‘A Small Miracle’

A year ago, 138 Muslim leaders from 40 nations addressed a plea for interfaith dialogue to the leaders of the world’s Christian churches in a bid to diminish the influence of extremism around the world. That initiative, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” led to a conference between Muslim and U.S. Protestant leaders at Yale University last summer and another last week with Church of England leaders at Cambridge University, to be followed next month by a meeting with Roman Catholic leaders at the Vatican. Ali Gomaa, who as the grand mufti (chief Islamic jurist) in Cairo is the senior Sunni Muslim figure in Egypt, was one of the Common Word signatories. He presided over the Cambridge conference with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. newsweek’s Stryker McGuire interviewed Gomaa at a local hotel. At one point, their chat was interrupted by a carpenter’s power saw. “That noise,” joked Gomaa, “is from the sphere of terrorism.” Excerpts:

Newsweek: What signs of progress have you seen since the Common Word initiative was launched?
Gomaa: Meetings such as this one at Cambridge, working with Muslims and Christians because they represent much of the world’s population, are a sign of progress. Our willingness to listen to each other is the first sign of the melting away of the iceberg between the two sides. It’s really something of a small miracle. We need to go step by step. The massiveness of the current economic crisis is something else that we must come together to solve. A crisis in the United States affects the street trader in Cairo. We no longer have the option to live in isolation. We Muslims and Christians must be successful so that we can be an example to the rest of the world. We hope that Common Word becomes a massive international peace movement.

One of your goals has been to reduce extremism, including terrorism, in the Islamic world. Are the radicals listening?
We have two objectives here. The first is to reach young people. That is where the problems begin and where we must begin. I equate terrorism with cancer. If we leave it alone, it will affect the entire body. The second involves the actual terrorists themselves, and our effort is to dampen their negative effect. In that regard we have been successful, but it’s a partial success. We want to create boundaries for terrorism and restrict its activity. We’ve had a specific experiment in Egypt with the people who killed [President] Anwar Sadat [in 1981]. In Egypt there were about 16,000 members of the group [Islamic Jihad] that was responsible for Sadat’s assassination. We were able to discuss issues with them and convince them of their errors, and 14,000 of them ended up denouncing the principles of the terrorism they had espoused.

You are an eminent legal scholar, and as a religious judge, you issue fatwas , or religious rulings, in all kinds of disputes. You ve said in the past that ill-trained or manipulative Islamic pseudoscholars have misused fatwas for their own ends. How so?
It is from these people that you get fatwas that endorse terrorism. That leaves the cancer to spread throughout the body. If Islam is not approached from a proper, scholarly point of view, we will see many problems. These ignorant “scholars” have been able to use mass communications, and now they have satellite TV channels and they’re speaking night and day, constantly. This is very, very dangerous. We deem these ignorant people to be criminals. So why are they continuing to do this? They are doing it because the satellite channels give them the money and the resources to do it. It’s a moneymaking proposition. All of us need to come together and to try to stand against this phenomenon. We believe in freedom of expression, but what I’m talking about here is a form of deception. It’s not a right to hurt others and create havoc on earth.

The war in Iraq is a source of grievance among Muslims. If the war begins to wind down, will that help you deal with the extremists who use the war as an excuse to commit terrorist acts?
Without a doubt. Military occupation is not something that’s appropriate in our day and age. It can cause things to spin out of control. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between terrorist activities and a legal armed struggle as outlined in the Geneva Conventions. When there’s an occupation, there’s a lack of balance, and then the concept of what’s right and what’s wrong is sometimes not understood by those committing violence or acquiescing in it.

Do you ever feel you re in personal danger because of what you do?
[Laughs] I don’t feel that. The amount of love that I have in my heart for people allows me to feel there is no danger.