Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

So what’s new?

Al-Azhar’s recently announced strategy to renew religious discourse is a rehash of earlier, failed initiatives, writes Amany Maged

Al-Ahram Weekly

Two years after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for the “renewal of religious discourse”, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, has unveiled a new strategy for the development of religious discourse at home and abroad.

Al-Sisi made the original call in a speech delivered on the occasion of the Anniversary of the Prophet in 2014. The Al-Azhar initiative, made public during a press conference this week, consists of 15 points:

- The launch of a social networking campaign to fight extremist thought on sites targeting millions of people around the world;

- The broadcast of television programmes during the month of Ramadan featuring young Al-Azhar preachers capable of presenting social and religious content in original ways and using language that will appeal to young audiences;

- Posting on the Internet sermons and religious lectures by young Al-Azhar scholars that address contemporary issues, problems of everyday life and the concerns of young people;

- Engaging new staff, upgrading the technology and developing the work of Al-Azhar’s Media Centre to enable it to keep pace with news and work around the clock, communicating with media organisations at home and abroad;

- The launch of an online Observatory and Fatwa Centre with content translated into many languages. The centre will counter takfiri fanatics who issue fatwas sanctioning the murder of the innocent people they brand as heretics;6. An overhaul and relaunch the Al-Azhar’s internet portal;

- The upgrade of Sawt Al-Azhar (The Voice of Al-Azhar) newspaper, expansion of its coverage to include domestic and global Islamic affairs and a drive to increase circulation at home and abroad;

- The launch of a satellite channel to act as a platform for the moderate voice of Al-Azhar;

- The publication of books that counter deviant thought and draw on Al-Azhar’s ancient and contemporary Islamic heritage;

- An outreach programme of events held in parks, coffeehouses, youth centres and other public spaces addressing young people and alerting them to the dangers of extremist thought;

- Creating more opportunities for young preachers to take part in the renewal of religious discourse;

- Overhaul Al-Azhar’s educational curricula to foreground values of tolerance and clemency;

- Standardise Al-Azhar’s Islamic schools and place them under the control of a central institute in Cairo;

- Promote more effective communication with the International League of Al-Azhar Graduates’ offices abroad and open new offices; and

- Examine the possibility of convening a world conference on Islam by the end of this year.

But will this new strategy work?Al-Azhar Deputy Abbas Shoman is optimistic. He describes Al-Azhar’s strategy for reform as a continuation of successful efforts, which began two years ago, to develop religious discourse and disseminate a moderate, centrist Islam. All Al-Azhar ulema will participate in this multi-pronged strategy, which is being put into effect starting this Ramadan, he said.

Shoman said that Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb had not presented all the points of the initiative since Al-Azhar was still working on ways to improve the image of Islam in the Western world. The grand imam’s recent European tour “showed that today’s world no longer relies on conventional dialogue to renew religious discourse and rectify concepts”.

“New methods are needed in order to reach more people. Al-Azhar has had to work to develop new ways to communicate with others to improve the image of Islam and to combat the extremist ideas spread by terrorist organisations such as Daesh [Islamic State group].”

 Mohamed Al-Husseini, a professor of Islamic Jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, does not share Shoman’s optimism. He dismissed talk of renewing religious discourse as a “media show” that will have no practical effect on the ground. The proof, he said, is to be found in the intermittent eruptions of sectarian violence, including the recent case of an elderly Coptic woman in Minya who was dragged from her house by a gang of Muslim fanatics and stripped naked.

“Religious discourse has not changed at all so far and press conferences and calls for new initiatives are not enough to effect a change. They don’t alter what the imam at the pulpit says or the way ordinary people think. There has been no change in their religious discourse. There is still a strong Salafist presence in the street leading to the spread of extremist ideas about the Islamic faith, especially when it comes to the rights of the adherents of other faiths,” said Al-Husseini.

He added that since Al-Sisi’s speech two years ago Egypt’s three religious institutions — Al-Azhar, the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) and the Dar Al-Ifta (Office of the Mufti) — have been battling to win the approval of the president.

“Each of these institutions has squandered millions of pounds on organising conferences and seminars, none of which have made any tangible progress toward renewing of religious discourse.” Al-Husseini expects Al-Azhar’s newly announced strategy will also similarly fail, not least because Al-Azhar’s leaders are focussed on the “media show” rather than going out to speak with people in the street.

Critics of the Al-Azhar initiative also point out that it fails to take on board the fact that many of the problems it seeks to address are a result of failings in Al-Azhar’s own educational system, and in the educational process nationally. Another weakness, they say, is that there are no plans to engage other institutions, most notably the press, to work alongside Al-Azhar, or to solicit the assistance of experts from outside of Al-Azhar establishment.

And while the initiative as announced did set a vague opening for the strategy — this Ramadan — it gave no further details of the timetable, and glossed over or ignored specifics such as the funding and programme content of the internet portal, broadcasts and satellite channels.

Nor is there any reason why the international conference that the grand imam envisages later this year will accomplish anything more than the dozens of such conferences that have been held in the past: the chances are, say commentators, that it will turn into yet another waste of money, producing debates and recommendations that reverberate only within the conference hall.

The drive to develop religious discourse must bring together all shades of moderate intellectual thought, leaders of public opinion and specialists in the social sciences. To succeed will require an accurate diagnosis of the problem plus an overhaul of the way that Al-Azhar students are educated, starting from grade one.

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