Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Sends Fiery Messages to France in Meeting with French FM

The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, said on Sunday that those who insult the Prophet Muhammad would be prosecuted in international courts, refusing to consider the insulting cartoons of the Messenger of Islam as freedom of expression.

Sheikh Al-Tayyib addressed the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was on a visit to Egypt, saying: “If you consider that insulting our Prophet Muhammad is a freedom of expression, we reject it in form and content.”

Offending religions is not freedom of expression

In a written statement about the meeting, Tayeb said he had stressed that any insult against the prophet was unacceptable.

“I am the first to protest against freedom of expression if this freedom offends any religion, not just Islam,” he said.

He said: Offending our Prophet Muhammad is completely unacceptable, and we will follow those who insult our noble Prophet in international courts, even if we spend our whole life doing that only.

Terrorism must not be described as Islamic

Sheikh Al-Tayyib said: “We refuse to describe terrorism as Islamic. Everyone should stop this term immediately, because it hurts the feelings of Muslims in the world, and it is a term that contradicts the truth that everyone knows,” adding “Al-Azhar represents the voice of nearly two billion Muslims, and I said that terrorists do not represent us, and we are not responsible for their actions.”

Al-Tayyib added, “We wanted the officials in Europe to be aware that what is happening does not represent Islam and Muslims, especially since those who pay the price of this terrorism are Muslims more than others.”

He continued, “I am the first to protest against freedom of expression if this freedom offends any of the religions, not just Islam. And he added: Is it wise to risk the feelings of millions of people for the sake of an offensive paper .. I cannot understand which freedom is this?”

French FM affirms respect for Islam in dispute over cartoons

On his part, the French foreign minister asserted his country’s “profound respect for Islam” during his visit to Cairo on Sunday in the dispute with the Muslim world over France’s defense of the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

“I noted numerous points of divergence in our analyses. I told the Grand Imam how much we need a voice of balance, tolerance and moderation,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.

However, French officials later said Le Drian had meant to say “convergence”, not “divergence”.

Le Drian’s visit comes in the wake of several attacks in France apparently provoked by anger over the defense of the caricatures, considered blasphemous by Muslims, as freedom of expression.

After meeting Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Le Drian said an “anti-French” campaign in the Muslim world had often been the result of a distortion of French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments on the issue.

“We have a first principle which is the highest respect for Islam,” Le Drian told reporters. “I also want to say that Muslims are fully part of society in France.”

“The second message is that we’re confronted by a terrorism threat, fanaticism, on our soil but also elsewhere, and this battle is a common battle.”

Le Drian said he had a long exchange marked by “great frankness” with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, who heads al-Azhar, Cairo’s thousand-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The only battle France was fighting with Egypt and other countries was against extremism, Le Drian said.

“The Grand Imam suggested that we work together to deepen this common convergence.”

Last month Tayeb denounced remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron of “Islamist separatism” as “racist” and spreading “hate speech”.

Demonstrations erupted in several Muslim-majority countries after Macron defended the right to publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, seen by many as insulting and an attack on Islam.

Sisi himself had weighed in on the controversy last month, saying that “to insult the prophets amounts to underestimating the religious beliefs of many people”.