23rd Oct 2016

Israeli rabbi: EU should talk to religious leaders in Egypt

  • Al-Azhar, Cairo. 'There's no shortage of responsible, enlightened and influential Muslim voices in Egypt' Rabbi Rosen said (Photo: Travel Aficionado)

Rabbi David Rosen, a prominent commentator on religious affairs, has said that EU diplomats should start talking to Islamic faith leaders in Egypt in order to keep the revolution on a peaceful path.

Speaking to EUobserver on Monday (31 January) by phone from Israel, which faces a grave security threat from the turbulence in Egypt, Rabbi Rosen welcomed EU engagement but said EU institutions are guilty of "remarkable ignorance" about Arab society in leaving religious leaders out of the diplomatic process.

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"If I was speaking to [EU foreign relations chief] Catherine Ashton, I would say: 'In addition to whatever people you are meeting, make sure you meet with religious leaders, to strengthen relations with enlightened, responsible religious authorities, because if you don't strengthen that voice, all you are doing is playing into the hands of extremists."

The rabbi noted that EU diplomatic structures are modeled on the French idea of secularist state authorities which do not fit with the reality of how Arab countries work.

"Even Arabs that call themselves secular are not detached from their religious roots. To think you can serve your purpose by ignoring the religious dimension is a fallacy and will ultimately serve as a boomerang," he added. "Look at Palestine - all the [EU] attempts to improve relations here have ignored the religious dimension."

The rabbi mentioned Sheikh Ali Goma'a, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, as one potential interlocutor, but said there are many others in Egypt's Al-Azhar University, which he described as "the fountainhead" of Sunni Islam learning.

"There's no shortage of responsible, enlightened and influential Muslim voices in Egypt, and not just in Egypt. We contribute to the illusion that all Muslim leadership is extreme because we focus only on the negative ones," he said.

Rabbi Rosen is the director for inter-religious affairs at the influential NGO, the American Jewish Committee, and president of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, a body which works with the UN to promote peace-building around the world.

He said the eruption of pro-democratic protests in north Africa in recent weeks is linked to the region's contiguity to Europe and its consumption of Western media.

"The modern media has exposed north Africa and Arab, Muslim society more generally to many of the good things and the bad things in Western society," he explained. "One of the better aspects of Western modernity is respect for the individual, which is a hallmark of democratic society. Information about democracy and individual human dignity is spilling over into the Arab world."

"The Arab world doesn't like it when the West tries to impose its norms. When people try to twist their arms. But that doesn't mean there is no desire for democratic development."

He predicted that the wave of change in north Africa will not influence Iran and Syria, however.

"The systems in Iran and Syria are examples of where authoritarian regimes have managed to effectively limit the possibility of insurrections. Probably for the time being there is not the will or the capacity to follow Tunisia and Egypt," he said.

Israel on Monday beefed up security on its border with Egypt amid fears that African refugees, Sinai Bedouin and terrorist gunmen will try to cross the frontier en masse if instability worsens in Egypt and Tunisia or beyond.

An Israeli diplomatic source told EUobserver that peace in Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak has been a "cornerstone" of Israeli security for the past 30 years.

For his part, Rabbi Rosen added: "There's extreme excitement and apprehension [in Israel], seeing what is happening in Egypt as both good and bad. It's good for the Egyptian people. In the end, democracy is always better for society at large. But in the short term, the democratic conquest of Egypt by Islamic extremist elements which are seriously hostile to Israel could jeopardise its security."

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