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An invitation he just couldn't resist

Q-News International, No. 267 (June 1997)

Attending the King's Court: Shaykh al-Azhar Dr Mohammed Tantawi outside Number 10

The visit to Britain of Islam's leading authority excited few passions except in the corridors of Whitehall. Salman Hassan explains why.

On his official visits, the head of the Roman Catholic Church can expect a custom made Pope-mobile, streets lined with adoring crowds, wall to wall publicity, and an invitation from the head of state.

Although Sunni Islam admits of no analogous institution, it has nevertheless recognised a supreme authority in the person of the Shayich al-Azhar, the head of the eponymous university, the oldest in the Muslim world. But there were no throngs to greet His Grace Dr Mohammed Sayed Tantawi when he arrived in Britain on official business last month. There was no bullet-proof car and no drop-in to Buckingham Palace; needless to say, the red carpet remained tightly rolled up.

Besides, red carpets are reserved for heads of state and Dr Tantawi was here as a representative of his native Egypt where, in a painful reminder of the subordination of religion to politics, that honour belongs to the President (the office of Shaykh al-Azhar, together with the only slightly less important Grand Mufti, are both filled by the government).

By all measures then, it was a low-key visit, undertaken upon the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The official reason for Dr Tantawi s visit was to promoting mutual understanding between Britain and the Muslim world. The real purpose, according to a British-Egyptian academic who requested anonymity, was to   take back a clean bill of health.

"It is a means for the FCO to convince the Arab world that Muslims are well-off in this country and to win a few more business contracts,' he said. ~ the places he will visit will be elitist and I would be very surprised if he was taken anywhere that would allow him to take the community's pulse at grass roots level."

Dr Tantawi's week-long stay took in dinner at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury, a courtesy call to 10 Downing Street, a meeting with the Prince of Wales, visits to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, before returning to London to lead Friday prayers at Regents' Park Mosque.

The closest Dr Tantawi came to mucking in with the natives was a trip to Bradford. But instead of walking around the poverty-scarred streets of riot-riven Manningham and listening to the frustrations of its 60 per cent young unemployed, the Shaykh's advisors, careful not to expose him to any unpleasant after-tastes guided him to what
must have been a delicious and constructive curry with the Council of Mosques, the male Pakistani gerontocracy which presides over the community's affairs.

Dr Tantawi's visit even failed to take in a meeting with human rights organisations worried about the one parry regime and rule by decree that has consigned hundreds of political opponents to jail, not to mention ignited an armed rebellion against the government.

The Shaykh also failed to drop in on the Justice International Commission on Human Rights, a group of international lawyers with a special interest in Egypt. As Dr Tantawi was packing his bags for the return flight, the government was arresting 27 more intellectuals under the pretext of political subversion, according to spokesman Sayyid Mohieddeen.

"The picture that we know is very bleak. The abuses are so well documented that even the US State Department and the United Nations have voiced concern."

But then, perhaps it was asking too much of His Grace to have done anything contrary. He was shadowed during his stay by Ashraf Ridwan, ostensibly a bodyguard but known by exiles as the head of the Egyptian embassy's secret intelligence (the Mukhabarat), the very same body which co-ordinates a campaign to harass dissidents and
pressure the British government into repatriating them.

Is Dr Tantawi a willing stooge? Intellectually at least, he is not a lightweight, having completed an exegesis (Tafsir) of the Quran over 10 years and running into seven thousand pages. He has also penned a comprehensive study of Israel and pronounced extensively on Islamic banking.

"His scholarly credentials and his integrity, are not in doubt," according to Al-Azhar educated writer and translator Dr. Abdal Hakim Murad. "He's in a tricky position and has to negotiate a careful path between religious imperatives and the government," said Dr Murad. "If he steps out of line they wilt only replace him with somebody worse." Which is why upon his return Dr Tantawi will, even if he has read the latest PSI report, the Runnymede Islamophobia report and followed the savage smear campaign against Britain's first Muslim MP, be keeping his thoughts to himself. For a government which abuses the religious rights of its own citizens the grievances of Muslims in a faraway
land cannot be of pressing importance. Strange.

Doesn't that dovetail exactly with the attitude of the FCO?

Copyright 1998 Q-News International, UK.

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