'At War With ISIS' - Sunni Islam's Spiritual Leader El-Tayeb Speaks Out

La Stampa takes on big questions in Muslim world with Sunni Islam's highest authority, who was at a conference in Italy, his first trip to Europe since taking his post in Cairo.

El-Tayeb earlier this year
El-Tayeb earlier this year
Francesca Paci

FLORENCE â€" Ahmed el-Tayeb is the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al Azhar University, which is sometimes called the Vatican of the Sunni World. He is considered by many to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam. While he was in Italy for an inter-religious dialogue hosted by the Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio, La Stampa spoke to el-Tayeb about the Sunni-Shia conflict, ISIS, and the decline of political Islam.

“In the West," he said, "You don’t know what we’re going through in the Middle East. It's a phase of backwardness that could set us back more than a century.”

LA STAMPA: What are your views on the Turkish election and the loss of votes for the AKP, a party unpopular in Cairo for its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood?

AHMED EL-TAYEB: I’m not a politician and I will stay silent on Turkey, but I think you should look at the bigger picture. We’re living a period of great tension between the West and the Islamic world.

In the Koran, politics and religion overlap. Regarding President el-Sisi"s call for a "religious revolution", do you think a reform of Islam should include a separation of religion and state?

Politics and religion use different methods. Politics generally has vested interests because it manages public life and must make concessions. Religion is involved in the ethical sphere, and on ethics you cannot make concessions. Religion is a bastion, and if politics follows the wrong path then religion has a duty to bring it back to order.

Is the way the ISIS caliphate uses religion a challenge to Al Azhar's authority?

Al Azhar is not a religious institution, it is an educational institution under Islamic teaching and principles. These armed movements are outside Islam and challenge Islamic thought and teaching. Al Azhar is at war with ISIS. We do not have military, political, or diplomatic tools, but we do have scientific tools at our disposal, and we want to arm young people with the correct interpretation of Islam. The West must understand the difference between armed groups and true Islam. Much blood has been shed by other religions too.

So ISIS is taking Islam hostage, but Saudi Arabia is the official face of Islam. Can you talk of reform without questioning the 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison doled out by Riyadh to the condemned “apostate” blogger Raif Badawi?

I don’t know enough about it. But I’m in Italy and I respect Italian laws, so you should do the same when you are in other countries. In the Saudi case a tribunal decided on a sentence for a crime; it’s the law that must be followed and it’s not a case of violence outside of the political realm. Even in Italy there are those who deem some judicial decisions cruel and unjust.

After the barbaric execution of the Jordanian pilot at the hands of ISIS, you said you deemed it a crime worthy of crucifixion. As the public face for an official Islam that renounces violence, shouldn’t you abstain from such violent language?

There was a misunderstanding. Al Azhar has never issued any death sentences. But under Sharia law, anyone who kills, rapes women, or harms the innocent must be treated as a criminal. Then it is the government that decides the punishment. All legal systems around the world seek to reprimand those who violate the law, even the Torah provides repressive measures for criminals.

Many, including the Muslim Brotherhood, refuse to recognize the authority of Al Azhar because they see it as a wing of the Egyptian government.

Al Azhar is an independent institution, as is written in the Egyptian constitution. I am an autonomous individual and no one can remove me from office. When you hear accusations of this nature against us you can be sure that they come from groups like the Brotherhood.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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