America and the West have been victims of violent extremists acting in the name of Islam, the tragic events of 9/11 being only the most egregious of their attacks. Western officials and commentators are consumed by the question, “Where are the moderates?” Many, seeing only the extremism perpetuated by a radical few, despair of finding progressive and peaceful partners of standing in the Muslim world.
However, reconciling Islam with modernity has been an imperative for Muslims before it became a preoccupation for the West. In particular, the process dates back to the 19th century, when what became known as the Islamic reform movement was born in Al Azhar University in Cairo, Islam’s premiere institution of learning.
At the Dar al Iftaa, Egypt’s supreme body for Islamic legal edicts over which I preside, we wrestle constantly with the issue of applying Islam to the modern world. We issue thousands of fatwasor authoritative legal edicts—for example affirming the right of women to dignity, education and employment, and to hold political office, and condemning violence against them. We have upheld the right of freedom of conscience, and of freedom of expression within the bounds of common decency. We have promoted the common ground that exists between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. We have underscored that governance must be based on justice and popular sovereignty. We are committed to human liberty within the bounds of Islamic law. Nonetheless, we must make more tangible progress on these and other issues.
We unequivocally condemned violence against the innocent during Egypt’s own struggle with terrorism in the 1980s and 90′s, and after the heinous sin of 9/11. We continue to do so in public debates with extremists on their views of Islam, in our outreach to schools and youth organizations, in our training of students from all across the world at Egypt’s theological institutions, and in our counseling of captured terrorists. As the head of the one of the foremost Islamic authorities in the world, let me restate: The murder of civilians is a crime against humanity and God punishable in this life and the next.
Yet, just as we recommit to reinforcing the values of moderation in our faith, we look to the United States to assume its responsibility for the sake of a better relationship between the West and Islam.
First, it is essential that the U.S. confront the fear and misunderstanding that has often pervaded the public discourse about Islam, especially in the media.
Second, while we must strive to reinforce the common principles that we share, we must also accept the reality of differences in our values and in our outlook. Islam and the West have distinct value systems. Respect for our differences is a foundation for coexistence, and never for conflict.
Finally, there must a true commitment to the rule of law, and to sovereign equality, as the legitimate basis for international relations. While some of the divide between Islam and the West lies in the realm of ideas, it lies mostly in the realm of politics. The violence and the aggression to which many Muslim countries have been subjected are the main sources of a deep and legitimate sense of grievance, and they must be addressed.
Israel’s occupation of Palestine must be brought to an end; its continuation is an affront to the fundamental tenets of justice and freedom that we all seek to uphold. In Iraq and Afghanistan, full sovereignty and independence must be restored to their people with the withdrawal of all foreign forces. President Barack Obama’s historic address to the Muslim world from Cairo on June 4 was a landmark event that opened the door to a new relationship between Islam and the West, precisely because it acknowledged these imperatives. Yet much work needs to be done by both sides.
This week in Washington I am participating in the Common Word Initiative, a group of religious leaders hosted by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. While the focus of this initiative has been to foster dialogue between Islam and Christianity, I will call for its expansion to include representatives of all the Abrahamic faiths. The road ahead will be difficult, but we can, God willing, arrive at a more peaceful future together.
—Dr. Gomaa is the Grand Mufti of Egypt. Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A15