For almost fourteen years up until his death, Tantawi was the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's most prestigious religious institution, holding a position similar (but not identical) to that of a pope.
Despite not exactly upholding the Islam of al-Qaeda (and receiving condemnation for this fact from the Muslim Brotherhood), Tantawi was not in every way an exemplary moderate. For example, his antisemitism was well known. Andrew Bostom's brilliant book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism contains extensive extracts from a Ph.D thesis Tantawi wrote back in the 1960s, entitled The Jews In The Qur'an And The Traditions. In it, among other things, Tantawi writes this of the Jews:
“[The] Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness…only a minority of the Jews keep their word…[A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims, the bad ones do not.”
He wrote this treatise before attaining such a prestigious position, but he did not mollify his views after being named Grand Imam in 1996, as his statements on the Jews as “enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs” make clear. Also, in 1998, he stated: “[I] wrote a dissertation dealing with them, all their false claims and their punishment by Allah. I still believe in everything written in that dissertation.”
Additionally, Tantawi was on record as endorsing suicide bombings against Israeli civilians - although, bizzarely, he also condemned them. He also encouraged Muslims to wage jihad against Coalition troops in Iraq - even though he publicly condemned others who made the same call.
Following Tantawi's death, he was replaced as Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar by Dr. Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who had been president of the institution since 2003. But like Tantawi, al-Tayyeb comes with some unsavoury baggage. MEMRI has extracts from two interviews given by al-Tayyeb, one from 2002 and the other from 2007.
In one interview, al-Tayyeb stated that while Al-Azhar initially condemned the 9/11 attacks, "our feelings have changed somewhat, or considerably", and suggested that Israelis might actually have been behind the attack. He also said that because of the nature of the Israeli "occupation" (actually a lawful annexation in self-defense of lands that didn't legally belong to anyone else anyway), "it is the Palestinians' right to blow up whatever they want", including civilians.
In another notorious interview, al-Tayyeb justified the Qur'an's command for men to beat their disobedient wives (4:34), saying, ""By Allah, even if only one woman out of a million can be reformed by light beatings...It's not really beating, it's more like punching...It's like shoving or poking her. That's what it is."
Well, that makes it OK, then!