Egypt is not the first Muslim-majority country to consider using its religious scholars in the fight against radicalized Islam, but the presence of Al-Azhar in such an effort, one of the most prestigious centers of Islamic learning, gives it particular significance. In a report in Reuters (May 31), Mahmoud Mourad and Yara Bayoumy write that although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cracked down very hard on the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems that he now wants supplement security measures with a spread of “moderate Islam.” First steps have already been taken, such as an online monitoring center for tracking militant statements in social media in order to refute them better. Since 2013, there have also been attempts to modernize Al-Azhar curriculum and to review books written by professors in order to make sure they they do not promote extremism.
But not all students are supportive as some feel that the reforms are detrimental to the full teachings of Islam. And it is easy to find radical texts in bookshops around Al-Azhar. Moreover, the backing of an authoritarian regime—even with a devout leader—does not reinforce Al-Azhar’s credibility, because even some of its own students distrust it as mouthpiece for the state. Sources in security agencies have confirmed that Al-Azhar students are seen with suspicion as potentially prone to extremism, and that they are often monitored. But harsh security measures breed hatred for police among them. The article quotes Abdul Ghani Hendi, a religious affairs adviser in the Egyptian parliament, who thinks that Al-Azhar should be entirely restructured to allow for self-criticism and adds, “All the thought which dominates society is extremists’ thoughts. We should confess that frankly.”