Marine le Pen, the leader of the popular French far right National Front party, has often seemed at loggerheads with Islam. Just after the devastating attacks in Paris this year, for example, she tweeted: “It is the Islamists who have declared war on France.”
However, Le Pen herself has often gone to some lengths to say her problem isn’t Muslims themselves. In 2011, for example, she explained that was “not waging war against Islam” but that political Islam doesn’t have a place in France. “Sharia Law is not compatible with our principles, our values or democracy,” she explained.
Perhaps it was this desire to understand more moderate strands of Islam that led Le Pen to make a surprise visit to Egypt on Thursday, meeting with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, a Sunni Islamic institution that is among the most respected in the world and a leading moderate voice in conversations about Islam.
Tayeb announced the meeting with Le Pen on Wednesday evening, with a note apparently designed to deter criticism. “As part of Al-Azhar’s openness to positive dialogue with all currents and intellectual trends, and in order to promote Muslim interests across the world, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb has agreed to a meeting request sent by Ms Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front Party,” the announcement read.
On Twitter and in a statement, Le Pen suggested that the meeting had gone well, and that the National Front and al-Azhar had found common ground in the fight against extremism. Notably, photographs of the meeting show the National Front leader apparently comfortable, and not wearing a veil.
However, other accounts from the meeting suggest that Le Pen didn’t meet with quite the levels of agreement that she recounted, including those from the Islamic institution itself.
According to a statement released by Al-Azhar, Tayeb said he had questioned the National Front’s “hostile opinions towards Islam and Muslims,” adding that these “opinions need to be reviewed and corrected.”
“If she had a mistaken understanding of Islam, Al-Azhar’s sheikh wanted to show her the true face of Islam,” Abbas Shoman, Tayeb’s deputy, told Agence Presse Free.