The fall of Egypt’s symbol of progressive Islam

Joining itself with an authoritarian regime caused harm to the millennium-long history of al-Azhar U

"[Egypt] didn't change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn't have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist." With these words, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, gave his last statement about Islam, after decades of being on the death lists of extremist Islamist groups and an assassination attempt in 1994.

The moderate Islam that Mahfouz was referring to had a protector and a promoter: al-Azhar University. Throughout its long and proud history, al-Azhar had remained unrivalled as the prime centre of Islamic teaching, attracting millions of Muslim students from all over the world to its campus in Cairo. Many of the most notable liberal reformists in Egypt's history, especially in the 19th century, were Azhar graduates. Tolerance and not getting too involved with state affairs have been central to its teaching for centuries.

The father of Islamic modernism, Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century scholar and an Azhar graduate, saw no contradiction between Islamic thought and ideologies drawn from the European Age of Enlightenment. He studied in France and, on his return to Egypt, he worked at modernising the country, calling for liberal reform in the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abduh followed in al-Tahtawi's footsteps, urging open dialogue with European civilisation and the reformation of Islamic thought, arguing that Muslims can't rely on medieval interpretations of religious texts. He also argued for the secularisation of Muslim countries. Both scholars spoke European languages fluently and wrote positively about their experiences in Europe.

My fatwa against yours

However, it seems that slowly this progressive form of Islam is being replaced with a more radical Salafist ideology, one that blatantly calls for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, who lived more than 1,400 years. Salafi Islam is considered Muslim orthodoxy at its strictest, and is influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century Muslim theologian whose radical ideas still shape how the Saud family runs its kingdom today. Evidently Al-Azhar in Egypt is falling prey to ideologies funded and encouraged from across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to al-Youm al-Sabei newspaper, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of al-Azhar, said that the Salafist ideology has infiltrated the university. He blamed the phenomenon on young Egyptians' feeling that society is unjust and their refusal to believe what they are told without experiencing reform on the ground, the paper reported.

A few months ago, in reaction to news of the rising influence of Salafi ideology within the walls of the university, the president of Tajikistan recalled 134 students he had sent to study at al-Azhar.

The clash between the two credos, Salafism and moderate Islam, reached its peak in 2009 when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a former sheikh of Azhar, called for a ban on the niqab – the full face veil – inside schools. The growing popularity of the niqab is a manifestation of the growing ascendancy of Salafi ideas among young Egyptians. Protests and sit-ins held by face-veiled students broke out, not just at al-Azhar, but at many other universities across the nation, all protesting against the cleric's declaration.

Another collision took place when the Azhar Scholar Front (ASF), which was dissolved in 1999 after rejecting some of the fatwas issued by Tantawi, restarted its activities unofficially from Kuwait in 2007. The ASF is now considered attractive for those who split from al-Azhar due to opposing views, and usually adopts more radical positions, such as the ASF's call a few months ago for an economic boycott of all Egyptian Christians as a riposte to an alleged kidnap by churchmen of a Coptic woman who had converted to Islam. Declarations of conflicting fatwas and heated exchanges have been common since the ASF was informally re-established.

But another reason why many have turned their back on al-Azhar's ideology and fallen prey to more radical views is al-Azhar's close association with the former president Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly disfavoured authoritarian regime, which many think has impoverished Egyptians.

The appointment of the sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, was the gift of Egyptian leaders by presidential decree. The sheikhs were usually loyal to the presidential palace and hardly ever issued fatwas that would go against the regime's will or policy.

Chief whip of journalists

Tantawi was also notorious for his tailored fatwas to "Islamically" back up some of the regime's actions, such as supporting the building of an underground wall on the border with Gaza and prohibiting anti-government street protests.

He also famously called for the "whipping" of journalists who publish false reports, after the appearance of a 2007 article by Ibrahim Eissa, a former editor of al-Dostour newspaper, questioning Mubarak's health and the future of the presidency in Egypt.

What's more, the recently appointed new sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was a member of the policy committee in what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party. The policy committee division of the NDP was led by Gamal Mubarak, the president's son.

This kind of co-operation with Mubarak's regime is what made al-Azhar lose credibility. Paradoxically, it also made it easy for other, more radical Islamic groups, which were usually in conflict with the unpopular regime, to "infiltrate" the influential university.

At this critical phase, Egypt needs al-Azhar as a defence wall against extremist ideologies, to promote a culture of peace, progression, citizenship and dialogue with the west, and to thwart a rising Salafi influence that incites nothing but regression, hate and violence, clashing with and discriminating against the other. Egypt and the entire Muslim world, now more than ever, are in desperate need of enlightened scholars such as al-Tahtawi and Abduh to move it forward to modernity, instead of attempting to take us back to a 7th-century culture.

Osama Diab is an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.