ATbar Egypt's War Against Islamic Extremism

Egypt's War Against Islamic Extremism

22/01/2017 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

Egypt, under the leadership of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, has developed a comprehensive strategy to fight the Islamic extremism that endangers the stability and security of Egypt and the region. The outcome of the struggle in Egypt, the biggest Arab country and the intellectual and cultural capital of the Arab Sunni world, has ramifications far beyond its borders.

Egypt's historical battle against the forces of extremism has played an instrumental role in the formulation of its national counter extremism strategy. The Egyptian approach relies on comprehensively and categorically refuting and countering all forms of extremism and radicalism, rather than making distinctions and categorizations. Egypt considers the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al-Qaeda and their affiliate groups as grave threats to Egypt.

Egypt designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in December 2013, less than six months after the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. The Egyptian regime holds the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in the country following President Mursi's ousting.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, during a speech celebrating the birth of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad on January 2, 2015, demanded a “revolution” in religious discourse to confront extremist ideology. Sisi called for “revamping religious speech in accordance with the tolerant Islamic religion” and called on the Ministry of Awqaf [Religious Endowments] and Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni authority in the country, to do more to combat extremist ideology and promote a moderate understanding of Islam. “This renewal [of religious discourse] must be conscious and preserve the values of true Islam, eliminating sectarian polarization and addressing extremism and militancy,” the president added.[1]

In February 2015, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi met with a number of ex-Muslim Brotherhood figures who have become outspoken critics of the group, to discuss ways of confronting Islamic extremism in Egypt. El -Sisi’s meeting with the breakaway Brotherhood figures came as part of official attempts to clamp down on Islamic extremism and produce a comprehensive anti-extremism policy in the country.[2]

Egypt’s Awqaf Minister, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, called on Egypt’s scholars to return Islamic discourse to its rightful place, stressing that this must be “flexible” and open to different interpretations.  He said his ministry "is exerting unremitting efforts to develop religious discourse by using modern technology to immunize Egyptians, and particularly the youth, against takfirist and destructive ideas.” [3]

The Egyptian strategy is a comprehensive and multi-layered plan covering the following layers:

  • Control of the mosques
  • Control of the preachers
  • Control of the speeches
  • Regulation  of  fatwas
  • Control of the financial resources of Islamic NGOs
  • Al Azhar as  dominant religious authority
  • Control of schools

Control of the mosques - Egypt’s Ministry of Awqaf issued a decision, in 2014, to impose more stringent controls on the country’s mosques. As the Egyptian government continues to crack down on the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, the Ministry of Awqaf seized control of several mosques controlled by the Islamist group. The Egyptian Minister of Awqaf said that the ministry is monitoring what is happening in the larger mosques in order to ensure that da’wa (proselytizing) there does not transgress the boundaries into political or partisan work.[4]

In another endeavor to enhance the security level nationwide, Egypt’s Minister of Awqaf announced, in August 2015, the installation of surveillance cameras at mosques across Egypt. According to the Minister of Religious Endowments, the cameras were installed in an effort to protect mosques from terrorist attacks and to make certain that the mosque sermons are monitored to ensure no extremist sermons are delivered.[5]

There are approximately 100,000 mosques registered with the Ministry of Awqaf, not including 13,000 zawyas (corner mosques). However, the actual number of zawya mosques in Egypt is estimated to be far greater, with almost every neighborhood having one.[6]

Control of the preachers - including banning clerics who have not graduated from Al-Azhar from preaching. In place of Brotherhood preachers, Al-Azhar clerics deliver sermons at mosques across Egypt. Minister Dr. Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa has assigned imams licensed by the ministry to the mosques that used to belong to the Brotherhood’s charitable and social organizations.[7]

In July 2016, the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf  ended the Muslim Broth­erhood and Salafist presence in academic circles by suspending 68 preachers’ academies affiliated with Islamic non-governmental organizations (NGOs).To replace the academies, which prepare mosque preachers, the ministry introduced 27 cultural centers, 20 to prepare students for mosque preaching and seven for Islamic education. The develop­ment is part of Cairo’s efforts to address extremism before it controls Egypt’s mosques.[8]

Control of the speeches – In January 2017 the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf presented a regulatory five-year guideline to tackling Friday speeches, to be put forth before President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for approval. The ministry’s statement said that it has presented the lists of topics to be broached during Friday speeches over the course of five years, featuring 54 subjects for the first year and 270 to be discussed over the next five years. According to the statement, the national accredited scientific community has begun co-writing Friday speech topics with top religious researchers and psychology and social experts.[9]

Regulation of fatwas - In 2014, Egypt's central authority for issuing religious rulings, Dar El-Ifta — an internationally influential body, launched a department to monitor extremist edicts being released across the Islamic world.[10]

Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta held an international conference in August 2015 to confront the “chaos of fatwas” which, according to the institution, have become a major source of religious extremism and terrorism, and to consolidate the power to issue fatwas into its own hands. The conference, “Fatwas: The Realities, Challenges and Prospects for the Future,” brought together 50 muftis from across the Islamic world, and was held under the supervision of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who met with international delegations of religious clerics.             A Dar al-Ifta spokesperson said in an official statement that the conference’s recommendations revolve around drafting a code of ethics that lays down the legal and procedural foundations of confronting extremist fatwas as well as forming a committee of the institution’s religious scholars that is tasked with refuting fatwas issued by “extremist” religious clerics.[11] 

On December 20, 2016, the secretary of the Religious Committee at the Egyptian parliament, Omar Hamrouche, presented a draft law on regulating fatwas. The law will limit the issuing of religious edicts to senior scholars at Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta and put an end to the numerous fatwas that incite violence and intolerance. The law draft stipulated that issuing fatwas without licenses from Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta is a crime punishable by law, facing imprisonment. Those found guilty would be incarcerated for no more than six months or pay a fine of around 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($110), or both.[12]

Control of the financial resources of Islamic NGOs – In 2014 the Egyptian government ordered the freezing of assets of over 1,000 NGOs accused of having links to the Brotherhood and the seizure of the assets of hundreds of Brotherhood members on suspicion of “funding terrorism.”[13]

In the first publication of the official inventory of seized Muslim Brotherhood funds, following the decision to ban the group, the Brotherhood Asset Freeze Committee revealed, for the first time since it was formed three years prior, that the value of these funds amounts to 40 billion pounds ($4.5 billion dollars). This figure includes the appropriation of funds owned by 1,213 leaders, 1,133 associations, 110 schools, and 53 hospitals. The committee indicated in its report that it had also seized 552 offices related to the Freedom and Justice Party, as well as 415 acres of land. In addition, the Committee appropriated 35 money exchange companies. The sources noted that this figure encompasses the seizure of 97% of the funds and properties owned by the Brotherhood. Some of these properties are owned jointly with other entities, the sources noted.[14]

Al Azhar as the dominant religious authority - in a speech in January 2015, President Sisi specifically called on Al-Azhar scholars to lead the process of revitalizing religious discourse in Egypt and confronting extremist ideology and incitement to violence.

Al-Azhar University, the highest religious authority in Egypt, was built as a mosque in the 10th century. Today the university's various faculties and research centers have 450,000 students, many from countries across Asia and Africa. It also has a network of more than 9,000 schools across Egypt attended by more than 2 million students.[15]  

Egypt's Grand Mufti, Shawky Allam, has claimed that Egypt's religious institutes bear responsibility for countering extremism and spreading a message of peace and development in Egypt and abroad. Allam stressed that terrorism and violent extremism constitute a threat to every country in the world, that terrorism will not be defeated without international solidarity and that every country in the world must play a role. [16] 

The Undersecretary of Al Azhar, Abbas Schumann, said the institution decided to edit its curriculum and to remove any doctrinal views that might be misunderstood by extremists.[17]

A Professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, Abdul Halim Mansour, said: “Renewing religious discourse requires a return to the religious discourse that was present during the time of the Prophet which was characterized by flexibility, without imposing itself on anybody.”[18]

Al-Azhar is renewing its religious discourse and developing its tools to take on the Internet. In 2015 Al-Azhar created an online observatory to reply to terrorists’ allegations in 10 different languages. In the same context, the Ministry of Religious Endowments held training classes for young imams to familiarize them with online communication tools, empowering them to correct misconceptions about Islam. Al-Azhar's ability to be effective in cyberspace depends on its acquisition of technical capabilities equal to those of terrorist organizations, especially the Islamic State.[19]

Egypt’s Grand Mufti’s academic adviser, Magdy Ashour, explained that extremism has pushed people away from religion, advising Al Azhar scholars to focus on attracting youth, as a priority, as many young people seem to be joining extremist groups.[20]

Control of schools - education shapes the minds of children and the youth from 18 to 25 who are the most vulnerable to extremist thoughts due to the sensitivity of their age and their inexperience. Egypt's Ministry of Education launched in 2015 a campaign to rid the education system of religious Islamic books that include incitement for violence and are not authorized for teaching by the curriculum.[21]

Summary

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El -Sisi is keenly aware, more than most others, of the profoundly destructive effect of Islamist radicalism and the unprecedented eruption of violence in the name of Islam that is sowing havoc in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

Egypt recognized that the source of the motivations and actions of radical groups is the same extremist ideology and although it produced many variants it served the same goals. The Egyptian approach relies on countering all forms of extremism and radicalism, rather than making distinctions and categorizations, based on the assumption that extremism by its very nature is a stepping stone towards violence.

Egypt’s counter extremism strategy is based on a comprehensive approach which focuses on combating and dismantling the core ideology which constitutes the threat itself, confronting the different terrorist groups which are its manifestations, and working to create an environment conducive to the rejection of radical thought, so as to prevent the resurgence of the threat.

Egypt’s efforts in this regard rely upon venerated religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta’, who work in partnership with moderate voices and communities throughout the world to discredit the logical and religious basis of extremist thought, and to promote the values of tolerance and peace. The outcome of the struggle in Egypt has ramifications far beyond its borders. 

Egypt prioritizes cooperation with international partners in this vein, working collectively to create a strong, viable counter-narrative with effective distribution methods. Egypt’s Awqaf Minister, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, has said: “Islamic religious scholars from across the world will confirm in one voice: ‘no’ to extremism, and ‘yes’ to tolerance.”[22]

President El -Sisi remains committed to his drive against militancy. However, to be successful in the war against extremism, El - Sisi will need to find the balance between the use of force as well as tough security measures and education to encourage a more moderate version of Islam.

Although, so far, the results of President El Sisi's drive have been mixed, Egypt can be a model for other countries with similar problems and priorities to form counter extremism strategy.

Notes



[1] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Sisi calls for “renewal” of religious discourse, Asharq Alawsat, January 2, 2015.

[2] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Sisi meets with ex-Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Asharq Alawsat, February 27, 2015.

[3] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Sisi calls for “renewal” of religious discourse, Asharq Alawsat, January 2, 2015.

[4] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Al-Azhar retakes control of mosques, Asharq Alawsat, December 7, 2013.

[5] Surveillance Cameras to be Installed in Mosques in Egypt to ‘Control Extremist Speech’, Egyptian Streets, August 15, 2015.

[6] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Al-Azhar retakes control of mosques, Asharq Alawsat, December 7, 2013.

[7] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Religious endowments ministry takes control of Brotherhood mosques, Asharq Alawsat, January 4, 2014.

[8] Amira Fekri, Salafists, government fight over control of Egypt’s mosques, The Arab Weekly, July 21, 2016.

[9] Walled Abdul Rahman, Five-Year Outline for Friday Speeches in Egypt, Asharq Alawsat, January 8, 2017.

[10] Terrorism a threat to all countries: Egypt's Grand Mufti to Dutch delegation, Ahram Online, January 12, 2017.

[11] Mai Shams El Din, Dar al-Ifta aims to control fatwas worldwide, Mada, August 19, 2015.

[12] Walled Abdul Rahman, Five-Year Outline for Friday Speeches in Egypt, Asharq Alawsat, January 8, 2017.

[13] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Religious endowments ministry takes control of Brotherhood mosques, Asharq Alawsat, January 4, 2014.

[14] Egypt: 40 Billion Pounds – Value of Seized Muslim Brotherhood Funds, 24.ae, September 15, 2016.

[15] Egypt fights extremism by teaching moderate Islam, ynet, September 15, 2015.

[16] Terrorism a threat to all countries: Egypt's Grand Mufti to Dutch delegation, Ahram Online, January 12, 2017.

[17] Al Azhar reviews curriculum to counter extremism, Albawaba, March 2, 2015.

[18] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Sisi calls for “renewal” of religious discourse, Asharq Alawsat, January 2, 2015.

[19] Reham Mokbel, Al-Azhar goes online to fight extremism, Al Monitor, June 26, 2015.

[20] Al Azhar reviews curriculum to counter extremism, Albawaba, March 2, 2015.

[21] Education Ministry joins media, religious and cultural forums' attempts to denounce books that incite violence,I24, April 14, 2015.

[22] Walled Abdul Rahman, Egypt: Sisi calls for “renewal” of religious discourse, Asharq Alawsat, January 2, 2015.