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memri
December 28, 2017 No.
7254

Two Faces Of Egypt's Al-Azhar: Promoting Goodwill, Tolerance Towards Christians In Informational Holiday Campaign – But Refusing To Do The Same In Its School Curricula

Ahead of New Year's and the Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7, Al-Azhar, the foremost Islamic institution in Egypt and in the Sunni world at large, launched an informational campaign, "Sharing the Homeland," instructing Muslims on the proper attitude towards these holidays and towards Christians during them. According to Al-Azhar, the campaign aims to promote moderate Islam, reinforce the values of citizenship and coexistence among Egyptians, and counter "deviant fatwas" that are issued every year ahead of the Christian holidays and deal with issues like the permissibility of wishing Christians joy on their religious festivals.[1]

This Al-Azhar campaign is part of the institution's ongoing effort to portray itself as combating religious extremism and erroneous interpretations of Islam, and as promoting the renewal of the religious discourse.[2] Al-Azhar's top clerics, headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayeb, and his deputy 'Abbas Shuman, frequently point to their efforts in this area, which include informational campaigns and at its reevaluation of the curricula of its religious schools, which are often criticized as tainted with extremism and encouraging terrorism.[3]

However, recent studies published in the Egyptian press reveal that senior elements at Al-Azhar are promoting school curricula that contradict statements by its leading clerics promoting tolerance and acceptance of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. This has prompted criticism of Al-Azhar by Egyptian intellectuals and legislators, who argued that these curricula encourage extremism.

This report will contrast Al-Azhar's pre-holiday campaign promoting tolerance of Christians with its own refusal to implement this tolerance.

Al-Azhar's Informational Campaign Countering Extremist Islamic Statements About Christians: Christians Share Our Homeland, We Can Wish Them Happy Holidays And Eat Their Food

On December 23, 2017, the Al-Azhar Global Center for Electronic Fatwas, which publishes fatwas and religious guidance online, including on social media, that focus on Islam's moderateness and tolerance, announced that it was launching a "Sharing the Homeland" informational campaign for the upcoming Christian New Year and Eastern Orthodox Christmas. A post on its Facebook page, and on the Al-Azhar page, quoted Al-Azhar vice president for education Dr. Yusuf 'Amar, who is also inspector-general for the fatwa center, as saying that the campaign was aimed at "establishing values of citizenship and coexistence among the sons of the single homeland, presenting the moderate and correct Islam, and highlighting the moderate precepts of Islam, in all things concerning treatment of members of the monotheistic religions." The campaign, he added, was aimed also at refuting everything that the terrorist organizations say are part of Islam but that have no connection whatsoever with it. He also said that the campaign's materials would be translated into other languages and sent to the embassies of the countries of Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia in Egypt and to many other countries as well.

According to Sheikh Tamr Matar, coordinator for the fatwa center, the campaign seeks to clarify the religious, political, social, and economic rights of the members of the monotheistic religions in Islamic countries, and how non-Muslims should be treated with regard to commerce, holiday greetings, visiting them, eating their foods, and respecting their holy places. He said that the center was launching the campaign to correct misperceptions in Islam and to respond to "deviant and extremist fatwas" that circulate every year in advance of Christian holidays. He also called for refraining from issuing fatwas that are not based on facts, and at leaving the issuing of fatwas to expert clerics.

Another post on the Al-Azhar Facebook page noted that the campaign would run from December 24-30, that people were invited to call in with, or ask via social media, relevant religious questions, and provided a hashtag to use – #Sharing the Homeland.[4]

On December 24, the center posted the first question, "What is the ruling regarding wishing Christians a happy holiday?" with the following ruling: "It is permitted to wish the Christians happy holidays, since this is an act of grace and respect for them, and is part of maintaining an appropriate and pleasant discourse with them. Allah commands us to [act this way] towards all people, whoever they may be, and particularly towards People of the Book, who share the homeland and who are our brothers in humankind. Proof that it is permitted to wish the Christians happy holidays [is found] in the Quran, in Surat Al-Mumtahanah [60:8] which states: 'Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly'[5]; and in Surat Al-Baqarah [2:83] which states: 'And speak to people good [words].'[6] Likewise, the permission to wish Christians happy holidays is compatible with the intentions of the religion of Islam and highlights its moderateness and tolerance, and cultivates the spirit of fraternity in the homeland and preserves national unity..."[7]


The answer on the center's Facebook page.
Source: F
acebook.com/fatwacenter, December 25, 2017.

On December 26, the center issued an additional ruling stating that non-Muslims should not be forced to convert to Islam, even in the framework of the Sharing the Homeland campaign.[8] Likewise, on December 27, the center issued a third ruling noting that eating the food of the People of the Book is permitted by the Quran.[9]

Al-Azhar Sheikh, Religious Endowments Minister Visit St. Mark's Cathedral In Cairo, Extend Christmas Greetings To Coptic Pope Tawadros II

Setting a personal example, Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, along with Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Muhammad Mukhtar Goma'a, headed a large, high-ranking delegation of Al-Azhar officials in a visit to St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, to extend Christmas greetings to Coptic Pope Tawadros II.[10]

During the visit, Al-Tayeb spoke of the affection and grace that unite the Muslim and Christian Egyptians,  and that embody the values of tolerance, discourse, coexistence, and forgiveness of the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus. He added: "All religious leaders – the Muslims and Christians alike – have a great responsibility to remind the people of the foundations of friendship and fraternity among the members of Egyptian society." This, he said, was especially important at this time, when there are tremendous challenge of murders in the name of religion by Islam-affiliated extremists and "Zionist Christians."[11] He underlined that these people "are destroying the world based on mistaken and false religious interpretations." Pope Tawadros, on his part, welcomed the visit by Al-Tayeb and the delegation, and thanked them all for the holiday wishes.[12] 


Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb and Pope Tawadros II at St. Mark's.
Source: Facebook.com/OfficialAzharEg, December 27, 2017.

Sheikh Al-Tayeb's deputy 'Abbas Shuman also spoke on this matter, saying that many religious issues concerning dealing with non-Muslims needed to be relearned, as did the matter of extending holiday greetings to them, particularly when the country was being subjected to many attempts to harm it and also to harm the unity of its social fabric.[13]

Al-Azhar Officials Remove Content On Tolerance Toward Christians From School Curricula

Alongside this campaign and claims by Al-Azhar that it is working to promote tolerance toward Christians and to present the moderate Islam, according to recent reports in the Egyptian press, officials within Al-Azhar are working to remove content related to tolerance toward Christians from Al-Azhar's elementary school texts.

On December 24, 2017, the Egyptian daily Al-Watan, which often reports on the activities of Al-Azhar, published the results of a seven-month investigative report on the activity of the committees at Al-Azhar that deal with the development of the curriculum taught in its schools. The findings of the report show that the committee for the development of schoolbooks for the subject of Islamic education had written 12 books intended "to strengthen national unity among pupils at Al-Azhar." However, the committee appointed by the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar to oversee the writing of the schoolbooks opposed the inclusion of this content and removed every mention of Christians, including photographs, as well as any mention that permissible to extend holiday greetings to Christians.[14]


A page that, according to the Al-Watan report, was removed from several third-grade schoolboooks on religious culture, explaining that it is permissible to wish Christians happy holidays.
Source:
Al-Watan, Egypt, December 24, 2017. 


The page that replaced the page that was removed, focusing on etiquette in Islam.
Source:
Al-Watan, Egypt, December 24, 2017. 


Another page in a schoolbook showing instructions to remove the sentence "It is important to greet Christian neighbors on festive occasions."
Source: Masrawy.com, Egypt, December 24, 2017.

Al-Azhar Fires Official Responsible For Schoolbooks Encouraging Acceptance Of Christians

Further, in recent days it was reported that Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb had fired Dr. Abu Zeid Mahmoud Abu Zeid, director-general of elementary education for Al-Azhar's school department, who was responsible for writing the schoolbooks and who was the one who had decided to include the content dealing with tolerance.[15]

Following his removal, Abu Zeid sent a memorandum to Al-Tayeb revealing the disputes among the committees at Al-Azhar. In it, he complained that the committee appointed by the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar to oversee the writing of the schoolbooks had removed content encouraging national unity and acceptance of the other, and that this committee had refused to include photographs of Coptic Pope Tawadros II and names of any Christians. He also stated that the committee had omitted the word "Christians" in some of the lessons, replacing it with "non-Muslims."

Abu Zeid also stated in the memorandum: "Despite the fact that the main objective of this [educational] program is to instill and entrench love among the members of the homeland, Muslims and Christians alike, the committee omitted these values from the lessons and tried to replace them with different, ordinary things that do not deal with these acute problems and even create them... [such as] insisting [on including] the subject of the honor of martyrdom."[16]

In statements to the news website Masrawy.com, Dr. Abu Zeid said: "I [am one] of five people who have a doctorate in [the subject of] the fight against extremism, and the only person at Al-Azhar with this expertise. I created content [for the schoolbooks] that encourages acceptance of and respect for the other and opposes violence. However, the committee [that oversees the] development of [school]books at Al-Azhar rejected [this content], claiming: 'Our religion forbids it. We are writing a book of religion.'"

Abu Zeid added: "The committee [that oversees] development of the books comprises the heads of the faculties of religion, who are responsible for preparing the [coming] generations that will struggle with extremism and terrorism. So how can [they oppose] this?... There is no option but to investigate the members of the committee, since they are extremists and incapable of educating [future] generations."[17]


An excerpt from the memorandum sent by Abu Zeid to Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb.
Source:
Al-Watan, Egypt, December 24, 2017.

However, Dr. Abdallah Al-Najjar, a member of Al-Azhar's Academy for Islamic Research who also deals with Al-Azhar's elementary school curricula, rejected Abu-Zeid's statements and said that that the curricula prevents extremism and creates "new Al-Azhar pupils."[18] Similarly, Dr. I'timad Abd Al-Sadeq, a member of Al-Azhar's committee for developing Islamic education, denied that there were objections to including the photograph of Pope Tawadros II in the schoolbooks on Islamic education, and noted that this subject is under the ongoing oversight of Sheikh Al-Tayeb himself.[19]

Criticism Of The Extremism In The Al-Azhar Curriculum

In response to these reports, Egyptian intellectuals, cultural figures, and MPs criticized Al-Azhar, and specifically the supervisory committee which had removed the content on acceptance of the other. Dr. Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, an intellectual and chairman of the board of the Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily, said: "Al-Azhar must deal with the main themes of the constitution... of which civics is a key part... We are not only fighting the ideas of the terrorists, but also presenting them with alternative ideas. Whoever is omitting civics is part of a specific stream, which is apparently extremist..." Dr. Huda Zakariya, a member of the National Council for the War Against Terror and Extremism, said: "We need a cultural and social discourse, and we call [on Al-Azhar] to explain the reasons for the omission of civics from the curriculum and to publish the committee's justifications for omitting the photograph and the lessons that call for [good] civic [relations]."

MP 'Alaa 'Abed, chairman of the Egyptian parliament's Committee for Human Rights, said: "Non-acceptance of the other is the root of the extremist idea, and therefore it is only right that Al-Azhar support the idea of coexistence with the other and not drop these lessons. An investigation into this matter should be launched, and legal steps should be taken if it is proven that this grave deed was done intentionally."[20]

Calls to purge Al-Azhar of extremism and to restore moderation to its curriculum were also heard within Al-Azhar itself. For example, MP Aman Nasir, who is also an expert in philosophy at Al-Azhar University, said: "The current leadership of Al-Azhar is pointless, for it is mired in the legacy of the past and does not want to leave it behind?."[21]


[2] The term "renewing the religious discourse" – referring to the effort to reform the religious lexicon and the understanding of Islam in order to combat extremism and terrorism – was introduced into Egypt's public agenda by 'Adly Mansour, who served as Egypt's interim president after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, and was later adopted as a major objective by the current president, 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017;  Inquiry & Analysis No. 1265, Three Years Into Al-Sisi's Rule: Difficult Challenges At Home And Abroad, August 16, 2016; Special Dispatch No. 6114, Egyptian Columnists On Al-Sisi Regime's Campaign For 'Renewal Of Religious Discourse' As A Way Of Fighting Terrorism, July 23, 2015.

[3] See for example MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6585, 'Al-Ahram' Columnist: Despite Al-Sisi's Call For Revolution In Religious Discourse, Al-Azhar Scholars Continue On Their Extremist Path, August 24, 2016. A frequent critic of Al-Azhar's curricula is Egypt's former culture minister Gaber 'Asfour. In a March 2012 televised interview, for example, he said that these curricula are responsible for religious terrorism and that Al-Azhar is not truly interested in reforming them. See Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 12, 2012. It should be noted that the issue of purging Egyptian curricula of extremist content has preoccupied the country's Education Ministry for years, since the days of the Mubarak regime. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 608, Egypt Announces Plan to Revise Religious Studies Curricula, Removing Extremist Content and Promoting Tolerance, May 7, 2010.    

[4] Facebook.com/fatwacenter, December 23, and Facebook.com/OfficialAzharEg, December 25, 2017.

[5] Quran.com/60.

[6] Quran.com/2.

[7] Facebook.com/fatwacenter, December 24, 2017.

[8] Facebook.com/fatwacenter, December 26, 2017.

[9] Facebook.com/OfficialAzharEg, December 27, 2017. It should be noted that this did not refer to all foods of the Christians, but only to foods permitted to Muslims according to Islam.

[10] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 27, 2017.

[11] Al-Tayeb did not specify which murders in the name of religion by "Zionist Christians" he meant.

[12] Facebook.com/OfficialAzharEg, December 27, 2017.

[13] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), December 26, 2017.

[14] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 24, 2017.

[15] Masrawy.com, December 23, 2017.

[16] Masrawy.com, December 23, 2017; December 24, 2017.

[17] Masrawy.com, December 24, 2017.

[18] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), December 24, 2017.

[19] Masrawy.com, December 24, 2017.

[20] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 25, 2017.

[21] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 24, 2017.