Much has already been written about Pope Francis II's historic visit to the UAE on 3rd-5th February, the first of its kind to the Arabian Peninsula. It went extremely well by any standards. Media coverage around the world has recognised this. Only a minimum of the unavoidable trolls and gripers took issue with it. Criticism from political Islamists has been notably absent. In part this must be due to Pope Francis's care to show respect for Islam in general, and to stay out of disputes among its different sects and movements.
The thoughtfulness put into the occasion by the UAE authorities was rewarded by this global public relations success. Details are revealing. From the bold symbolism of the large cross mounted over the Emirates Stadium for the Papal Mass, to the security escort's sympathetic reaction to young children breaching the cordons to reach the Pope in his vehicle, everything showed this exceptional occasion as being handled consciously in the normal mainstream of Francis II's international visits. The emphasis was on reaching and encouraging the faithful, for whom a chance to be blessed by the Pope in person was the event of a lifetime, without excluding the many non-Catholics and non-Christians who will have drawn comfort from his message, and that of his Emirati hosts, of respect for people of all faiths and of shared human values. At the political and institutional levels there were of course also important statements and symbols, testifying to a common commitment to peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.
On the religious level he was welcomed by the Grand Imam of El Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, who had received him on his visit to Egypt in April 2017. It is worth pausing on the significance of this. The present Sheikh El Azhar, as the everyday title goes, is a key figure in the attempts led by the UAE, Egypt and some other Arab countries in setting Islam firmly back on the rails after the tumultuous events of the past decades. Violent extremists attempted to seize control of Algeria in 1990. Al Qaida arose at around the same time from the Arab jihadists in Afghanistan, rapidly spreading to challenge the existing political and social order throughout the Muslim world. Its appalling offshoots, Al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, were to be outdone by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which brought the extremist movement to new depths of barbarity. After coming to power through elections in Egypt in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood failed abysmally to abide by its own stated commitment to the enlightened application of Islamic principles in the modern world. By then, and well before the defeat of Isis in the course of 2017, the push-back by defenders of the true spirit and teachings of Islam had begun. Sheikh Ahmed, born in 1946 in the small town of Kurna in Luxor Governorate, and who later became a great scholar, is firmly rooted in Egypt's tolerant Sufi traditions in the practice of Islam. His social conservatism is tempered by a rejection of harshness and oppression in the application of Islamic norms of conduct. His doctrinal traditionalism is that of the Sunni mainstream of centuries, from which hardline Wahabi revisionism and its successors have proved such a destructive deviation.
Since Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1922 the natural leader of the Sunni world, in terms of respect and doctrinal authority, has been the Sheikh El Azhar. To that degree he is the natural counterpart to the Catholic Church's Pope, and it was entirely right that the Emirati authorities should invite him to receive Francis II as their guest. His presence was not simply to represent the Sunni majority of the world's Muslims, and the dominant Ash'ari school of jurisprudence within it, in welcoming the head of the Catholic majority of the Christian world. It was also a statement of support for him as the symbol of Islam's own commitment to its roots and deep traditions. Pope Francis' eloquent words on the importance of forgiveness in human conduct could themselves have been derived from those traditions as much as from Christian ones.
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