After al-Rawda mosque attack, critics once again question role of al-Azhar
Cairo- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has renewed calls for al-Azhar, the senior religious authority in Egypt, to lead in combating religious extremism after the worst terrorist attack in the country’s recent history.
Speaking at al-Azhar during a celebration of the birth of Prophet Mohammad, Sisi called on al-Azhar’s scholars to serve as the “light” that shatters the “darkness” of religious extremism.
He called on al-Azhar to champion a “moderate” religious discourse that would protect young Egyptians from extremism. Sisi’s comments echo previous calls from the government for al-Azhar to do more, with the religious body facing increasing criticism for a perceived lack of action.
Al-Azhar’s official statement following the terrorist attack on al-Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed, which resulted in the death of more than 300 worshippers, was criticised for not going far enough, pointedly refusing to label the suspected Islamic State (ISIS) attackers “infidels.”
“The crimes of these terrorist groups have crossed a red line. Destroying houses of God represents a major crime and al-Azhar has to issue a strong response to these people by declaring them as infidels,” said a statement signed by religious scholars, including some al-Azhar figures.
Even when al-Azhar has sought to tackle issues, such as TV imams issuing fatwas, it has had problems with execution.
Al-Azhar in mid-November issued a list of 50 religious clerics who had been accredited to talk about Islamic issues on television, with the aim to silence views deemed extremist in the media. However, it quickly emerged that some scholars on the list had controversial pasts, including backing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
“At the personal level, I am not surprised,” said MP Mohamed Abu Hamed of the Free Egyptians Party, who proposed legislation to trim the powers of al-Azhar. “Al-Azhar has nothing else to offer, while most of its current leaders have nothing to do with moderation.”
The accreditation list is a by-product of collaboration between al-Azhar and the Supreme Media Council, the government-appointed body that oversees and regulates Egypt’s media.
Al-Azhar said its selection of the scholars on the list was based on their religious and academic qualifications, not political views.
“We applied a number of criteria in the selection process and the people included in the list are the ones who met the criteria,” said Abbas Shouman, the official al- Azhar spokesman. “We want only moderates and those who have the knowledge to speak in the media.”
Al-Azhar sought to play up recent reforms, including the revision of the curriculum at al-Azhar and an interactive website that allows al- Azhar scholars to engage directly with other Muslims.
Critics claim that al-Azhar must do much more to combat religious extremism.
Egypt’s private television networks have been nearly an unregulated space, with many television sheikhs — some of whom have no religious qualifications — addressing religious issues.
The Supreme Media Council said it would punish TV stations that fail to abide by the new accreditation list, including by possibly withdrawing their licences.
Al-Azhar warned that it would “discipline” scholars on the list if they did not maintain a moderate line on Islam.
“We do not want those who propagate un-Islamic and extremist thoughts to appear on TV again,” Shouman said.
However, the issue is far from simple, with many saying it is not simply one of accreditation or regulation, but that al-Azhar itself is not upholding moderate views.
Gaber Asfour, a former minister of culture and an outspoken al- Azhar critic, said he considered the list an attempt by al-Azhar to monopolise religion.
“Al-Azhar wants to turn religion into a private property, whereas all Muslims have the right to talk about their religion,” Asfour said. “Instead of saying who should talk to the media and who should not, al-Azhar should educate its scholars to make them qualified for their job.”
Abu Hamed said al-Azhar could not be counted on to lead religious reform and that the state must take a more direct approach, particularly given the escalating threat from extremists.
“The problem is that many of the leaders of al-Azhar have a way of thinking so identical with Islamist groups that harbour hostility to the Egyptian state,” Abu Hamed said. “As an institution, al-Azhar is dysfunctional and those who think it can play a role in reforming religious thinking or fighting extremism are mistaken.”