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Can Egypt’s Al-Azhar Fight Extremism through 'E-Fatwas'?

By Ahmed Fouad

 September 18, 2017

Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Centre has received dozens of fatwa inquiries since it launched “Ask Al-Azhar,” in cooperation with the Youm7 website, on Aug. 26. The aim is to answer fatwa-related questions for the first time through live electronic broadcast.

Youm7, one of the most popular news websites in Egypt, has an icon on its website for the service and promoted it on its official social media page to attract thousands of users.

Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Centre boosted its electronic fatwa activity by taking several measures on the day the service was launched, such as posting a fatwa form on its official website, providing a hotline and announcing a Sept. 11 training session for those interested in working at the centre’s fatwa department.

Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Centre was established in November 2016 based on a decision from Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb to detect extremist Fatwas online and to respond to them. The centre serves as a platform for communication for those who want to know about Fatwas from Al-Azhar online. Around 300 researchers and clerics work there.

These new measures launched in August revived the Egyptian public’s connection with the centre and sparked the interest of internet and social media users. There was not much marketing for the trial website that launched in November 2016; so many internet users were unaware of the centre.

Youssef Amer, the general supervisor of the centre, indicated in a press statement Aug. 28 that the centre will play a key role in fighting extremist thought and the credo of the Islamic State (IS). He said, “The most dangerous issues the centre is tackling include Islam and citizenship among terrorist groups, mainly IS. The national and religious identities do not conflict, unless the national identity dictates committing acts forbidden by God.”

This is in response to extremist Fatwas based on the works of some Jihadi authorities like late Islamist Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb. These Fatwas and authorities ban the idea of citizenship or feeling of belonging to a state and consider it against the sense of belonging to Islam.

Amer said that the centre will also tackle IS’ recruitment of children. He noted, “The centre is fighting IS’ exploitation of children as human ticking bombs who are trapped and bombed in the ranks of armies in Nigeria, Syria and Iraq. Sharia forbids using children in wars, and bombing them along with soldiers and innocent people is one of the most heinous crimes against humanity.”

Although Amer revealed the centre’s resolve to tackle thorny extremism issues, most Fatwas are focusing on matters not related to detecting extremist Fatwas and fighting extremist thought, more than 20 days after the launch. For example, the centre issued a fatwa on Sept. 9 allowing the earning of a fee for reading and memorizing the Quran, and another fatwa on Sept. 8 approving a man’s right to marry another woman without the knowledge of the first wife.

With the Fatwas dealing with issues that are far from terrorism, there are questions about the effectiveness of both the centre and website and their anti-radicalism activities. How probable is it that extremists would resort to Al-Azhar and the electronic fatwa center for advice on religious issues?

Yusri al-Azbawy, a political researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “The centre and electronic website are very important, and their significance is yet to be seen. Radical Fatwas have taken one of three paths to reach Egyptian minds. The first path is religious channels funded by the Muslim Brotherhood and by Salafist groups. The state resolved the issue by taking a decision to shut down religious channels July 3, 2013. The second path constitutes some mosques that were controlled by extremist currents. The state tightened its grip on them in the past years by forbidding preachers unlicensed by Al-Azhar and the Awqaf Ministry from speaking out in minarets and pushing them to unify the Friday sermon through the Ministry [of Awqaf].”

He added, “The third path is electronic websites. Radical groups have many fatwa websites that cannot be banned because they are numerous. For that reason, an electronic platform … was necessary to give Fatwas to those seeking them so that they don’t fall in the trap of extremist Fatwas, especially since most youths don't visit Al-Azhar or Dar al-Ifta to get Fatwas and just resort to the internet.”

Abdul Moneim Fouad, a philosophy and doctrine teacher at Al-Azhar University, had a partially different opinion from Azbawy’s. He told Al-Monitor, “The website is important, but not absolutely. It all depends on the target audience. Al-Azhar deals with five types of people: Muslims who believe in Al-Azhar as a religious authority; hesitant Muslims who have their doubts in its authority as opposed to radical authorities; total objectors to its authority including extremists and infidels; youth who do not have a set religious authority; and finally non-Muslims.”

Idriss added, “The centre will play a huge role in luring in Muslims hesitating between Al-Azhar’s moderate thought and the extremist ideology of some Salafist currents and jihadi groups. It will also help form an authority for youths and children to fall back on, as they are online most of the time. The aim is also to improve the image of Islam in the eyes of non-Muslims, because terrorist groups have tarnished this image in the past years and reflected extremism, apostasy and enmity. The biggest challenge, however, is in convincing some radicals to give up this thought, and I do not think the online centre can do much about this.”

Journalist Hussein al-Qadi criticized the establishment of Al-Azhar’s centre and told Al-Monitor, “Al-Azhar centre is just a matter of propaganda to prove that Al-Azhar is playing a role in fighting extremism and modernizing religious sermons, although Fatwas are not its forte.”

He continued, “Al-Azhar established the online centre to avoid editing its curricula and removing the inherited traces of extremist thought related to clamping down on Copts and not believing in citizenship, among others. Revisiting and developing religious thought is the job of Al-Azhar rather than Fatwas that should be left to Dar al-Ifta, which has its own electronic platform to respond to fatwa inquiries and has an observer to detect extremist Fatwas and respond to them. We do not need other Fatwas. We need Al-Azhar to play its role in moderating Islamist thought and distancing it from the extremist historical Fatwas mentioned in Fiqh books and taught in Al-Azhar, instead of monopolizing all religious roles by stepping on Dar al-Ifta’s toes.”

As an Islamic institution, Al-Azhar teaches religious studies, development of Islamic research, protection of the Islamic Dawa and thought from all violations of the Sharia, and issuance of general Fatwas for Muslims across the world. Dar al-Ifta, for its part, issues Fatwas for Egyptians on a case-by-case basis.

Although Al-Azhar’s centre is playing a key role in fighting extremist electronic platforms, luring in those lost between moderation and extremism and improving the image of Islam, we cannot ignore the presence of a similar platform for Dar al-Ifta, which undermines Al-Azhar’s. Dar al-Ifta’s efforts in this regard have been internationally recognized, and the European Parliament adopted them as a point of reference for Islamic fatwas in 2015.

Ahmed Fouad is an Egyptian journalist working as newsroom assistant manager for Al-Shorouk. He specializes in coverage of Islamists and analysis of the political situation in Egypt, especially after June 30, 2013.