Egyptian media is reporting that the Muslim Brotherhood is demanding that Mohamed Tantawy (aka Tantawi), Grand Sheikh of the Islamic Al Azhar University, be “questioned” in connection with his suggestions that Israeli officials would be welcome at Al Azhar. According to one report:
Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, Grand Sheikh of the Islamic Al Azhar University in Egypt, has sparked controversy by suggesting that Israeli officials would be welcome at Sunni Islam’s leading religious authority. Speaking to Al Arab newspaper last week, Tantawy said that Al Azhar would be open to visits by high-level Israeli political representatives if it could help strengthen the peace process. The Sheikh has come under heavy criticism from various sides for his remarks, including from the Muslim Brotherhood which has demanded that the Grand Sheikh be questioned. It is the second time in less than a month that the Muslim Brotherhood has issued such a call. After pictures showing Sheikh Tantawy shaking hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a UN-sponsored interfaith conference in New York last Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian Hamdy Hassan demanded that the Sheikh be questioned.”He acts like a government employee, according to their policies. He does not represent the institute, nor Muslims as a whole,” Hassan was quoted as saying by Daily News Egypt. Sheikh Tantawy later played down the hand-shake. “It was a passing hand-shake and I didn’t recognize him. What did they want me to do, refuse to shake hands with a president of a country we are at peace with?” Tantawy told Al Arab.
Sheikh Tantawi’s conciliatory posture towards Israel is at odds with other reports about Al-Azhar, considered to be the main center of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world and founded in 970. Al Azhar is a center of Muslim Brotherhood activity and in December 2005, young men from a Brotherhood student group dressed in black and held a military-style parade, complete with martial arts demonstrations, to protest restrictions on student political activities at Al Azhar. Such demonstrations are forbidden in Egypt and the event was the subject of a great deal of local and international media attention. In July Youssef Qaradawi, a global Muslim Brotherhood leader and harsh critic of Israel, was elected to the Al Azhar Islamic Research Council. Another post discussed an October fatwa (Islamic ruling) that authorized computer hacking as a form of jihad against Israel and the United States.
Sheikh Tantawi appears to represent the less harsh side of Al-Azhar. Unlike Qaradawi who issued fatwas authorizing suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, Tantawi has condemned such operations and he was scheduled to attend a July interfaith conference in Madrid that was sponosred by the Saud Muslim World League and which included Jewish participants. Qaradawi was also invited to the conference but declined the invitation on the grounds that “Zionists” were present. A 2003 article published by Jamestown Foundation details the dominant role that Saudi Arabia has come to play at Al Azhar and given the Kingdom’s sponsorship of a MIdeast peace initiative, Saudi Arabia may play a role in Sheikh Tantawi’s actions.