minded. If you want an example of terrorism, I can give you Israel.
Q: You have spoken of an "extreme right-wing Christian group." Who do you mean?
A: This one, [the Rev. Jerry] Falwell. You don't consider him a right-wing extremist Christian?
Q: Is he a terrorist?
A: If he insults another religion [such as Islam] that is believed [to be the true faith] by 1 billion, 300 million persons, what can you call this? Yes, this is a terrorist.
Q: You call him a terrorist?
Q: So he's murdered people?
A: Yes. … What do you mean by terrorist?
Q: Somebody who murders innocent civilians for political reasons. That is terrorism. Murder. Murder.
A: Then Israel is a terrorist country: Here is a country with sophisticated military gadgets fighting a normal people with stones and without any weapons. Is this justice? Why do Palestinians put on explosives or booby-trap themselves?
Q: That is a good question. Yes, why?
A: What pushes him to do this? Because he has no means to fight back any other way. Do you agree with me?
Q: So you're saying [Palestinian suicide bombers] put on explosives to fight back. Is that right?
A: Yes, to defend. Can you tell me it is forbidden to defend yourself against injustice? If Japan attacks America and does to America what the Jews have done to the Palestinians, and they don't have any other means except booby traps to defend themselves?
Q: So you're saying that this is a legitimate form of self-defense?
A: I am waiting for you to answer.
Q: So you're asking me, if my country is occupied by a foreign occupier, such as Japan …
A: [Interrupting.] No other means.
Q: But you always have other means. We had a revolution in the United States, a war, in 1776. Britain was occupying the colonies. There were military forces there. We never — not once — attacked civilians.
A: [Interrupting.] There were two forces. The American military, and the British military. My question is not like this. Imagine that America has no military forces — what do you do if America has no military forces?
Q: But Yasser Arafat has 50,000 armed troops. They are called the Palestinian police.
A: I'm not talking about Arafat now. I'm talking about America. A French journalist came here recently, and I asked him the same question. He replied that he would do it [attack civilians].
Q: I would not do that.
A: You would not do it?
Q: No, I would not do it. I would attack the military.
A: I cannot believe you. No one in the whole world would believe you — unless you have no loyalty to your country. …
I'd like to assure you that, if the Palestinians had military equipment like the Israelis have, they never would use the bombers. This is very, very expensive. If the Palestinian army were in a position to fight the Israeli army, then Islam would forbid [suicide bombing], because it's forbidden in Islam to kill women and children. Even it is forbidden to uproot plants.
We have our ethics for war, and we're proud of them. But the Palestinians have no army.
Q: So this [suicide bombing against civilians] is the only means of legitimate resistance, is that what you're saying?
The transcript of this Insight interview is very important. The Egyptian Grand Mufti, appointed by President Hosni Mubarak, an American partner for peace, believes and says openly that Palestinian suicide bombers who strap explosives around their waists and enter restaurants, pool halls, discotheques and shopping malls to murder innocent women and children, the young and the old, Israelis and foreign tourists and whoever else happens to be around, are doing God's work and should be treated as heroes of the resistance.
The Mufti is not alone. Insight also spoke with a group of Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University and asked them the same question.
Mohammad Abu Laila is a professor of comparative religion and heads the English department at Al-Azhar. He earned his doctorate at Exeter University in Britain and did his thesis on Christianity. He chaired our discussion and spoke on behalf of a group of scholars who occasionally amplified what he said but never differed with it. "We don't hate Jews because they are Jews," Abu Laila says. "We hate what they do against Palestinians. If a Muslim did this, we would hate them, too."
This is just an opening salvo, to make sure that this reporter understands he is not anti-Semitic, but a reasonable and moderate man. He also condemns the Sept. 11 attacks, but says he thinks the United States has launched a "war on Islam" and that President George W. Bush has "never presented evidence" of bin Laden's involvement. This reporter asks what type of evidence he wants. "I need him [bin Laden] to appear in court and say, 'I did it.'" Perhaps the United States should have waited to declare war on Japan until it could compel Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto to put in an appearance in the 9th District Court.
Christian scholars often debate the requirements for a "just war." A similar concept exists in Islam, which I ask Abu Laila to describe. "If your country or property is under attack," he says, "then it is just to defend it through any means. This is not terrorism. Holy jihad is defensive. You misunderstand this in the West." Palestinian suicide bombers are "martyrs" in this just war, he says he believes. "The martyr is donating himself for his cause, to defend his family and his land," he says. "The Jews stole our land. What else do you want us to do, just go away?"
This reporter notes that he appears to be placing as much weight on material things — land, houses, property — as on human life. In my religion, the Insight reporter says, we believe life is sacred, a gift from God.
"Life is sacred in Islam," Abu Laila replies. "But we are facing the Israeli state, which is militarily based. Israeli citizens are like warriors. They have their weapons with them at all times. So who are civilians, Palestinians or Israelis?"
Americans and Westerners concerned by the violence in the Middle East need to understand that the two parties to this conflict do not use the same logic, nor do they believe in the same moral code. Those who have been brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition have been taught that respect for life is one of God's most basic commandments. But according to these Islamic scholars — and they are not alone — "justice" is more important than life, and justice is a term that conveniently can be bent out of shape to fit the political agenda of the day.
A few days before arriving in Egypt, this reporter had dinner with an Israeli settler he has known for several years, who in turn has spent years getting to know his Arab neighbors and counts them among his closest friends. Dov Weinstock (known as "Dubak" to his friends) has a simple phrase to describe this difference in logic. "To understand the way the Arabs think, you've got to change the diskette," he says.
As Weinstock sees it, in obeying a different moral operating system, the Arab leaders who continue to promote and finance Palestinian suicide bombers will not stop until they have achieved total victory or experienced total defeat. Abu Laila put it well: "The conflict in this area will continue until the end of time. We all believe in Armageddon."