Balance Between Support and Criticism Towards Religious Discourse in Egypt
By Emad Botrous
Egypt’s Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb participated in the international conference, Bridges of Peace, Religions and Cultures in Dialogue, held at the Fair Congress Centre of Bologna, Italy from 14 – 16 October. Al-Tayeb was also awarded by the highest academic medal from the University of Bologna, the oldest Italian University in Europe, for “promoting the values of peace and tolerance among all people of different religions and cultures, and hailed for the several initiatives he had undertaken with the aim of opening channels for dialogue and communication between religious institutions around the globe.” In his speech, al-Tayeb identifies the causes for global conflict, that is: misuse of power, the weapons trade, and money spent on war rather than religion. Religion, he claims, has nothing to do with the killing of innocents; on the contrary, it encourages peace, human rights, and openness to other cultures. Al-Tayeb, ultimately, urges the international community to provide aid for the poor and the widows, and to protect the powerless.
The language of al-Tayeb’s speech reminds us of the ongoing twentieth-century tension between “more verses less religion” as the solution for conflict and promotion of peace. The tone, moreover, apologetically attempts to defend religion, particularly Islam, from being seen as the cause of violence in our world today. While the words of al-Tayeb appear to be promising, setting a vibrant agenda for prompting peace, tolerance, and acceptance, the realities of today’s world challenge such speeches and raise questions as to how followers of Jesus Christ should respond?
Reflecting on this type of discourse, we remember how Jesus encourages his audience to listen to the words of the religious leaders as long as they correspond to God’s Will (Matthew 23:3 a). Meanwhile, he challenges the harmful, institutional aspects of religion and the behaviors of religious leaders: words without deeds, the misuse of power, economic exploitation (Matthew 23: 1-39). In other words, as we work to reflect God’s heart toward his creation by working for peace, tolerance, reconciliation, and by showing compassion to the poor and the widows, we are called to self-reflection such that our practices match our words. The teachings of Jesus challenge religious institutions and leaders to think seriously about practical ways to implement the values they promote, while simultaneously supporting believers to engage in critical discernment regarding what they hear and see.
The experience of Christians living in the Middle Eastern has led some to undermine the value of such speeches, as they do not often reflect lived realities on the ground. Such negative attitudes towards positive and peaceful speeches by Muslim leaders, however, restricts the involvement (positive contribution) the church might have in this context. Though it is important to critically listen to such speeches, the church should encourage them and take the initiative to positively build upon them. Such speeches should be seen as a profound opportunity for the church to build bridges to those with whom we share common values in order to see people and communities reconciled and restored for the glory of God. As the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), this is our vision. Our mission, likewise, is to prepare faithful men and women to serve the church as it realizes its biblical mission within the Arab world.