There are two ways to shake hands in the Arab world. In the regular way, you quickly rub palms while shaking hands, yet in the warmer way, you place both your palms on the hand you are shaking and hold them there for a long moment. The warm way is meant to symbolize intimate friendship and positive intentions, as well as close familiarity.
This is the mistake (his enemies refer to it as “crime”) made by Sheikh Al-Azhar from Egypt, Dr. Mohammed Tantawi, who was photographed at the United Nations building in New York smiling at President Shimon Peres and covering his outstretched hand warmly.
When he was hit with the first barrage of responses, the head of the most important religious law institution and Egypt’s largest religious university attempted to defend himself by claiming he “didn’t know.”
“A person came towards me with an outstretched hand, what could I do?” Tantawi tried to justify himself. Yet it is difficult to believe that the senior religious cleric from Cairo failed to recognize Israel’s president, who was surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards and aides. It is easier to assume that Tantawi never imaged what would happen to him a moment after the photo was published.
Two parliament members are now calling for the sheikh’s dismissal, intellectuals are calling to put him on trial for treason, while others demand that he clarify his “despicable” behavior and issue a letter of apology for his “crime.” How could it be that the supreme religious authority in the eyes of tens of millions of people shook the hand of “Peres the murderer?”
Television channels in the Arab world, and mostly in Egypt, are not giving him a moment’s rest. Columnists are slamming him for his “ugly blow” and for undermining al-Azhar’s authority. Some are shamelessly threatening that he will no longer be able to issue religious edicts or advise followers how to conduct themselves in the spirit of Islam, in the wake of the disgrace.
Stay away from ‘Zionist enemy’Tantawi, who was already facing a “conditional sentence” after his previous controversial handshake with former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, did not remain silent. How could it be, he hit back at his attackers, that you are all over me for two weeks now, when my country signed a peace deal and normalized relations with Israel 30 years ago?
It is amazing and disappointing to discover that no top officials in Cairo are willing to back the sheikh. Nobody at the President’s Office, at the Foreign Ministry, or at the Ministry of Religion has spoken out against the venomous backlash, which may force the “criminal” to avoid appearances at crowded locations for fear that some hot-headed characters will attempt to hurt him.
The late author and Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz was gravely wounded in a stabbing attack because of his open support for peace. Actor Amr Waked faced a disciplinary hearing at the Actors’ Association because of a joint appearance with Israeli colleagues. Playwright Ali Salem was ousted from the Writers’ Association and became unemployed immediately after returning from a visit to Israel. Journalists in Cairo do not dare interview Israeli politicians, for fear of losing desirable posts.
And now we see the raging onslaught against Sheikh Al-Azhar that is meant to deter anyone who wishes to display even a trace of normalcy vis-à-vis the “Zionist enemy.”
Attractive advertisements published in Israeli newspapers recently informed us that adopting the Saudi initiate would bring full peace and normal relations with 57 Muslim countries. Those who funded the ads promise comprehensive peace in line with the spirit of the Egyptian model. They say that once we withdraw from the occupied territories, splendid peace will envelope us.
Yet look at what happens after one innocent handshake.