CAIRO — Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, met Nov. 8 with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at Al-Azhar amid a dispute between France and the Muslim world over the publication of derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Tayeb said Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, rejects freedom of expression if it protects insults to the prophets.
"I'm the first to protest freedom of expression if it offends any religion and not only Islam," he said in a statement about his meeting with Le Drian, adding, “Insulting the Prophet Muhammad is unacceptable and we will pursue whoever does it in court, even if we spend the rest of our lives doing so.”
Tayeb also dismissed statements by French and Western officials linking Islam to terrorism and rejected the term “Islamic terrorism.”
“Al-Azhar represents the voice of nearly two billion Muslims, and I said that terrorists do not represent us and we are not responsible for their actions.”
The imam continued, “Muslims around the world reject all forms of terrorism committed in the name of religion and affirm that Islam and its prophet have nothing to do with terrorism.”
French President Emmanuel Macron stoked the ire of the Muslim world Oct. 2, when he described Islam as a “religion in crisis.”
After French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded for showing his pupils some caricatures of the prophet that had been published by Charlie Hebdo in 2015 as part of a class on free speech, Macron made statements in defense of the images. "We will not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down," he said Oct. 22 in a national tribute in Paris to Paty.
The offending cartoons were projected onto government buildings in France Oct. 23 as part of a tribute to the slain teacher.
As anger continued to boil across the Muslim world, with calls for boycotting French products, Macron said in an interview with the Doha-based Al-Jazeera that he understands the Muslim sentiments over the cartoons.
“I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” he said. “I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now; it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights.”
Le Drian said the anti-France campaigns in the Muslim world are the result of a distortion of Macron’s statements. “We have a first principle, which is the highest respect for Islam,” Le Drian said at a press conference following his talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. “I also want to say that Muslims are fully part of society in France.”
Sisi and Macron discussed the cartoon row during a phone call Nov. 2. According to a presidential statement, Sisi underlined the need to differentiate between Islam as a religion that promotes peace and tolerance and renounces violence and terrorist acts committed by those claiming to represent Islam.
The Egyptian leader called for spreading the values of coexistence between adherents of all religions via dialogue, understanding and mutual respect while avoiding insults to religious symbols.
During a ceremony marking the prophet’s birthday Oct. 28, Sisi called for respect of Muslim sentiments and values. “People have the right to express what they think … but I suppose this stops when the feelings of more than one and a half billion are hurt,” Sisi said. “To insult the prophets amounts to denigrating the religious beliefs of many people.”
The cartoon controversy triggered an armed attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris back in 2015 that killed 12 people. And on Sept. 25, two people were injured in a stabbing attack outside the former office of the satirical weekly. Another three people were killed in an Oct. 29 knife attack at a church in the French city of Nice.
Mohamed Hussein, a professor of international relations at Cairo University, sees Tayeb’s threat of legal proceedings against France over the cartoons as an attempt to de-escalate the situation. He explained that legal action is an effort to soothe Muslim anger by showing Muslims worldwide that the Sunni institution is determined to defend the prophet.
“A move by Al-Azhar to file a lawsuit against France will carry a strong political significance and send a message that all Muslims have the right to be angry over the offending images,” Hussein told Al-Monitor.
Hussein praised the way Al-Azhar's imam is dealing with the crisis. He said, “Sheikh Tayeb sent a clear and strong message that Muslims will never accept any insults to the prophet," speaking "in a very calm but effective tone, without offending anyone or calling for a boycott of French products.”
Amina Nussir, a professor of theology and philosophy at Al-Azhar University, blamed the behavior of Muslims for anti-Islamic trends in the West. “Muslims living in Europe are to blame … as they failed to to represent Islam well and Islamic values through their behavior and relationships with the people of the countries where they live,” Nussir told Al-Monitor.
Nussir called on Al-Azhar and Islamic countries to take measures such as translating Islamic books into foreign languages to present a better image of the Islamic religion. Nussir concluded, “Introducing Islam in a way that reflects its values will help solve a lot of problems that date back to the Crusades and educate the West about the Islamic religion and the prophet.”
Al-Azhar announced Oct. 28 that it will create an online platform in many languages to defend Islam and introduce the Prophet Muhammad and his moral teachings to the world.