There is a great misunderstanding of Islam in the West, a fair amount of which falls under the banner of Islamophobia — the unfounded fear of Islam.
True, much of this misconception has been accentuated by actions of Islamist fundamentalists such as members of al-Qaeda and its spinoff, the far more radical Islamic State (ISIS). It is so bent on cruelty and violence that even al-Qaeda refers to its members as terrorists.
Nevertheless, an equal amount of blame for this ignorance of one of the world’s three main religions falls on the Judeo-Christian West for its failure to reach out to Muslims in any truly constructive manner. At least no concentrated efforts were undertaken before the bubble burst on September 11th, 2001.
Much ignorance persists. Ignorance in this instance is the real enemy. Not Islam. Not Christianity. Not Westerners. Not Middle Easterners. Ignorance is the threat. Because, as we now know, ignorance breeds fear and fear brings about hatred. Combined they lead inevitably to violence.
Here is a simple example of how little some in the Western media who cover major stories concerning Muslims really know what they are talking about.
The visit by the grand imam of al-Azhar, the prestigious Cairo centre of Islamic learning, to Pope Francis in Rome was a prime example of this lack of knowledge. Judging from headlines in the Western press, it sounded as though the leader of the Catholic Church was going to meet the representative of the Sunni world.
This is how MSN reported the event: “Pope Francis to receive Sunni Muslim leader at Vatican.” The story went on to say that the pope was to meet the grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar at the Vatican “in an unprecedented encounter between the leader of the world’s Catholics and the highest authority in Sunni Islam”.
This is misleading. Yes, the head of Egypt’s oldest and most prominent centre of religious studies does carry a certain amount of clout. And Egypt, despite being shunned by the rest of the Arab world for many years as punishment for proceeding on its own with a peace treaty with Israel when it signed the Camp David agreement, is still a country of stature.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, is an important figure in Egyptian religious, political and social life. He often represents the clergy at official government functions. However, in the Sunni branch of Islam, there is an absence of hierarchy. There is no supreme leader, as in the Shia branch, in which there are ayatollahs, grand ayatollahs and other ranks.
One of the great attractions of the Sunni branch of the Muslim faith is that there is no pope, archbishop or supreme leader. Every Muslim has an equal footing in the community. The religious leader of the community, the imam, is respected for his knowledge of the holy books and usually because of his age. Or at least the knowledge he is supposed to have as in some cases ignorance of the world in general is so vast that his work and knowledge becomes counterproductive.
The imam can and does offer advice and leadership given his knowledge, which typically exceeds the general knowledge of the congregation. That is certainly often the case in poor communities. Officially, however, the imam wields no supreme power. That has been both a blessing and a curse, especially when it comes to sensitive issues such as issuing fatwas, religious edicts.
As we have seen many times since the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a number of Muslim leaders who have issued a variety of edicts were well authorised to do so. Many have been counterproductive in promoting understanding and cooperation between Muslims and the West, yet those fatwas were perfectly legal, if somewhat inane.
In contrast to Shiism, in which there is an established structure, in the main branch of Islam everybody is supposed to be equal in the eyes of God. This is an interesting concept for such a vast movement not to have a supreme leader and in times of strife, as we have seen these past years, it makes it very difficult to reach out to such a wide-ranging community in which there is no central figure who can speak for its followers.
Attempts were made in some European countries — France in particular — to designate a top Muslim figure who could influence the faithful. The exception to this rule is, of course, the caliph, the one who is supposed to lead the umma, the community and the one replacing the Prophet. But as in all other religions, here, too, one has to beware of false prophets.
Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.