Sisi takes anti-terrorism battle to schools
CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called on al-Azhar — the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning — to lead the change in Islamic discourse to better support the tolerant and moderate nature of Islam.
Sisi, a pronounced enemy of radical Islamist movements, made the plea amid an unprecedented rise in extremism both inside his country, where the military is fighting a home-grown branch of the Islamic State (ISIS), and outside it, especially in Iraq, Syria and neighbouring Libya.
Soon after Sisi made the request, Egyptian religious authorities acted.
Authorities moved to take what they described as “radical books” out of mosque libraries across Egypt.
The Ministry of Religious Endowments, which controls the nation’s mosques, restricted the delivery of sermons inside the mosques to preachers licenced by al-Azhar. The ministry also dictates topics of the sermons, especially before Friday prayers, making tolerance, peace and love central themes of the preaching.
The Education Ministry, which oversees the educational process in thousands of state-run schools, has started a process of massive curricular change at all pre-university educational levels.
The changes aim to stress important values in Islam, such as tolerance and love. It also underlines the importance of hard work and respect for time.
“Changing school curricula is a very important step if we want to address extremism as a problem,” Nadia Gamal Eddin, a professor of education at the state-run Educational Research Institute, said. “But we need to know that this step is only the first in a long road.”
New lessons are included in pre-university curricula and others were eliminated. One of the new lessons included in a textbook for high school students stresses the importance of respecting time and the effects an ideal use of time can have on a person’s success, according to local media.
Another lesson dwells on Prophet Mohammad’s last sermon. The lesson focuses on important meanings in the sermon, such as brotherhood and equality among people, regardless of their language and race.
A third lesson, dwells on a sermon delivered by the well-known preacher and theologian Hasan al- Basri, who died in the eighth century. The sermon talks about the need for Muslims to have tolerance and a sense of justice for everyone, even for non-Muslims.
Terrorism expert Khaled Okasha said changing school curricula can contribute to equipping Egyptians against radical ideologies and usher in a new generation of citizens who better understand their religion.
“We will feel the effect of this change years from now,” Okasha said.
A local newspaper two years ago wrote about a primary school lesson that called for burning enemies alive. The report alarmed Egyptians, most of whom were shocked when ISIS killed a Jordanian pilot by burning, accusing him of killing group members in US-led air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
In 2014, an al-Azhar-affiliated book said it was permissible for the faithful to kill “infidels” and eat their flesh. The book called for killing adulterers and Muslims who do not pray, even without getting permission from authorities.
This is what ISIS has done to those it captures. The group deals mercilessly with opponents, especially if they are non-Muslims.
In Sinai, the Egyptian Army is battling the ISIS-linked Sinai Province group that demonises troops and police to justify killing. Sinai Province beheads opponents, including suspected informers.
The Muslim Brotherhood also uses religion to justify the destruction of electrical lines, the killing of police and attacks against police facilities. These misinterpreted religion-backed actions are what Sisi wants to eliminate. The Egyptian president has often warned against the effects of twisted religious interpretations.
Once he addressed the Sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt, saying he would hold the sheikh accountable if religious discourse was not modernised to keep people from extremism. Another time, Sisi said that youths had opted for atheism because of their desperation with Egypt’s religious leaders.
Okasha said the government needs to strictly supervise what is taught in schools.
“Some teachers use lectures specified for theology to fill the pupils with radical ideas,” Okasha said. “The government must be on alert because these teachers are present everywhere in this country.”