By Ruth Michaelson
1 August 2017
Sheikhs from Egypt’s highest Islamic authority have opened a fatwa kiosk in the Cairo metro to offer religious advice to commuters in what they say is an effort to counter extremism.
The idea is proving popular with travellers passing through Cairo’s al-Shohada metro station, a busy transport hub, who queue up to sit with a group of religious scholars inside a green patterned booth, sheltered from the bustle of the metro.
“We usually talk about the issues of daily life, and what religion says about such things. The topics we mostly discuss are marriage, divorce and inheritance,” said one sheikh staffing the booth for the morning commute, who declined to be named.
According to al-Azhar al-Sharif, Egypt’s top Islamic body, which installed the booth, the project is intended to correct misinterpretations of Islam. The institution has frequently clashed with the government of the president, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, who has repeatedly called for a “religious reformation” in Islam to combat extremism.
Egypt has grappled with a spike in jihadist activity since Sisi came to power in 2013, including a recent string of large-scale attacks on Coptic Christian sites as well as ongoing violence in the Sinai Peninsula.
Al-Azhar, established in Cairo in 971 as a centre of Sunni Muslim learning, is hoping that the booth will help steer Egyptians away from extremist thought.
Sheikh Tamer Mattar, the coordinator of its International Centre for Electronic Fatwas, said that the booth was designed to direct citizens to seek advice from al-Azhar, instead of extremist groups.
“The experiment was successful so far and we hope that it will expand,” he said. “We can say it was successful, as in the eight days of the initiative, we received 1,500 questions. At any moment you can find tens of people waiting to present theirs.”
The booth operates two shifts daily, welcoming visitors from 9am until 8pm.
Yet few seemed convinced that the project would attract those with pre-existing extremist tendencies to seek guidance, especially as those staffing the booth noted down the identity card number of those visiting along with their complaints.
Extremists won’t come to us to seek advice,” said the sheikh staffing the booth for its morning shift. “We’re targeting people on the street who are ignorant of religious matters – they come to us and we try to put them on the right track of moderation.”
Mohamed Abu-Hamed, an Egyptian MP who has sparred frequently with al-Azhar over a desire for greater government regulation of the religious body and its teachings, dismissed the booths. “The whole project is absurd. It is a superficial understanding of the call to renew the religious rhetoric,” he said.
“When we talk about renewing religious rhetoric, we mean the main content [of their teachings],” he said. “If al-Azhar created these kiosks while thinking that this is renewing religious rhetoric, then they don’t get it. They are doing this to evade making any real changes.”