After al-Rawda mosque attack, critics once again question role of al-Azhar

December 03, 2017
Doubts. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) stands with al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb (C) during a conference in Cairo, on November 29. (AP)

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.”