Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

When I read about Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for a reformation in Islam, I imagined a Charlie Hebdo cartoon ridiculing the messenger.

Days before the Paris massacre at the satirical magazine traumatised France, the Egyptian president, who has been posing as the enlightened voice against Sunni Muslim extremism, called for a revolution within Islam.

It is inconceivable, he told clerics of al-Azhar university in Cairo, the centre of Sunni learning, that “the thinking we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world”.

The speech went unnoticed before the Paris attack but has since been held up as an illuminating response to Islamist radicalism. Some even mused that Mr Sisi could emerge as the Martin Luther of the Muslim world.

The former general who led the 2013 coup against an elected government of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has since waged a relentless and bloody campaign of repression against the group and cracked down on the media. He is an unlikely leader of a reformation.

Yes, he talks the talk, and perhaps he is a true believer in moderate religious thought. But the actions of his government have also contributed to the radicalisation of Islamists and exacerbated their sense of victimisation. He has a problem with humour, too. It was the gentle mocking of Mr Sisi that ended the television career of popular satirist Bassem Youssef.

Big terrorist attacks are often accompanied by calls for a reformation in Islam. But it will be a long wait for a Martin Luther. There is no church or hierarchy in Islam, and there are several schools of thought, so interpretations are usually based on the consensus of clerical institutions. The vast majority of clerics argue that jihadis misunderstand their religion and the overwhelming majority of Muslims never resort to any act of violence. But that is not to say there is no need for reform.

After the attacks of September 11 2001, a rare and welcome debate erupted over the ideology and teachings of the puritanical Wahhabi Islam practised in Saudi Arabia and its role in misleading youth. Liberals were given the space to argue their case and the language of clerics grew more moderate. But then the pressure faded and so did the reforms.

In the past year, a few liberals in the Arab world who have watched the terrifying rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have again questioned religious teachings.

The answer, however, lies in part in the rotting sociopolitical state of a Middle East blighted by autocracy, chaos and a troubled, sometimes irrational, relationship with the west.

Institutions such as al-Azhar University (which, incidentally, backed Egypt’s military coup) would be better able to promote moderation if they existed in a free and open political environment. Now, they are seen by many people as arms of regimes that exploit them for political ends — at times even encouraging institutions to espouse radical views to bolster the government’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, in much of the region, any Muslim scholar who preaches liberal interpretations of the Koran and the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, and gains a wide following is considered a political threat.

As the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies noted in its reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack, religious reform in the Arab world is necessary but it cannot be achieved without political reform.

It would be a sign of progress, for example, if a debate over religion were allowed without anyone who dares to raise any question about Islam ending up behind bars. It’s a sad irony that, two days after the outrage in Paris, a Saudi blogger was lashed 50 times (with another 950 lashes still to go and a 10-year prison sentence) for running a liberal website that allegedly insulted religious authorities. The same week a court in Egypt sentenced a student to three years in prison after accusing him of writing Facebook posts that insulted Islam.

It is not in an atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance that any change — let alone reform of religious ideology and discourse — will ever be achieved.

roula.khalaf@ft.com

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Letter in response to this column:

Seek an Enlightenment, not a Reformation / From Deborah Lewis

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