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Egypt

Al-Azhar: Separating Egyptian Islam From The State. But To What End?

In post-Mubarak Egypt, both devout Muslims and ardent secularists are calling for the autonomy of Cairo's authoritative Islamic institution and center for learning. But they have very different ideas about where it will lead.

Inside Al-Azhar mosque (Jonah Bettio)
Inside Al-Azhar mosque (Jonah Bettio)
Noha El-Hennawy

CAIRO - Despite ongoing feuds over the identity of the state in post-Mubarak Egypt, both secularists and Islamists seem to agree on one issue: the need to liberate from government control, Al-Azhar, the more than 1,000-year-old mosque, university and religious institution widely considered by Sunni Muslims as the world's historical center for Islamic learning.

Though there is support from virtually all camps for separating Egypt's Muslim clergy from the state, the motivations are very different. Islamists view an autonomous Al-Azhar as the key to achieving an Islamic renaissance in Egypt. Meanwhile, non-Islamists view the freeing of the religious establishment - long known for its moderate understanding of Islam - as a way to regain credibility among the masses and stem the influence of radical groups.

For secularists, the need to contain the growth of radical Islam has become dire in recent months with the resurgence of Salafi groups after Hosni Mubarak's ouster. At least three Salafi parties have been launched since the Jan. 25 revolution began. Last month, tens of thousands Salafis alarmed secular activists when they flooded Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution, in a rally that called for implementation of Sharia, Islamic law.

"When intransigent voices dominate, the moderate outlook, for which Al-Azhar has been famous, becomes needed," Ibrahim al-Essawi, a co-founder of the left-wing Popular Socialist Alliance Party, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Essawi's party is one of several non-Islamist groups that threw their full backing behind Al-Azhar's independence by signing statements and raising the issue in the media. Even secular presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, who met with Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb recently, has supported calls for independence.

"If Al-Azhar retrieves its independence, all the people will rally around it," the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency told reporters after the meeting. "The different interpretations of Islam that we see today, and those divisions based on religion, should not exist. Al-Azhar should retrieve its role as the beacon of enlightened Islam, not only in Egypt but in the whole Arab world."

Founded in 972, Al-Azhar became seen as the bastion of moderate Islam in the Sunni world at the beginning of the 20th century. However, its influence waned after the military coup of 1952. Gamal Abdel Nasser clipped the wings of clerics by nationalizing their endowments and giving himself the right to appoint Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh. In the meantime, Nasser used Al-Azhar to bestow legitimacy upon his pan-Arab and socialist policies.

The same pattern was maintained by President Anwar Sadat, who further weakened Al-Azhar by opening the door to radical Islamist groups, which promoted Wahhabi thought. Since then, Al-Azhar has lost ideological influence in the face of the Wahhabi tide.

When Mubarak held the helm of state, Al-Azhar continued to lose influence to fundamentalist groups, which sought to discredit the state-sanctioned religious establishment by arguing that it represented the regime's interests rather than true Islam. Meanwhile, Wahhabi thought began to permeate Al-Azhar itself.

A secular Trojan horse?

Pushing for an independent clergy would not necessarily mean creating a bulwark against Salafis. Otherwise, Salafi parties would not have backed the cause. For Mohamed Yosry, spokesman of the Salafi Nour Party, secularists who back the independence of Al-Azhar hoping to defeat Salafis are contradicting themselves.

"By requiring Al-Azhar to play a particular role or to adopt a particular school of thought, you will be threatening the very independence of Al-Azhar," said Yosry. "The role of Al-Azhar is not to stand by the side of one political trend against another."

Yosri's party is not the only Salafi group that pushes for Al-Azhar's autonomy. Speaking last month to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Adel Afify, the Asala party's founder, made it clear that his group thinks Al-Azhar should be in charge of deciding whether certain policies or practices conform to Sharia law.

"Who would tell the parliament whether a certain matter contradicts Sharia law other than the official religious establishment represented in Al-Azhar?" Afify asked rhetorically.

Many secularists expressed vehement opposition to this Salafi proposition, warning that it would pave the way for the creation of a religious state in which clerics rather than elected politicians would have the ultimate say on political matters.

"Salafis are backing the independence of Al-Azhar, hoping they can hijack it and use it as a vehicle to spread their political ideas," said Ammar Ali Hassan, an expert on Islamist movements."Some want to control al-Azhar and use it in the political life to produce a certain religious discourse that could serve mainly Salafi trends."

In recent months, thousands of young Al-Azhar preachers have launched a campaign to pressure the interim government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to implement changes that would pave the way for the independence of their institution. Many of the movement's leaders believe Al-Azhar should play a large role in public life.

"People should not worry about the impact of other religious currents on Al-Azhar. They should worry more about the impact of secularism," said Rabie Marzouq, representative of the Coalition of Revered Al-Azhar Pundits, an entity formed shortly after Hosni Mubarak's ouster. "The grand imam of Al-Azhar should speak and say which policy is right or wrong, and then it is up to the street or the parliament to decide."

Read the full version of the story in Al Masry Al Youm

photo - Jonah Bettio

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