The recent visit and official welcome by Al-Azhar to Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right French National Front party, marks the lowest point in the standing of the venerable Sunni institution. At a time when Le Pen is unleashing an avalanche of xenophobic and Islamophobic attacks on disenfranchised Muslim and sub-Saharan African immigrants, the visit inscribes creditability to a party leader that has neo-Nazi origins and advocates racist and white supremacist policies. Al-Azhar gave the reasons for the meeting as “openness to positive dialogue with all currents and intellectual trends and in order to promote Muslim interests across the world,” and added:”Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb has agreed to a meeting request sent by Ms. Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front Party.”
On her part, Ms. Le Pen wrote a post about the visit on Twitter: “Meeting in Cairo with the highest Sunni authority: strong agreement on the fight against extremism.” Al-Azhar’s press release said the meeting was “to discuss matters related to erroneous ideas and concepts about Islam and extremist ideologies and racism that some Muslims in Europe are suffering from.” Furthermore, Al-Azhar’s statement indicated that Tayeb warned Le Pen about her “hostile opinions” of Islam, which in his views must be “reviewed and corrected,” and that the Sunni institution had “serious problems” with the National Front’s positions on this matter. It is clear that Al-Azhar and Le Pen’s issued divergent statements afterward and were in damage control mode as responses to the meeting in France took a very negative tone. National Front leaders and supporters were very critical of Le Pen’s visit and condemned the meeting. Likewise, the Arab press was very critical of the meeting and took issue with the welcome extended to a major Islamophobic figure.Welcoming Le Pen to Al-Azhar is a major mistake and once again inserted the institution into the domestic French debates pertaining to French Muslim communities and their status. The National Front and its current leader have been contesting the role and place of Muslims and sub-Saharan Africans in French society while seeking greater restrictions on immigrants. Le Pen is seeking a Muslim cover for her upcoming presidential campaign and an attempt to rehabilitate her deeply xenophobic image in an appeal to the right-of-center and possibly independent voters. Visiting Al-Azhar was hoped to accomplish this goal and help insert the institution once more into the debate concerning the status of French Muslims. In 2003, Al-Azhar defended the French veil ban and issued an opinion that sanctioned the proposed law, which won wide approval. The important fatwa was issued by then Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, who delivered the opinion during a visit to Egypt by then French Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy was running for the presidency at the time and Islamophobia and anti-immigrant policies were an important building block in his campaign. Al-Azhar extended a Muslim cover and granted Sarkozy much-needed breathing room to shift more to the right and monetize Islamophobia and anti-immigrants sentiments into votes at the ballot box. Le Pen is following in Sarkozy’s footsteps, but this time the debate is much deeper, and problematizing the Muslim subject in France has become a mainstay of French politics. Can Muslims be French while maintaining a religious identity? The Charlie Hebdo attacks have made it possible for Le Pen and the National Front to cast themselves as defenders of French secular values while constantly essentializing the French Muslim subject.
Consequently, by visiting and seeking Al-Azhar’s blessings, Le Pen, and Sarkozy before her, were actually denying French Muslim citizens agency, basic rights of self-representation and equality of citizenship with the ability to speak for themselves in a secular and democratic society. Furthermore, while the demand of separation of church and state or mosque and state are central to France’s political discourse, nevertheless, when Le Pen and Sarkozy visit and seek Al-Azhar’s intervention in domestic affairs, then the French state is indeed fusing both when convenient and at the expense of the powerless and marginalized Muslim minorities.
More than anything, Le Pen’s visit to Al-Azhar and seeking intervention in domestic French affairs is asserting in words and deeds the inequality of French Muslim citizens. French Muslims are citizens that are able to determine their own affairs and can navigate the complexities of living a religious life in an advanced, industrial, secular and democratic society without needing a National Front sought out fatwa to use for elections purpose. What is expected of Al-Azhar is to refuse to play a political role to further marginalize an already marginalized Muslim minority, and more so when a neo-Nazi visitor comes knocking on the door. If Marine Le Pen needs to know more about Islam then she can ask the 5 million French Muslim citizens who can speak to her in perfect French about their religion, cultures and values. The question though is, does she see or hear them as equals when they speak?