Al-Azhar jails its critics
An institution that once led the world in religious thought now uses litigation to shut down debate and criticism.
In a century that has been defined from its start by the horrors of Islamist terrorism, ideas matter. Perpetrators of violence in the name of God are possessed of a religiously rooted ideology so compelling it can drive them to kill themselves as well as others in pursuit of its goals. If violent Islamist ideology is not addressed in all its forms, the terrorism that has blighted the world — and the Middle East in particular — will not stop.
That is why al-Azhar, Islam’s foremost fount of religious learning, is of paramount importance and its maladministration is a cause of global concern.
The necessity of engaging with the religious arguments of terrorist ideologues is something that has been recognised by intellectuals in the Islamic world. Muslim thinkers risk their lives by challenging Islamist zealots and do so largely alone and without political or institutional backing.
In the fight against Islamist extremism Egypt, al-Azhar has a central role to play. Unfortunately, Egyptian artists and intellectuals struggling to forcefully and directly respond to the religious arguments of terrorist groups often find themselves in court facing cases filed against them by al-Azhar itself.
Censor-in-chief is not the role al-Azhar is supposed to be playing, nor the one set out for it by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he called on the institution to lead a “religious revolution” to purify Islamic texts of justifications for violence.
Not only has al-Azhar done little in this regard, it has set itself up in Egypt as the sole legitimate interpreter of Islamic doctrine. The leaders of al-Azhar stress their scholarly credentials and belittle those outside the institution who engage in the intellectual heavy lifting of responding to the religious arguments of extremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS).
In the face of al-Azhar’s inaction, the very least that can be asked of it is that it leave other thinkers free to undermine the religious arguments put forward by extremist ideologues. This has not been the case.
Al-Azhar has a habit of attacking those who engage in detailed and fundamental refutations of the ideological justifications for violence. Most famously, Egyptian writer, Islamic scholar and advocate of the civil state Farag Foda was consistently condemned by then-sheikh of al-Azhar, Ali Gad al-Haq, in the early 1990s.
While al-Azhar as an institution did not condone Foda’s killing, it stood by in complicit silence as scholars in formal positions at al- Azhar, Muslim Brotherhood ideologues and members of the Islamic Group openly advocated his death, which came at the hands of an Islamic Group terrorist in 1992.
The example of Foda underlines the deadly consequences strident condemnation of intellectuals by religious authorities and Islamist groups can have. More recently, Islamic scholar Islam al-Behairy, whose popular television programme With Islam boldly challenged the arguments and religious reasoning of Islamist extremists, had his programme taken off the air at the personal request of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb.
Behairy was condemned in an official statement by al-Azhar for “insulting Islam” and sentenced to jail for five years, a term later commuted to one year.
In a statement justifying the suspension of With Islam, private channel Al Kahera Wal Nas argued that “the development of religious discourse will be left to Muslim scholars”, an oblique reference to the argument of al-Azhar that only those related to the institution should be allowed to engage in religious debate. Behairy now lives under the threat of assassination.
Recently, al-Azhar broke new ground, condemning and litigating against writers who do not engage in Islamic theorising but rather question why al-Azhar is not more active in challenging extremism.
A prominent example is the deputy editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Watan, Ahmed al-Khatib, who wrote a series of articles exposing administrative corruption at al-Azhar and, most concerning, detailed allegations of links between members of its ruling council and the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Group. That, Khatib said, the most important institution in the world in the fight against Islamic extremism is under the control of individuals with extremist links is a matter of global importance.
Rather than directly addressing Khatib’s allegations, the individuals concerned chose to use the prestige of al-Azhar to deflect scrutiny of their personal conduct.
Of course, the individuals concerned are free to pursue Khatib through the courts if they can prove his claims are libellous. What is concerning is that the institutional weight of al-Azhar is being brought to bear as well as the personal prestige of the grand imam. Four of the five cases facing Khatib were brought by the al-Azhar ruling council as a body or by the grand imam himself, even though Khatib was careful to stress his accusations were not directed against either Tayeb or al-Azhar. Indeed, the focus of the allegations, legal adviser to the grand imam Sheikh Mohamed Abd al-Salam, has only brought one of the five cases.
The cases against Khatib represent a worrying precedent and place Egyptian writers and reformist scholars in an impossible position. On the one hand, they cannot answer the arguments of Islamist extremists without being accused by al-Azhar of overstepping the boundaries of civil discourse and insulting religion. On the other, they cannot question al-Azhar’s inactivity in dealing with the theological arguments used by terrorists to justify killing, nor the conduct of individuals who are supposed to be directing a counter-extremism strategy.
If this situation continues, the “religious revolution” declared by Sisi will never come to fruition and the arguments of Islamist extremists will go unanswered by the institution best placed to address them. The world will be a worse place as a result.