Egyptian president said to be frustrated over al-Azhar

Sunday 04/09/2016
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) greets the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed
al-Tayeb on the first day of the Eid al-Adha holiday, in September 2015, in Cairo.

Cairo - There is frustration in the Egyptian presidency at the failure of al-Azhar — the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning — to re­form the curricula of its schools, changing education methods of its preachers and detaching Islam from extremism, sources close to the presidency said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fat­tah al-Sisi called on al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb to create reforms and rid curricula taught to tens of thousands of al- Azhar students of material that could lead to extremism.
The president’s requests were not being taken seriously by al-Azhar, observers said.
“One of the reasons this is hap­pening is that al-Azhar is controlled by the very people who encourage extremist thinking,” said Sayed al- Qemni, a writer who has criticised al-Azhar. “Nothing good will come out of al-Azhar under its current leadership.”
Government sources, who re­quested anonymity, said an early August meeting between Sisi and Tayeb was a “last chance” for the grand imam to initiate reforms en­visaged by the president.
Sisi, the sources added, views al-Azhar as an international seat of learning that has the responsibil­ity to stem extremism, correct mis­understandings of Islam and turn religious discourse into a tool for peace, not for bloodshed.
His vision is in response to the eruption of what has been de­scribed as an “extremist tsunami” in which there is a misunderstand­ing of Islam.
Egypt has been battling an Islam­ist insurgency in the Sinai peninsu­la. There militants, who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), call Egyptian Army troops “infidels” and Sisi an “apostate”.
In January 2015, Sisi told Tayeb that correcting wrong religious ide­as and purifying religious thinking of extremist thoughts were part of his mission.
“I will complain to God against you [if you do not carry out this mission],” Sisi said.
Sisi has called for a religious revo­lution.
Frustration at al-Azhar is appar­ently growing within the cabinet. “Nothing has been done since the president called for renewing reli­gious discourse,” Culture Minister Helmi al-Namnam said August 25th at a conference in Alexandria.
The presidency has a list of meas­ures to reform al-Azhar and a num­ber of radical clerics — thought to be standing in the way of reform — who must be replaced, sources said.
Sisi does not have the authority to replace al-Azhar’s grand imam, who is usually selected from mem­bers of the Islamic Research Acad­emy, the highest intellectual body within al-Azhar. Members of the academy nominate one of their number to lead al-Azhar. The nomi­nation must be approved by the president but the president cannot sack the imam once the nomination is accepted.
Tayeb, 70 and described by some academics as a “walking Islamic encyclopaedia”, was nominated as grand imam in 2010 when Hosni Mubarak was president. Islamist president Muhammad Morsi tried to replace Tayeb with a loyalist.
Observers say the failure of al- Azhar to initiate requested reforms and the inability of the presidency to replace the grand imam of al- Azhar will create friction.
“The fact is that al-Azhar, as it stands now, is not qualified to ini­tiate reforms and any calls in this regard will be sabotaged by its lead­ers,” liberal writer Tarek Heggy said, “but the sure thing is that President Sisi will not get tired of demanding this reform.”
Al-Azhar matters in any interna­tional effort to neutralise radicals and fight extremism because it is the one entity that produces thou­sands of preachers every year. Tens of thousands of foreign students study at al-Azhar, giving it great international leverage. A change within al-Azhar can reverberate in Islamic circles around the world, observers say.
This change is under way, ac­cording to Mohamed Mehanna, an adviser to the grand imam of al- Azhar. He said it has established a new academy, which will soon start training preachers.
“President Sisi supports al-Azhar and the role it plays in renewing re­ligious discourse,” Mehanna said. “Reports about the president’s frus­tration at al-Azhar have nothing to do with the reality.”