The Rubber Hits the Road: Shaykh al Azhar says Human Rights are an “Internal Affair”
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
The ruling today by Shaykh Ahmad al Tayeb on apostasy raises the perennial issue of whether Al Azhar, traditionally the most prestigious educational institution in the Muslim world, is sufficiently independent of politics to maintain its prestige. The politics of the issue, involving the massacre of Christians in Iraq in support of the Salafists’ vendetta in Egypt against the Christian Copts, according to Shaykh Al Tayeb, is “an internal affair” and therefore has nothing to do with the issue of universal human rights.
This raises the issue whether the movement of Common Word and beyond this to Common Ground (with the Eastern religions), which requires the support of the Vatican, can continue if the Muslim interlocutor, as the allegedly closest counterpart to the Pope in the Muslim world, is not free to speak on behalf of Islam.
As Pope Benedict emphasized at the very beginning of the Common Word initiative, talking about love and reconciliation must manifest itself in action on the ground. Human rights are never merely an internal affair. The Pope specifically called for the freedom to build churches in Saudi Arabia. We know that personally King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia supports this as a fundamental human right, but as an astute politician he has to work slowly toward this goal.
The current break in relations between the Vatican and Al Azhar raises the practical question whether any Coalition of Moderates must function entirely outside any political frameworks. It certainly should avoid all lobbying. During the past quarter century, I have stayed away from any contacts with governments, and especially from any funding by official authorities, because this is the only way to assure that governance itself can remain faith-based. This is a central tenet of the Great American Experiment and of all the great scholars of Islam throughout history, most of whom were imprisoned for trying to maintain separation of “state and religion” as the only means to maintain the purity of classical Islam and of its dissemination in educational institutions.
Al Azhar’s recent break in relations with the Vatican highlights the endemic corruption in most of the Muslim countries (none of which are Islamic by any stretch of the imagination), and especially in Egypt thanks to the U.S. government’s multi-billion-dollar support of its entrenched dictators. This absurd development underlines what has always been obvious, namely, that in public life religion should serve only to provide paradigms of thought. These paradigms influence the agendas of think-tanks and the media, which, in turn, at least in America over the long run control policy.
The model for the entire world is the American aspiration to pursue peace, prosperity, and freedom through faith-based, compassionate justice. This is enshrined in the Preamble to the American Constitution and is based on Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom that, “No nation can remain free unless the people are properly educated; proper education consists of learning virtue; and no people can remain virtuous unless every person’s life, both personal and public, is suffused with awareness and love of Divine Providence (God)”.
The immediate issue then becomes whether we should publicly support Pope Benedict XVI in his call for human rights in the Muslim world. Perhaps this is a political issue, but then what issue is not in part political? The U.S. government obviously does not want to get involved in issues of human rights, except pro forma, precisely because the specific issue that was exploited by Al Qa’ida in Iraq is almost entirely political. But, especially to the extent that the American government wants to duck such issues, perhaps we as Muslim Americans should speak up.