Al-Azhar kicks off counter-extremism strategy

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb announces the new counter-extremism strategy at a June 2nd press conference in Cairo. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb announces the new counter-extremism strategy at a June 2nd press conference in Cairo. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

Egypt's Al-Azhar Institution recently launched a new "reform and renewal" strategy to counter extremist ideology and educate Muslims and non-Muslims of all ages about Islam and its moderate teachings.

The strategy, announced June 2nd by Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, will reach out to youth, the primary target of extremist groups such as the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), via modern communications channels.

Al-Tayeb set out the strategy's main points in a press conference, noting that in addition to presenting moderate thought to a wide audience via social media, it includes "a comprehensive campaign to upgrade the education system".

Curricula from the primary school through university level will be updated to match the spirit of the times, he said, with emphasis on the development of Al-Azhar and institutes to prepare a new generation of young preachers.

The strategy "uses multiple tools for the achievement of unified objectives by taking advantage of the scientific, cultural and intellectual capabilities available at Al-Azhar institutions," said Al-Azhar adviser Sheikh Mohammed Muhanna.

Most important among these "is the focus on communication with all countries of the world by way of the convoys of Al-Azhar preachers and imams, as well as seminars and conferences in Egypt and around the world", he told Al-Shorfa.

These will include "intensified visits to countries that have special situations in terms of terrorism and the spread of extremist ideas", he added.

The move towards maximizing the use of modern communication and social networking tools is designed to reach youth in particular, he said, noting that they can play "a great assisting role to Al-Azhar" in promoting moderation.

Spreading moderate Islam in various languages

"Communicating in a large number of the world's languages bears importance in the new strategy because it makes it possible to communicate directly with Muslims and non-Muslims," Muhanna said.

Both groups have many questions about Islam, he added, and this would be an opportunity to present the true face of the religion, which is far removed from the ideology disseminated by terrorist groups.

"The Al-Azhar Observatory is one of the most powerful tools that will be relied upon in the next stage," said Osama Zayed, head of Al-Azhar Observatory for Foreign Languages.

The observatory's work includes targeting all "takfiri fatwas and deviant ideas circulating online and on social networking sites in all languages of the world to correct misconceptions, such as those related to the caliphate, immigration and bayaa (pledge of allegiance)".

A team from the observatory compiles the questions related to sharia and refers them to the committee tasked with providing answers, he said.

These answers are reviewed by another committee before they are posted on the observatory’s website in various languages, he added.

Reaching out to young people

The new strategy is aimed at youth, Zayed said, and work is divided to cover the most popular languages in the hope of providing effective 24-hour coverage.

Al-Azhar's new strategy is "excellent", said political researcher Abdul Nabi Bakkar, a professor at Al-Azhar University’s faculty of sharia and law.

Connecting with young people is the true measure of Al-Azhar’s new initiative, he told Al-Shorfa.

Al-Azhar has many tools that will help it in the coming period, he added, in particular the hundreds of foreign students studying in the schools, institutes and universities of Al-Azhar in Egypt.

This student body will be "an essential part of this strategy, by ensuring the dissemination of true Islam when they return to their home countries", he said.

Al-Azhar is "matching the spirit of the times", Bakkar said, relying less on traditional pulpits in favour of online pulpits and the use of modern means of communication.

Modernising Al-Azhar’s communications

In preparation for the launch of this strategy, new television programmes debuted during the month of Ramadan, Bakkar said.

"Preparations for the debut of Al-Azhar satellite channel are in the final stages, and it is expected to debut soon, before the end of the year," he added.

Al-Azhar has not abandoned the traditional means of communication, as it is in the process of launching the "Voice of Al-Azhar" newspaper that will be distributed inside and outside Egypt, Bakkar said.

Al-Azhar’s website will be upgraded to make it more interactive, as will its online library, "to speed up and streamline access to books, references and fatwas", he said.

The new strategy focuses on direct communication, however, via caravans of preachers that aim to meet young people anywhere they gather, including youth centres, cafés and residential complexes.

"Another tool of the strategy, one that is being quietly implemented, is the conduct of visits to the poor around the world to immunise them against deviant ideas, as they are one of the primary targets of terrorist groups," Bakkar added.

He pointed to Al-Azhar’s good use of all available tools to carry out its plans "accurately and truthfully to ensure quick and effective results based on direct intellectual communication".

This is what the world needs most, in view of the proliferation of extremist terrorist groups, al-Qaeda and ISIL in particular, he added.

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