The French Tragedy and the Courage of Al-Sisi


Tonight’s oneg was sponsored by Lionel and Dominique Vincenti in memory of the four French Jews who were killed by terrorists in a Kosher Supermarket this past week: Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Francois-Michel Saada. Our hearts go out to their families, to the Jewish community of France, and to the victims of Charlie Hebdo and their families.
I want to share a thought about what happened from our Tradition. There is a saying: “Bemakom she’yesh emet, ein shalom. In a place where there is truth, there is no peace. U’v’makom she’ yesh shalom, ein emet. And, in a place where there is peace there is not truth.” What does this mean?

Remember the Geico commercial? Honest Abe Lincoln is asked by wife: “does this dress make me look heavy?” And, we see him struggling with what to do. Where there is unvarnished truth, we run the risk of hurting people’s feelings, damaging our relationships. My wife has a saying: “Do you want to be right or happy?” This is what Honest Abe had to decide – and we all do. Go for emet, and we lose shalom. So sometimes, it’s ok to compromise on emet for sake of shalom.

On the other hand, too much concern with shalom can compromise emet too much. We can be too afraid to confront unpleasant truths or to articulate unpleasant truths. We don’t want to upset our children, make them angry. If we tell them something they don’t want to hear, they might throw a tantrum. So, we avoid confrontation.

It’s the same in all our relationships, without husband and wives, or our friends. There are times when we avoid confrontation for the sake of peace. But, that may not be good for them. We may not be doing our job if we avoid truth because we are so afraid of confrontation. And, it might not be good for the relationship either, to keep something inside which really needs to be confronted openly So sometimes, we have to be willing to sacrifice shalom/peace, for the sake of emet – for the sake of truth, integrity, and, doing the right thing.

Fanatical societies value only emet and not shalom. For the religious fanatic there is only one truth – his truth. And, shalom must pay the price, because emet is the supreme value. So, if it’s necessary to kill people who don’t see my truth – or are getting in the way of ‘the truth’ – that’s a small price to pay. There can be no tolerance of the infidel, the one who lives a lie.

Tolerant societies tend to place a high value on shalom/peace at the expense of emet; we are willing to compromise on emet – I have my belief of what’s true – you have yours – I can live with that – I will not confront you – I don’t want war or violence or hatred. The downside is that tolerant societies run the risk of being non-confrontational to the extreme. So great is our desire not to offend – that we are reluctant to tell the truth as we see it even when we should.

In our response to Islam, we have sacrificed emet, in a mistaken belief that it will buy us shalom. I believe this is true in two ways. Europe has disproportionately criticized Israel, and has been overly gentle, has withheld criticism of Arab nations, Islamic nations, Islamic terror groups – because Israel is not going to attack French citizens – but angry Muslims might.

So, the thinking is: let’s not upset them. Let’s appease their anger by showing them we agree with them on Israel. This attitude of appeasement has backfired. Relentless demonization of Israel in Europe has made Jewish citizens more vulnerable. And, it has delayed peace. It’s hurt the peace process. It’s contributed to the fantasy that Israel can be defeated by propaganda. And, it has not made Europeans safer in the least. On the contrary, the appeasement of hatred has only strengthened it.

But, it’s not only European problem. We Americans, in the interest of being fair minded, because we are tolerant, because we value shalom, we have shied away from articulating painful truths to the Muslim world. We are so afraid of being labeled intolerant, of being called Islamophobic, that we dare not suggest that Islam has a problem. In speaking of Islam in public, we imply that the hatred that finds its expression in terror is the work of a tiny minority of extremists, and that the collective Islamic world bears no responsibility for this hatred. But, this is a simplistic view. There is a deep systemic problem within Islam as it is taught and practiced today around the world. Listen to the words of the President of Egypt Al Sisi, 5 weeks ago as he spoke before a 1000 imams and dignitaries at Al Azhar University:

“We have to think hard about what we are facing – It’s inconceivable that the thinking that 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. Impossible!

That thinking – I am not saying “religion” but “thinking” – that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema – Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move . . . because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Al Sisi’s words are an emet/a truth that is going to disturb the peace – they are going to upset people – they will ruffle feathers – they are not easy to hear. But, if they are heeded, they will lead to a greater peace in the long run.

There is a middle ground which values both emet and shalom. We can be honest without being self-righteous. It is not Islamophobic to articulate to the Muslim world that the brand of Islam that is being taught around the world, the attitudes towards Jews that our widespread and taught daily, the attitudes towards women which are widespread – they are a problem, they are toxic – and they need to be addressed vigorously and globally and very publicly by Muslim leaders.

We need to say this not in anger, not in self-congratulation, not by way of bragging that our truth is better – but by way of seeking a deep peace, a deeper shalom. Shalom will not come unless we speak the truth to each other.

Emet and shalom do not have to be enemies. There is an emet that serves shalom. There are truths that might be painful to acknowledge in the short term, but which lead to greater harmony in the long run. Let us support those courageous Muslim leaders who are willing to speak those truths aloud. And, let us not be afraid to speak them ourselves.