A major story in the Arabic media is the prominent handshake between the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and Israel’s Shimon Peres at the recent Inter-faith conference in New York. Read an English language story here. The Sheikh has been harshly criticized in the Arab media for handing Israel a major PR victory. Why? Israel wants to normalize relations with the Arabs. The Arabs say this doesn’t come for free- you want normalization you have to make serious peace. So when the Sheikh of Al-Azhar allows himself to be photographed embracing Shimon Peres, while Gaza remains in a state of siege, the Arab media and “Street” is furious. The lead op-ed in today’s Al-Quds Al-Arabi savages Sheikh Tantawi.
Here’s my quick summary: “The Sheikh of Al-Azhar is supposed to be the supreme Islamic reference/ guide in the Arab and Islamic world, but since the Camp David Treaty in 1979 he has become a mouthpiece of the Egyptian President, who appoints someone who will say whatever suits official Egyptian policy. Sheikh Tanatawi is the best example of what might be called “the preacher of the Government” and says whatever it wants- be it normalization with Israel, meeting Israelis in his office, or staying silent in the face of certain government policies that contradict Islamic values such as selling gas to Israel or participating in the siege of 1.5 million people in Gaza.
This compares favorably to the Coptic Pope Shenuda who resists any state pressure to normalize relations with Israel and refuses to allow Egyptian Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar attended the UN- Interfaith conference eagerly, despite knowing that the Saudi Ulema boycotted it, not wanting to give the Israelis a chance to shake their hands. What’s even worse than this, Sheikh Tantawi first denied the handshake, then he claimed he didn’t know it was Shimon Peres, whose hand he was shaking. But this is absurd and there is no one remotely political aware in Egypt or the Arab world who doesn’t know Shimon Peres, a man who has held every major position in Israel and visited Egypt ten times. “
This story has received coverage in virtually every Arabic media outlet. Yesterday, I was watching an intense debate on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV between Fatah and Hamas activists. A female Hamas supporter stood up and pulled out a picture of the “Handshake” calling it an insult to the Palestinians.
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