Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi called on Wednesday for the world to respect the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims, while stressing his categorical rejection of all forms of violence and extremism from any party or group.
The president said that “tolerance is the essence of the religion,” affirming that extremism is not linked to a specific religion.
“Unfortunately, there are extremists from all religions who seek to enhance the spirit of strife and ignite anger and hatred," El-Sisi added.
The president affirmed “categorical rejection to any violent or terrorist acts committed by any party under the slogan of defending religion and sacred religious symbols.”
El-Sisi also condemned the actions by what he described as a minority of Muslims who use Islam to justify extremism.
The president's comments came during the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad at Al-Manara International Conference Center in Cairo.
The event was attended by the Minister of Religious Endowments, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Prime Minister, and a number of religious and state officials.
Freedom of belief but mutual respect
“I assure everyone that the position of the great prophet, the master of people, Muhammad, peace be upon him, in the hearts of Muslims worldwide cannot be affected by any words or actions.”
President El-Sisi said “offending the prophets and messengers is disparaging to the high religious values that many people believe in."
El-Sisi said that “he expects these actions to stop when it comes to hurting the feelings of more than 1.5 billion [Muslims].”
“Whoever does not believe [in Islam], it is their own business,” the president said, adding that this does not justify hurting the feelings of millions while extremism is limited to a small percentage.
“In 1.5 billion or more Muslims, how many of them are extremists? One per cent? One per cent equals 15 million… The number is not like that in any way, and, therefore, I can never imagine that Muslims are being blamed for the sins and evils of a small portion who have gone astray.”
“I say this and I hope it reaches everyone who cares about awareness and understanding and also cares for human rights. We also have rights. We have rights that our feelings are not hurt and that our values are not harmed”.
“I do not direct any bad words or blame to anyone, but I say that the matter requires all of us to rethink ourselves. I am not only talking about Egypt. I am speaking about Egypt and the whole world. Please, stop hurting us.”
The president, on the other hand, urged Muslims to stick to Prophet Muhammad’s values and ethics, which include “respecting people and preserving their rights.”
He said Egypt has respected non-Egyptians residing in Egypt and is looking to show further respect to them, “to emphasise our extent of respecting, appreciating and loving others. All others."
“Even people, who, say they hold other beliefs, we respected that … We accepted and respected it."
Muslims and freedoms
El-Sisi urged people residing in other societies to abide by the values and principles of these societies.
“As I said once before, and many people probably blame me for it and say: what if others do not respect your values and principles? I imagine that generosity and good manners ultimately prevail.”
“I will say that I believe, and I don’t think I am wrong, that arrogance while practicing the values of freedom is nothing but a form of extremism, when this practice affects others’ rights.”
"The message of Islam that we have received from our noble prophet came as a victory for freedom; the freedom of faith, choice and belief and the freedom of opinion," the president said.
"But these freedoms have not been absolute so that they are not turned by whim of the human soul to chaos that permits sabotage and destruction. Also, these freedoms should stop at the limits of other people's freedoms," he added.
The president's comments come amid a worldwide Muslim uproar and condemnation of comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on Islam as well as calls to boycot French products after Macron defended Charlie Hebdo cartoons deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.
They also come after a Muslim student beheaded earlier this month a French teacher for conducting a classroom discussion on the cartoons, an act which was strongly condemned by Egypt, Al-Azhar, and Muslims worldwide.
Al-Azhar has also condemned the French president's charges that Islam encourages "separatism and isolationinsm."
The president praised the Prophet Muhammad “who established with wisdom and sound instructions great and immortal pillars and foundations for the whole of humanity."
Extremism and religious discourse
The president reiterated his rejection of attempts to use Islam to justify extremism.
"Justifying extremism under the cover of religion is beyond Islam ... it is forbidden and prohibited ... it is no more than a tool to achieve limited interests."
"The purpose of religions is achieving the interests of nations and the benefit of the people, through tolerance and ease, not through extremism and hardship."
The president argued that Islamic jurisprudence is based on the concepts of mercy and tolerance.
“Our celebration today of the birthday of the master of people and the prophet of mercy - peace be upon him- invokes all the meanings of mercy in our true religion, and reminds us that the tolerant Sharia of Islam is based on building, not demolishing, and this is an indication of what God Almighty said: ‘We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the world."
The president reiterated his call for renewing religious discourse to protect society from the ploys of what he described as "the people of evil."
This “requires the continuation of the heavy task and responsibility that religious scholars undertake to correct misconceptions, in order to protect society and the state from the plans of sabotage, and in order for the whole world to realize the tolerance of the great Islamic religion that is based on mercy, tolerance and peaceful coexistence among people … among all people.”
“Hence, the issue of wise awareness and a correct understanding of religion will remain one of the priorities in the current stage in confronting the people of evil,” the President said.
He added that these [evil] people “distort the meanings of the [religious] texts, quote them out of context and interpret them according to their purposes or rely on wrong interpretations of them."
Commending El-Sisi stances
Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa gifted the president two newly published religious books at the event.
In a short speech, Gomaa commended the president on his stances against terrorism.
"We did not forget and will not forget the day when you took a great patriotic stance at a very difficult time and said ‘you will take bullets directed at the chests of Egyptians,'" Gomaa said.
He also warned against what he described as "fourth generation warfare."
"Armed gangs are one of the most important means of fourth-generation warfare to destroy countries," Gomaa stated.
The president honoured a number of Islamic clerics during the event.
The Prophet’s birthday is a holiday widely celebrated across Egypt and the Islamic world.
The observance of the birthday of the Prophet is commemorated on the 12th of Rabi' al-awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar, which falls this year on Thursday, 29 October. The anniversary will be a paid holiday for public and private sector workers.
Grand Imam rejects strife, hatred
Meanwhile, in his speech at the event, Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayyeb called for drafting an international legislation that criminalises acts of hate and discrimination against Muslims worldwide.
El-Tayyeb said cartoons insulting to the prophet "are an explicit act of hostility” against Islam and its prophet.
The grand imam reiterated the condemnation by the Islamic world and religious institutions of the murder of the recent of French teacher in Paris, after he had exhibited anti-prophet cartoons in his classroom, calling the crime a “painful” incident.
“But it is most regrettable and extremely painful to see insulting Islam and Muslims becoming a tool for mobilising votes and being used in election markets,” he added.
“I am surprised the fire of strife, hatred, and abuse is ignited in countries that have long been chanting that they are the cradle of culture and incubator of civilisation, enlightenment, science, modernity, and human rights,” El-Tayyeb said.
He added that these countries had their standards mixed up, as they “hold the lantern of freedom and human rights in one hand and hatred and fire in the other.”
El-Tayyeb urged Muslims in Western countries to “abide by peaceful, legal and rational ways to resist hate speech and obtain their legal rights, following the example of the noble prophet.”
He also called on them to “positively integrate into these societies,” adding that this kind of integration preserves Muslim peoples' religious and cultural identities and protects them from being drawn into the provocations of the far-right movements and racism, as well as political Islamist groups.
During the event, El-Tayyeb announced launching an international platform to inform people about the “prophet of mercy and the messenger of humanity” in many languages.
He also announced an international competition on the manners of Prophet Muhammad and his contributions on the path of love and peace.