JERUSALEM—In a speech on New Year's day, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a "religious revolution" in Islam that would displace violent jihad from the center of Muslim discourse.
"Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims worldwide) should want to kill the rest of the world’s population—that is, 7 billion people—so that they themselves may live?" he asked. "Impossible."
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Speaking to an audience of religious scholars celebrating the birth of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, he called on the religious establishment to lead the fight for moderation in the Muslim world. "You imams (prayer leaders) are responsible before Allah. The entire world—I say it again, the entire world—is waiting for your next move because this umma (a word that can refer either to the Egyptian nation or the entire Muslim world) is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands."
He was speaking in Al-Azhar University in Cairo, widely regarded as the leading world center for Islamic learning.
"The corpus of texts and ideas that we have made sacred over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. You cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You must step outside yourselves and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective."
Sisi was a little known general when he was appointed over the heads of fellow officers in 2012 as commander of the Egyptian army by then President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The religiosity of Sisi was said then to have been one of the reasons for the choice. However, when a popular uprising broke out the following year, Sisi swiftly ousted Morsi from power and brought charges against him, including conspiring to commit terrorist acts together with Hamas and other Islamic groups. The Muslim Brotherhood itself was banned.
When new elections were held last May, Sisi, now a civilian, won a resounding victory.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas supporters have been Sisi’s principal targets since assuming power, his talk made it clear that his concern over radical Islam extends to the entire Muslim world, particularly adherents of the Islamic State, and the non-Muslim world beyond.
"We have to think hard about what we are facing," he said. "It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible."