Monday, July 21, 2008

Egypt's Sheikh Tantawi in a Balancing Act

Many were too quick to be critical of Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar, Islam's supreme institution in Cairo. The reason for this was his recent warning to university students participating in a leadership preparation institute, and published in Cairo's daily Al-Dostoor newspaper today, in which he declared that the Baha'is of Egypt should never be allowed to state their religion in official documents since that act would automatically imply the recognition of the Baha'i religion in Egypt.

What led this recent declaration of his to trigger so much controversy was the fact that, approximately two years earlier, he had pronounced the exact opposite by stating that there was no harm at all in allowing the Baha'is to have their religion indicated correctly in official documents.

The fact that he changed his mind does not disturb me whatsoever. This act in itself shows that the man can indeed change his mind, which is, in my opinion, a commendable and positive trait rather than a sign of indecision or weakness. The worst scenario is when a person in that important capacity would adhere--tenaciously--to only one stance and remain completely inflexible, a position that has the potential of leading to disastrous consequences as history had repeatedly taught us. In reality, he had also shown that he was able to change his mind about religious minorities in Egypt, a third time, when he promoted "acceptance and dialogue" as was reported in this previous post.

What is revealing, however, in this recent pronouncement of Sheikh Tantawi, was not the fact that he changed his mind, but rather that in this same discourse with the students, he stated that men of religion should never get entangled in politics, and that, just the same, politicians should never get involved in religious decisions.

Considering his thoughtful opinion on religion and politics, and if we go beyond what he just did--that is in changing his mind on Baha'i rights--and try to understand why he did so, doesn't it become very clear that the reason behind changing his mind could have been a political one? This would be indeed something to ponder!

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