Sisi deplores derailment of Egypt’s religious reform drive

The issue of reforming al-Azhar is steeped in controversy. Many fear an outbreak of open hostility between al-Azhar and Sisi.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Stirring up the dust. Egyptian  President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) speaks during the inauguration of power stations at Egypt’s new administrative capital, north of Cairo, on  July 24.(Reuters)
Stirring up the dust. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) speaks during the inauguration of power stations at Egypt’s new administrative capital, north of Cairo, on July 24.(Reuters)

CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has expressed desperation because the country’s religious establishment has not initiated reforms, blaming the lack of change for Egypt’s social and security woes.

There are 9 million parentless children in Egypt, Sisi said on July 29, during the National Youth Conference at Cairo University, and 15 million cases of unreported divorce. “However, when I called for formulating legislation to curb divorce, I was strongly criticised,” Sisi said.

He had more than once asked al-Azhar, the religious authority in Egypt, to lead religious reform, which is said is needed to help the fight against Islamist extremism and social problems caused by the misunderstanding of religion, including an aversion to family planning.

In January 2017, Sisi called for barring Muslim men from verbally divorcing their wives. Divorce, he said, must be recognised by the state only when it has been issued in a written document, giving husbands the chance to reconsider calls for divorce during heated arguments. In Egypt, a marriage can be terminated if a husband says “I divorce you” three times to his wife.

Sisi’s proposal for instituting written divorce was rejected by the Islamic Research Academy, the decision-making body of al-Azhar.

“He is most concerned that al-Azhar, which should be at the forefront of the aspired reformist effort, is resisting,” said Gaber Asfour, a former minister of culture. “Al-Azhar does not want to take the reforms seriously.”

Al-Azhar is the senior-most religious institution in Egypt and has vast importance throughout the Sunni Islamic world. Experts say that if al-Azhar would back a reformist project on issues such as conflict, extremism and social justice, this could have a strong effect across the Arab world.

At the Youth Conference, Sisi lashed out at Islamist fanaticism and Muslims’ conceptions of peace and war. “Can any nation believe that war is the rule and peace is only an exception?” Sisi asked. “Can there be such an understanding of religion?”

He said more Muslims were becoming atheists because they see the destructive outcome of some religious views.

Al-Azhar’s international influence is burnished by its reputation as the oldest university in the world. Tens of thousands of students of theology and future imams from around the world study there.

Sisi, observers said, was hoping an international appeal could prompt al-Azhar to back his calls for religious reform. However, critics said that al-Azhar itself is badly in need of reform before it can attempt wider societal reform in Egypt.

“This is an institution that is controlled by radicals and fundamentalists,” said Khaled Montaser, a reformist who fell afoul of some Salafist figures for defending Egypt’s Christians. “This is the real problem. The institution that should make the reform does not believe in it.”

The issue of reforming al-Azhar is steeped in controversy. Many fear an outbreak of open hostility between al-Azhar and Sisi.

Sisi does not have the power to replace the grand imam, the top official of al-Azhar. The grand imam, selected from among the 50 members of the Islamic Research Academy, can only be replaced if he dies or if members of the academy call for a change.

Al-Azhar has addressed Sisi’s calls for reform with changes in the school curriculum. Analysts, however, say such changes are comparatively small and still only result after intense pressure from Sisi and Egyptian liberal intellectuals.

Al-Azhar’s official line is that it is in the process of meeting Sisi’s demands to reform religious discourse, including having conferences to change misconceptions about Islam and forming a panel of education experts to revise what is taught at religious schools.

“We move slowly but surely on the road to reform. This is a mission that needs time to be accomplished,” said Abbas Shouman, a senior official of al-Azhar. “What causes the problem is not our failure to reform religious discourse but those intellectuals who keep appearing on TV to call for reforming this discourse when they are the least qualified to make such calls.”

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