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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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