Tantawi’s Tantrum
Jumping the jihad gun.


A couple of weeks before Baghdad was liberated, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed al-Tantawi issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to fight against “the invaders” of Iraq and, if necessary, to carry out suicide bombings to prevent the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Tantawi’s move was bizarre, to say the least. As the rector of the Islamic Seminary at al-Azhar, an institution financed and controlled by the Egyptian state, he has never done or said anything important without clearing it with the authorities. In exchange the Egyptian government promotes Tantawi as the highest-ranking theologian in Sunni Islam.

Had Tantawi received a wink and a nod from President Hosni Mubarak or his senior aides? Did the Egyptian government wish to use al-Azhar for sending a message to the U.S.-led Coalition?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it quickly became clear that not a single individual, including members of his entourage, would heed Tantawi’s call for jihad, which he erroneously interprets as “holy war.”

The speed with which Saddam and his gang ran in search of holes to hide in, has angered Tantawi. The rector must have dreamed of a long holy war, punctuated by dozens, if not hundreds, of spectacular suicide attacks, and, who knows, the destruction of “infidel” armies in Mesopotamia.

Last Friday Tantawi vented his anger in an address to a gathering designated as the 25th session of the High Council of Islamic Affairs held in Cairo.

“The Islamic umma is developing into a community of thugs and hypocrites,” he told Muslim scholars attending the conference from over 70 countries. “The way things are going we shall be the laughing stock of the world.”

To their credit the 500 or so religious scholars present manifested their anger at the sheikh’s outlandish claim, some by loud laughter or boos.

What is bothering the sheikh?

Is he still sore that Iraq has been liberated?

Apparently, not.

Having changed position faster than a weathervane in a storm, the sheikh told the astonished audience that he was insulting Muslims for their failure to remove Saddam Hussein from power before the infidel intervened.

“The Muslim world should have dealt with Saddam Hussein,” Tantawi said. ” The Arab League should have acted to prevent him from invading Kuwait in 1990 and, later, to send him into exile.”

The sheikh also attacked Saddam’s last spokesman, the clown Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, for having “lied and lied and lied again” to the Iraqis, to all Muslims, to the whole world.

Let us try to make some sense of Tantawi’s tantrums.

He claims that the Arabs should have dealt with Saddam in 1990. The problem is that he is saying this now that Saddam has fled. He never said it in 1990 or 1991 or 1992 and so on.

In fact, the venerable sheikh had never said anything rougher than a rose petal against Saddam while the Iraqi dictator was in power. Nor had the sheikh ever shown the slightest sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of people that Saddam murdered and the millions that he forced out of Iraq.

But the most interesting point in Tantawi’s tantrum is that he regrets the fact that non-Muslim armies liberated Iraq. This means that freedom is not an intrinsic good, and that Muslims had better suffer, and be murdered, under a supposedly Islamic regime rather than be rescued by non-Muslims.

Tantawi’s attitude, tribal rather than religious, contradicts the teachings of Islam that insist on the universality of good and evil.

Islam does not divide the world into Muslim and non-Muslim but into good and evil. If anything, it reserves severer punishments for Muslims who do evil. (The Prophet forged alliances with Jews, Christians, Hanifs, and even pagans in Yathrib in order to prevent his Meccan enemies from massacring his Muslim followers.)

Tantawi was wrong in declaring jihad to save Saddam Hussein and to describe suicide bombings as “acts of faith” permitted in Islam. And now he is wrong in blaming Muslims for not having removed Saddam from power before the Americans arrived.

To be sure no one would want to deny Tantawi’s right to speak on political issues. Like any citizen he does, or at least must have, the freedom to comment on all issues under the sun. What he does not have the right to do, however, is to present his political opinions as religious edicts.

This does not mean that religion should be kept out of politics altogether. That is not possible even in Christianity, where the realm of God and Caesar are separate, let alone in Islam that does not recognize such a distinction. In taking political positions, most people are influenced by their religious beliefs or lack of such beliefs.

What is important is not to pretend that political and religious positions are, or can be, identical.

Tantawi has the right to appear on television and give press conferences first to support and then to denounce Saddam Hussein. (The right of contradicting oneself is a recognized part of human rights.) What he cannot to do is invent Islamic rules as he goes along.

Making a political statement is one thing, declaring jihad is something else.

The past decade or so have witnessed an inflation in jihad declarations coming from a wide variety of colorful characters, including Saddam Hussein and his thuggish son Uday. It is time that Muslims realized that such improper use of an important religious concept cannot but harm Islam as a whole, and imposed a moratorium on jihad declarations.

Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through


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