Egypt’s Al-Azhar University: Key to Ending Terror, or the Reason for It?

Sunday, January 18, 2015 |  Dr. Ashraf Ramelah

Just one month before the Paris massacre of the staff at Charlie Hebdo, the prestigious Sunni Muslim Al-Azhar Institute organized and held a conference at its headquarters in Cairo to address worldwide terrorism.

The conference was entitled, "Al-Azhar in the face of extremism and terrorism." After two full days of discourse focused on the ISIS terror group, Al-Azhar concluded with a statement aligned with an earlier one made by US President Barack Obama: ISIS is not Islamic. The President saw fit to omit this opinion from his subsequent speech at the UN, but Al-Azhar is sticking to it.

PHOTO: Obama delivering a speech in Cairo in 2009 at an event co-hosted by Al-Azhar University.

Al-Azhar religious scholars (an autonomous body separate from the state, but financed by taxpayers) form the center for Koranic interpretation and spiritual guidance to the largest Muslim sect in the world, the Sunnis, estimated at one billion believers -- 80 percent of the worldwide Muslim community. If the religion of Islam were governed by a hierarchy of leadership, Al-Azhar would surely be its head.

Renowned for its doctrinal instruction to imams and its slightest pronouncement (fatwa) obeyed by Muslim followers, Al-Azhar wields a subtle but powerful authority over Muslim believers. Its influence over the West’s perception of Islam is as great. In this capacity, Al-Ahzar has the power to significantly contribute to the eradication of Muslim violence around the world. But instead, what has its impact been as spiritual head with a state role?

Unlike the American president, Al-Azhar would not condemn ISIS when put to the test. Surely, if Al-Azhar posited that ISIS terror is Islamic then a denunciation of ISIS actions would be a condemnation of its own doctrine. But, if ISIS terror is not Islam as Al-Azhar proclaims what is the harm done with condemning it? This contradiction alone clues us in on a leadership that is allowing if not fostering crimes against humanity.

This ambiguity coming from the reverential summit of Islamic scholarship transmits confusion and inauthenticity to the West which seeks to find a benign Islam to tolerate. Al-Azhar’s unwillingness to clarify Islam in relation to current realities and the relative terms sought to define them – Islam, Islamist, Islamic terror, terror, Islamic extremism, extremism, etc. – is suspicious at best.

No matter how many millions march for “freedom and tolerance” in Paris little will change without Al-Azhar -- the preeminent Islamic authority -- making clear, concise statements to properly identify and condemn violence by Muslims. It could begin by reversing a silence dating back to its 880 AD origins regarding Muslim attacks on the Coptic Christians. This Cairo institute has never condemned the violence or the propaganda of Muslims against Christians within its own state. Tragically, this lack of responsibility has advanced jihad throughout the state and the world.

Al-Azhar excluded Jews from this worldwide summit on terrorism. Its failure to invite synagogues and Jewish leaders was not disguised by its otherwise inclusiveness. Joining the Egyptian Mufti, Dr. Shawki Allam, Al-Azhar University chairman and deputy, and six hundred Muslim scholars (including those of minor sects) from 120 countries were heads of the Eastern Orthodox churches, including Egyptian Copts, and Vatican representatives. Protestant denominations from the West were present, and speakers from communities persecuted by terror groups (Pakistan, Syria, and others) attended.

Did this important conference at the heart of Sunni-Muslim religious learning hold the least promise for genuine examination of worldwide terror? Not really.

We’ve seen Al-Azhar fail to denounce Muslim Brotherhood members as terrorists when the pro-democracy presidency of Al Sisi banned the organization from Egypt last year. Also, the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, who is required by law to confirm or deny death sentences issued by the Egyptian courts, reversed the death penalty of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and others -- all convicted murderers.

So far, the Sunni authority of Al-Ahzar has placed itself at odds with Muslims in the Egyptian streets and the rest of the modern world presumably in order to remain true to Islamic doctrine.

Dr. Ashraf Ramelah is founder and director of the Egyptian Christian movement Voice of the Copts.

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