The chaos of Egypt’s religious discourse

Friday 14/08/2015

The attention paid to renewing the nature of religious discourse in Egypt in the months after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a “religious revolution” has been a cause for optimism among many. The misuse of religion for political ends has allowed extrem­ists to find a place in Egyptian society, creating a problem that needs addressing.
So far, however, the results of this effort to renew and correct religious discourse in Egypt has not inspired confidence or indicated that fundamental change has taken place.
A major problem is that those who have been tasked by the state with undertaking a religious renewal, namely al-Azhar and the Ministry for Religious Endow­ments, are busy absolving themselves of responsibility for the present state of affairs. No effort has been made to diagnose the present crisis correctly and begin addressing its social, religious and cultural roots.
Instead of coordinating their efforts to institute a strategy for dealing with religious extremism, al-Azhar and the Ministry for Religious Endowments have engaged in an exercise of mutual recrimination. Islamist extrem­ists, meanwhile, have been allowed to preserve the gains they have made in the social space.
One of the clearest manifesta­tions of the present crisis is the way in which al-Azhar has abrogated its traditional role. For example, al-Azhar has not troubled itself with the views of its scholars and has not formu­lated a useful prescription for extremism. Instead, al-Azhar has preferred to avoid confronting extremists both within its own ranks and within other institu­tions.
Instead of confronting extrem­ism, al-Azhar has looked the other way, something that has encour­aged those who stood to lose out from a religious renewal and a closer monitoring of mosque preachers. Extremist preachers have been able to preserve their role in many places, some going so far as to blatantly challenge the authority of the state.
The Ministry for Religious Endowments, which initially appeared in the vanguard of the fight against extremism, has instead limited its role to that of preventing Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers from preaching in mosques. Those who have not graduated from al-Azhar now need a permit in order to preach but not al-Azhar graduates, in effect refuting that al-Azhar graduates can be extremists. This is a risible position: There are many preachers who have attained the highest degrees from al-Azhar and yet adopt the most extreme form of religious discourse, just as there are those who are tolerant and moderate.
Even the black list the Ministry for Religious Endowments has drawn up of extremist preachers does not appear to have been implemented properly. During the prayers of Eid al-Fitr, mosques nationwide were split into two camps, those following the Ministry for Religious Endow­ments and those following the political current of the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood. In effect, mosques became the scene of a political competition to see which side would attract the most people.
The politicised spectacle of prayers in Egypt throughout Ramadan and the Eid should ring alarm bells. It is now clear that the task of renewing religious discourse that has been announced by Sisi and adopted by numerous institutions of state is closer to a media circus than an actual movement for change.
The wrong-headed way in which the task of renewing Egypt’s religious discourse is being handled betrays a sense of chaos and a lack of focus that ignores the root of the problem and sticks to the margins.
This approach provides an environment in which extremist groups can continue operating and killing to prevent any renewal of religious discourse. It will allow extremists to continue to employ the obvious failure of official religious institutions as a means of increasing their own popular­ity, something that could provide them with ammunition in any future confrontation.
So long as the approach of officialdom towards extremism remains unchanged it will continue to lose ground to extremists, who have been left to create a popular base of support in Egyptian society despite the blows levelled against them in the sphere of politics and security.
The task of religious renewal is of the upmost importance and any solution must deal with its theological, social and cultural aspects more broadly, attending to every detail so as to deal with the malaise from which terrorists benefit. Only then can we hope to prevent the advance of extremism among the poor in Egypt.