For those who demand that leaders in the Muslim world stand up publicly against Islamist jihadists, it doesn’t get much more clear than this rebuke from Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on New Years Day. The former general, installed in a coup and then later elected to office over the protests of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, went to the most influential Egyptian school of Sunni Islam to demand an Enlightenment, or at least some common sense. The Islamic world, he charged, was being ripped asunder and “lost by our own hands,” thanks to the bloodthirsty terrorists which want to rule it. Note how happy these clerics look to be getting this lecture, too:

“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.”

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.”…

“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.” …

“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.”

This sounds encouraging, at least on its face. Certainly Sisi has the most to lose from violent jihad. His predecessor Anwar Sadat got assassinated for his attempt to live in the modern world and make peace with Israel. Mubarak just missed getting executed by the Muslim Brotherhood by Sisi’s coup. Sisi has a vested interest in fundamental reform, as well as issuing a warning to clerics in Egypt that the preaching of violent jihad will not be tolerated for very long.

At First Things, Mark Movsesian warns against reading too much into this, at least for now:

When Sisi calls for rethinking “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years,” he may be advocating something quite dramatic, indeed. For centuries, most Islamic law scholars—though not all—have held that “the gate of ijtihad,” or independent legal reasoning, has closed, that fiqh has reached perfection and cannot be developed further. If Sisi is calling for the gate to open, and if fiqhscholars at a place like Al Azhar heed the call, that would be a truly radical step, one that would send shock waves throughout the Islamic world.

We’ll have to wait and see. Early reports are sometimes misleading; there are subtexts, religious and political, that outsiders can miss. Which texts and ideas does Sisi mean, exactly? Fiqhrules about Christians and other non-Muslims, which often insist on subordination? Some argue that, notwithstanding the speech at Al Azhar, Sisi has done relatively little to improve the situation of Coptic Christians. And calling for the opening of the gate is not necessarily progressive. Although progressive Muslim scholars endorse the opening of the gate in order to adapt fiqhto modernity, Salafist groups wish to open the gate in order to discard centuries of what they see as un-Islamic traditions. Opening the gate may be a signal for fundamentalism, for a return to the pure Islam of the Prophet and his companions. I don’t imply Sisi is a fundamentalist, of course. I’m just saying one needs to be alert to the nuances.

One context of this, even taking this at face value, doesn’t hold much hope for progress. Sisi’s demand for an Enlightenment would mean that clerics would have to agree to separate mosque and state, so to speak, by dispensing with the demand for government-imposed shari’a law. That would remove the clerics themselves from power. Having that lecture come from a man who forcibly removed an elected government (regardless of necessity or long-term benefit) sounds just a wee bit self-serving. How likely is it that Islamist clerics would voluntarily relinquish their dreams of theocratic power, especially at the urging of a military strongman? Not very, and certainly not in this generation or the next. It took Christendom centuries to complete that process, and states like Iran and Saudi Arabia haven’t even begun to move in that direction.

There is another context to consider as well. Sisi has tried to rally other Sunni Arab nations around Egypt to fight Shi’a terrorism sponsored by Iran as well as the threat posed by the Sunni radicals in ISIS. A recent conference of those states ended up endorsing Sisi’s leadership on that front, after combining to pressure Qatar into cutting off its support for the Muslim Brotherhood:

Tehran is still set to implement the goal Ayatollah Khomeini set when he toppled the shah in 1979: Destroy the Saudi regime, and impose Shi’ite Islam on the Gulf states. It is to achieve this aim that Iran is determined to obtain the nuclear weapons which will ensure its domination not only of the Gulf, but the entire Middle East.

In Yemen, Iran is aiding and abetting the Houthis – an extremist Shi’ite tribe – who have made major inroads in their fight against the central government; they have taken over the capital of Sanaa and the strategic port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea, and are directly threatening not only the western coast of Saudi Arabia but also the entrance to the Suez Canal – and therefore Egypt.

There is thus a community of interests linking the Gulf states and Egypt, in effect the front of pragmatic countries against the threat of Sunni and Shi’ite terror. But first, Qatar has to be brought in line. …

Riyadh leaned heavily on Doha to make it change its ways but the small emirate stood its ground, secure in the knowledge that it had the support of European countries by virtue of its huge investments there; and that of the US, which has important military bases on its soil.

Thanks to the mediation of Kuwait’s emir, some form of compromise was reached, but its details have not been published.

The ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Gulf states then went back to Doha, though not Egypt’s ambassador; a Gulf Cooperation Council summit was held in that city in December.

The final communique stated that all members, Qatar included, recognized the central role of Egypt in the Arab world and would support the road map drawn by President Sisi to promote the country’s stability and prosperity.

Qatar was said to have pledged to stop supporting the Brotherhood and Hamas, end incitement against Egypt on Al Jazeera and join the other Gulf states in aiding the Egyptian economy.

On that score, it’s Sisi who will play a waiting game for proof of commitment from Qatar. Zvi Mazel reports for the Jerusalem Post that AJ has stopped attacking Egypt and has ended its Egypt Direct broadcasts that had been supporting the MB ever since the coup. Some of the group’s leaders have left Qatar (for Turkey!), and Sisi may invite Qatar to participate in an upcoming economic conference to improve relations. It does seem as though Sisi is not just delivering speeches but taking action to marginalize the extremists — which makes his own position all the more precarious.

Roger Simon worries about Sisi’s future:

The whole world has been waiting for a long time for the next move of these imams or for somebody, anybody that will modernize Islam as other religions have done..  Whether that will happen, of course, is another question, but what al-Sisi is saying here is in many ways more revolutionary than the “Arab Spring.”  People ask, where are the “moderate Muslims”?  Well, one of them may be the president of Egypt. The boys from Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, etc., etc., are probably not too happy about what al-Sisi said.  Let’s hope he doesn’t suffer the fate of Anwar Sadat for his courage.

Let’s also hope his courage actually pans out to be what it seems, too. And while we’re at it, perhaps someone will demand similar reform from the Saudis, too — or at least an end to their exporting of Wahhabism.