Explanation fails to cut any ice with the public who see leader's meeting with Israeli leader as a huge breach of diplomacy.
Handshake is close to heresy for many Arabs
CAIRO // Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi's explanation that he shook hands with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, at a UN religious conference last month without recognising him is being considered by many in Egypt and the Arab world as indefensible as the handshake itself. Independent lawmakers Hamdeen Sabahi and Moustafa Bakri and several others have called for the resignation of Sheikh Tantawi, the grand imam of Al Azhar Mosque. Hamdi Hassan, the speaker of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition in parliament, demanded an immediate apology by Sheikh Tantawi "for his very warm and intimate handshake which has provoked most Egyptians, offended us Muslims and is an insult to Al Azhar". Sheikh Tantawi was appointed by Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, as grand imam and grand sheikh of Al Azhar University, considered the leading Sunni Muslim institution in the world. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Sheikh Tantawi and Mr Peres met at a small dinner for world leaders, attended by the Saudi king, the Kuwaiti emir and other Arab officials. The paper said Sheikh Tantawi was the first leader to approach Mr Peres and engage in conversation, and the two men spoke for several minutes without releasing their handshake. The sheikh condemned those who publicised and distributed the picture of him shaking hands with Mr Peres, saying they were a "group of lunatics" and that "those who abstain from meeting their enemy are cowards". "I shook hands with him randomly without recognising him as I don't know how he looks like," Sheikh Tantawi, 80, was quoted as saying by el-Masry el-Youm on Tuesday. "Is my handshake with Peres what is going to solve or complicate the Palestinian issue? And if I had known who it was, would the handshake amount to heresy?" The sheikh's office added in a statement that the handshake took place spontaneously "without preparation". "Many people came to shake hands with sheikh of Al Azhar, Shimon Peres was one of them. The sheikh was surprised by Peres's sudden presence, besides he had no prior knowledge of Peres, it lasted for a few seconds," the statement said. Sheikh Tantawi had caused a similar uproar when he met with chief rabbi of Israel, Israel Lau, at Al Azhar in 1997. Students and faculty members at the university were among those quick to condemn his latest actions. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, 21, said: "If it's true that the sheikh of Al Azhar doesn't know who Peres is, this means he is ignorant. If he does know him and denies he does, this makes him a liar. And in both cases this is insulting to Al Azhar. He should resign. "My 10-year-old brother knows who Peres is and would recognise him if he saw him, and won't shake hands with him." "The hand that the sheikh of Al Azhar shook is dripping with blood of thousands of Muslims: Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians and Syrians," said Aya Raslan, 19. "Congratulations for shaking hands with the Qana butcher. I disapprove with what the sheikh of Al Azhar did," said Abdel Moeti Bayoumi, a theology professor at Al Azhar University. "I would never put my hand in the hand of the man who killed thousands of Muslims and Christians in Palestine and the head of the country that stole Palestine land and are besieging Palestinians in Gaza. Prophet Mohammed would have never shook the hand of murderers." Journalists also weighed in on the controversy. "Don't shake hands," wrote columnist Hamdi Rizq in the independent el-Masry el-Youm yesterday. "The grand imam of Al Azhar is an old and senior man, he shouldn't have been left as a prey to the Israeli wolves." "Sheikh of Al Azhar fell in the trap," said Fahmi Howeidy, a prominent columnist with the opposition daily Al Destour. "Egypt's role in the Arab world has been declining, and here comes sheikh of Al Azhar, the symbol for the whole Islamic world, to follow suit and dwarf Al Azhar and undermine its role. "Sheikh of Al Azhar is supposed to be the most important Islamic reference in the Arab and Islamic world, but since Egypt signed the Camp David Accords and peace treaty with Israel in 1979, this reference has regressed since the late president Anwar Sadat and now his successor Hosni Mubarak are insisting on appointing people who don't deserve the post, and their job has become to issue religious edicts to suit and justify their policies," lamented an editorial yesterday in the pan Arab London-based daily Al Quds Al Araby. At a cafe in Cairo's upmarket Heliopolis neighbourhood, Moustafa Hassan said: "We are upset not because Peres is a Jew, but because he's the president of our arch-enemy and has been serving Israel since its establishment. "He who doesn't know his enemy and doesn't mind dealing with them doesn't represent Muslims and should resign." Others in the cafe, however, disagreed. "Muslims are the ones who are tarnishing Islam's image of Islam," said Karim Hazem, 30. "So we are responding to those who accuse us of being terrorists by condemning the sheikh of Al Azhar for shaking hands with someone from a different religion?" "I just wish the sheikh didn't try to justify what he did because it was a civilised act that proved to the world that we Muslims are not fanatics," said Hana Hamdy 29, Mr Hazem's fiancée. "It's about time that we forget the culture of rejecting and hating the other and wish to annihilate them. Using the Palestinian issue as a pretext has transformed us as terrorists in front of the world, it's about time to solve this issue by diplomatic means." email@example.com