Egypt's Grand Imam warns of 'severe consequences'

Egypt's Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, has warned of 'severe consequences' to the release of Fitna. But Al-Azhar Unversity, Sunni Islam's highest religious body, also appears to be somewhat open to the argument that MP Geert Wilders does not represent The Netherlands as a whole.
Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi
Grand Iman Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi. R.R.

CAIRO, March 28, 2008 (MENASSAT) – A visit by a delegation of Dutch religious leaders to Cairo this week resulted in an invitation by the Grand Imam of Egypt for Geert Wilders to come to Egypt in order to learn the true meaning of Islam.

"Unless there are ulterior motives at play, the position of the Dutch MP betrays a deep ignorance about Islam and the Quran", Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi said after meeting with the Dutch delegation on Wednesday.

Tantawi is the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, and is currently the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque and the Grand Sheikh of the Al-Azhar University, the highest religious body in Sunni Islam.

But according to the Iranian press agency, IRNA, Tantawi was less diplomatic in a statement issued by Al-Azhar University, the leading Sunni religious body, to Dutch ambassador Tjeerd de Zwaan, just before the release of Fitna on Thursday night.

"We, as Muslims, respect all the religions, the prophets and messengers. We will never accept that anyone insults our religion or the Prophet or any other divine religion," the statement read.

Tantawi asked the Dutch government to do everything in its power to prevent Wilders from releasing his movie. "or the consequences will be severe."

In his Friday sermon, Tantawi called the release of the movie "a provocative act," calling instead for showing "the enlightened face of Islam and the Quran's teachings that encourage peace."

The four-day Dutch visit was part of a last-ditch effort to diffuse the tension around Dutch MP Geert Wilders' anti-Islam movie, Fitna.

The Dutch delegation was headed by Bas Plaisier, secretary-general of the Protestant Church of The Netherlands and a member of the board of the Dutch Council of Churches. It also included Dr. Ahmad Driss al-Boujoufi, chairman of the Dutch Comité Moslims-Overheid (CMO, Committee Muslims-Government), Dr. Abdelmajid Keirouan, board member of the Contact Group Islam (CGI) and chairman of the Dutch Muslim Council, as well as other high-ranked personalities.

The visit was organized by the Cairo-based Center for Arab West Understanding in collaboration with the Arab West Foundation in Rotterdam. The two organizations started a petition addressed to Gerdi Verbeet, President of the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament, strongly denouncing Wilders’ comments and his movie, and calling on the Dutch MPs to start working on enhancing tolerance and dialogue between civilizations. More than 100,000 people have signed the petition to date. 

Th Dutch delegation also met with the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate, where it called attention to the fact that Wilders only represents a small minority, and that the majority of Dutch people refuses to insult Islam.

The head of the delegation, Dr. Bas Plaisier, promised to renew efforts to counter the negative effects from the movie and the provocative comments of the producer that aim to ruin the "fine" relations between Muslims and Christians.

Reaction to Fitna in Egypt has been only verbal so far.

"It's a quiet day today in Cairo, but I'm not expecting the film to go unnoticed by any means," Naila Hamdy, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, told MENASSAT on Friday.

Unlike the many calls to boycott Danish products during the 2006 cartoon crisis, there has been no similar reaction to the Dutch movie so far.

After a Dutch movie was banned form the International Cairo Festival for Children's Movies earlier this month, the direction of the festival withdrew the ban after a statement by the Dutch government saying that Fitna does not express its own opinions and views. A Dutch short movie went on to win the Gold Prize at the Festival.

Dr. Hassan Mohammad Wajih, professor in International Relations at al-Azhar University, used a conciliatory tone in an article published on Friday in the Egyptian daily al-Akhbar, advising Muslims in The Netherlands to ignore such "futile" provocations and to concentrate instead on improving the living standards of their community.

Economic sanctions?

In an interview with MENASSAT, Mohammed Rafat Othman, a member of the Jurisprudence Research Committee of the Islamic Research Academy at Al-Azhar University, and a former Dean of the Sharia Law School in Cairo, said he wasn't in the least surprised by the release of the movie.

"The hostility between the West and Islam is old", he said. "The most famous example is the Crusades that lasted from decades. Some Westerners teach their children that Islam is not a religion but an invention of Mohammed. Children in the West grow up with anti-Islamic thoughts in their heads."

He added that the Dutch government's statement that the movie does not express its opinions should be taken into consideration, for the MP who produced it does not represent the whole Dutch population.

Therefore, Othman called for a peaceful but meaningful reaction.

He also said that freedom is apparently unlimited in the West, but that many fear discussing any matter that could be viewed as anti-semitic or diminishing the importance of the Holocaust, yet it is allowed to criticize the Prophet and release a movie like Fitna.

Concerning a possible reaction to the film, Othman said it is important for the Muslims to organize a summit to decide on a common stand. He felt that economic sanctions or withdrawing money from Dutch banks could be a useful tactic, "for the West is primarily concerned with its financial interests," as long as these measures don't harm Muslim citizens.

"Insulting a President or people can incite major anger and impose great sanctions on the guilty party; so how can we stay silent facing insults aiming the Prophet?" he concluded.

(Alexandra Sandels contributed to this report from Beirut.)