Confident, pro-American powers in the Middle East stand closer to “real peace” than perhaps at any time in history.
For the last several years, I’ve written enthusiastically about shifting political trends in the Middle East, and how they have manifested massive regional changes in religion, diplomacy, and culture. The most significant: The determined turn away by most Gulf states from Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood; their warming, gradual normalization with Israel; and the emergence of a new, energetic, and pro-American nationalism across the region. While these three trends are intertwined, they are distinct.
States like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates now understand that the Brotherhood’s mischief-making abroad is of a piece with the threats to their domestic rule. They likewise recognize they’re better off with a strong Israel than without one, especially as they face a shared threat in Iran.
These geopolitical concerns have opened the door to mutual problem-solving on a variety of issues, from technology to finance. Buoyed by younger, charismatic leaders like Mohammed bin Salman (Saudi Arabia’s MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (the UAE’s MBZ), the Islamic identity cemented by the War on Terror is being eclipsed by optimistic national pride and embrace of social reforms.
Critically, these developments have emerged organically. No master negotiator or scores of external lobbyists and spinmeisters—the professional “peace processors”—have contrived them. Nor has the United States or any other superpower decreed from above.
While the normalization trajectory is positive, it inevitably suffers from two steps forward and one step back. This shouldn’t be surprising. When dealing with autonomous nations and millions of people’s personal, professional, financial, and diplomatic motivations, it’s the trend line and the underlying strategic interests that are important. These missteps shouldn’t be glossed over, but put into proper perspective.
More than any other country, United Arab Emirates deserves credit for waging war on Islamists at home and weakening their power abroad, including in the West, where groups like the Muslim Brotherhood now have their strongest foothold. Similarly, no other Arab country has committed itself officially to religious tolerance. People of all faiths feel welcome in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the ruling bin Zayed family lead possibly the most forward-thinking monarchy in the world on co-existence.
That’s not to say there haven’t been mistakes. An embarrassing one involves both the Emirates and Egypt—which, since the ascent of President al-Sisi, has potently combatted the Brotherhood.
Last year, to great fanfare, Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi and signed a joint statement to foster a “culture of mutual respect” between Catholics and Muslims. Like so many interfaith texts, the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” was vaporous, breaking neither philosophical nor religious ground. It urged Catholics and Muslims to “rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence … and to promote them everywhere.”
The optics mattered more. Both the church and the Emirates aimed to present an image of harmony between believers of their faiths, even if aspirational.
Pope Francis’s Islamic counterpart, however, was more than a little problematic. Representing the Islamic faith under the auspices of the Emirates’ event was Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of the legendary al-Azhar University in Cairo. In Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence, al-Azhar carries tremendous weight; no other institution in Sunni Islam enjoys comparable reputation or authority. While the new nationalism is eclipsing Islamism in the Arabian Gulf, al-Azhar remains a powerful institution.
It is to al-Azhar’s credibility that the Emirates appealed when they selected al-Tayyeb to represent world Muslims. They chose poorly. Upon al-Tayyeb’s return to Cairo—only four days after meeting Pope Francis and touting coexistence, fraternity, and peace—the grand imam hosted leaders of the Palestinian terror group Hamas. Al-Azhar welcomed Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, who infamously denounced the 2011 U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, saying: “We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior.”
Al-Tayyeb assumed his position in 2010, months prior to the Arab Spring. He was appointed by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He was seen as a regime loyalist and a foe of the Muslim Brotherhood. That antipathy to the Brotherhood, it seems, only extended as far as the university campus. From its founding until today, Hamas considers itself the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.
Considering his public display of affection for the leaders of the antisemitic terror group, it shouldn’t be surprising that al-Tayyeb hates Jews. In 2013, al-Tayyeb made clear that he believes Jews are the eternal villain of Islamic history. “Since the inception of Islam 1,400 years ago, we have been suffering from Jewish and Zionist interference in Muslim affairs. This is a cause of great distress for the Muslims.”
In another television interview, the Grand Imam rejected the distinction between the Jewish people and Israel. “Recognizing that Judaism is one thing different than Zionism and that Jews are one thing and Israel is another one is all not true,” he said. For good measure, he added: “Antisemitism is a lie and doesn’t exist. People around the world don’t believe it anymore.”
Al-Tayyeb has a unique definition of terrorism and its causes. At a conference in 2014, he explained: “The American veto [at the United Nations] with regard to the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, for example, is the most important reason for international terrorism, and for supporting it or even for participating in it in one form or another, despite the authors of such veto state, describing the victim of terrorism as being the [origin of] terrorism.”
Al-Tayyeb and al-Azhar under his leadership have faced withering fire from groups within Egypt as well. In a 2016 report, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies blasted al-Tayyeb’s credibility as an authentic voice for religious pluralism, noting that he “claims there is no contradiction between upholding the principle of religious freedom and sanctioning the killing of citizens simply for changing their religious beliefs.”
Three years before al-Tayyeb’s back-to-back photo ops with the pope and Hamas terror leaders, the 2016 report concluded, “Al-Azhar adopts two contradictory discourses, a relatively open-minded discourse directed abroad, and another sanctioning violent extremism intended for domestic consumption.”
The voices of prominent clerics are important because they can reinforce or undermine perceptions and eliminate or encourage distrust. As Gulf states advance normalization with Israel, their promotion of clerics or religious figures with antisemitic, anti-Zionist, or pro-Islamist views are, to put it mildly, counterproductive.
This isn’t merely an issue for the Jewish State; Americans, too, are sensitive toward antisemitism and see the defense of groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as poisonous. Promoting moderate, western-friendly clerics and Muslim religious leaders should be more than public relations. It makes strategic sense as well.
The Emirates should be applauded for its efforts in fostering the values of comity, affection, and co-existence between religious faiths, especially in a region where such tolerance has been rare. The recently announced Abrahamic House of Fraternity on Saadiyat Island near Abu Dhabi is a remarkable first-ever construction of a large church, mosque, and synagogue in one complex.
“The UAE has people from the Jewish faith, the Christian faith and, of course, the Muslim faith,” Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the UAE’s Department of Culture and Tourism, told the media. “We are creating a place where they can practice their religion freely and learn from each other.” These efforts are authentic and, for the West’s Jews and Christians, both welcome and heart-warming.
But the Emirate’s leaders—and indeed, Saudi Arabia’s and Egypt’s—should not mistake high-profile interfaith happenings for the substantial progress toward peace that can result only from shared strategic interests as nation-states. In the real world, far away from the “peace processors” in luxury seaside resorts or European capitals, economic, military, technological interests are the glue binding relationships between countries. As political entities, nations are far more powerful peace partners.
It’s critical that the Arab world’s interfaith efforts are more than PR directed abroad. The trends toward and authentic peace and normalization in the Middle East today are between nations, rather than amorphous concepts like “civilizations,” which lead to little tangible, political results. As such, they can survive the occasional mistake, oversight, or misstep. And they will survive the poor choice of spokesmen such as al-Tayyeb for the interfaith cause.