Scepticism as al-Azhar launches anti extremism strategy

Sunday 26/06/2016
Muslim students and scholars of different nationalities attend a lecture at the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo.

Cairo - A strategy by al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most in­fluential institute of learning, to counter ex­tremism is doomed if it does not reform itself, change its curricula and the nature of its dis­course, experts said.

“You cannot talk about al-Azhar effectively fighting terrorism with­out internal reform in this institu­tion,” said Nabil Naeem, a former jihadist leader turned expert on terrorism and terrorist groups. “Al- Azhar itself is a fertile soil for ex­tremist thinking.”

The strategy, announced in June by al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, seeks to counter radical groups by educating peo­ple inside and outside Egypt about moderate Islam.

Al-Azhar, which has been a guardian of the Sunni Islamic faith for more than 1,000 years, plans to use cyberspace and the airwaves to offer a host of programmes present­ed by young clerics who will seek to reason youths out of radical ideas. The institute also plans to publish new books on moderate Islam.

Al-Azhar, which runs schools throughout Egypt and has its own university, is adopting the initia­tives in response to repeated calls for a renewal of Islamic religious discourse. Reform was demanded after an international surge of ex­tremism and the emergence of terror groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra Front, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.

Nevertheless, those with knowl­edge of these groups and al-Azhar say to attract youths away from ex­tremism, the religious institution must put itself in order first.

“Look at the history of most of those who staged terrorist attacks in Egypt, for example,” Naeem said. “They either studied at al- Azhar or read the books of some of its clerics.”

Members of the Muslim Brother­hood who staged attacks on Egyp­tian police and state institutions or killed judges were former students of al-Azhar. In 2015, students set classrooms at the al-Azhar’s Cairo campus on fire. They also torched the campus car park.

Observers said al-Azhar leaders are not fully aware of the changes taking place around them.

“Al-Azhar is not the only voice in the field anymore,” said Nageh Ibrahim, one of the founders of Jamaat Islamiya, an Islamist organ­isation behind the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. “There are other voices that are equally influential.”

Those other voices, however, are far from moderate, said Islam Beheiri, a researcher jailed this year after being accused of offend­ing Islam and spreading extremist ideas on TV. Al-Azhar recently filed a legal petition demanding the re­moval of videos in which Beheiri appears on YouTube.

“While it works to silence mod­erate voices, al-Azhar leaves ex­tremists to appear on TV and do whatever they want,” Beheiri wrote from his jail cell to the judge look­ing into the request, local media reported.

Beheiri was one of several Egyp­tians jailed in recent months for “of­fending Islam”.

Al-Azhar said it would enlist help from hundreds of young clerics to renew its discourse, engage with young people, talk to people on the street and pursue dialogue with Muslims outside Egypt in their na­tive languages.

Al-Azhar has upgraded its web­site and provided it with content in different languages to reach a larger number of people.

It said it will organise an inter­national conference on peace and invite representatives from various religions, including Roman Cathol­icism, to dispel misconceptions about Islam.

“Our strategy includes a large number of measures that will be taken as of now to put light on the true nature and message of the Is­lamic religion,” said Abbas Shou­man, a senior al-Azhar official. “We will launch our own cyberwar — among other things — to defend Islam against those who pretend to speak for it.”