Al Azhar and the state

As Ursula pointed out, a new issue of Cairo is out, and as well as her story it has a quite interesting feature by Charles on Islamic reform and the whole "Islam and democracy" debate. It covers various issues, but to me the most important one was how the Egyptian state has appropriated Islam for its own political ends. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, in a way, the most powerful Islamist group in Egypt is the state:

The history of the past 50 years in Egypt, as seen by Al Qemani, is the history of the state forging its legitimacy through the exploitation of religion. The rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, commonly portrayed as a relatively secular period in Egyptian history, was in fact “the golden age for the revival of Islam and its men,” according to Al Qemani.


Nasser, he points out, established the High Council for Islamic Affairs in 1960 and then the Islamic Research Council, a conservative bastion with Al Azhar, and gave it wide-ranging censorship powers. In addition, says Al Qemani, under Nasser the number of Azhari institutes in the governorates of Egypt grew from seven in 1952 to over 2,000 at the time of Nasser’s death.


That Sadat allowed the Brotherhood back into Egypt and allowed them to operate openly in the street and on university campuses to counter the Marxist left is well known. More recently, President Mubarak has given significantly expanded censorship power to Al Azhar.


The article ends with a quote from Gamal Al Banna, the grandfatherly brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna, self-styled "liberal Islamist" and civil society activist (he sits on the board of the Ibn Khaldoun Center):

Al Banna, is blunt in his criticism of Al Azhar’s position, accusing the institution of stifling debate that might undermine its hold on power.


“From the perspective of their private position, Al Azhar doesn’t want reform and they strangle all who talk about Islam without being Azhari,” says Al Banna. “This is the powerful religious authority that enjoys the care of the state and the cooperation of the state. Reform cannot happen as long this traditional thought controls the Islamic world.”


The problem now is, as I see it, how to undo the instrumentalization of Al Azhar that has made it both an extension of the state (which is not its intended role in society) and the tool of traditional, non-political conservatives. Another question would be whether, considering its prestige, Egyptian Muslims would want it to recede from being an interventionist force in Egypt's moral life or not. After all, there are a legitimate grounds to moral censorship in any country, and many people may welcome that role. But how do you draw the line between legitimate censorship and excessive conservatism? The solution, I suspect, probably has to do with how Al Azhar functions as an institution and the type of leadership that it creates -- as well as having a government that doesn't keep trying to outdo conservatives outside the regime like the Muslim Brotherhood for political gain.

Another issue that Charles' story raises is the shift in 20th century Islamic thinkerrs between relative liberals like Muhammad Abdou to conservatives like Rashid Reda and Hassan Al Banna. I was speaking about liberal Islamist political parties at a seminar a few weeks ago at the Dutch Institute in Cairo along with Paul Schemm, my old Cairo Times colleague and friend, and Hugh Roberts, the head of the International Crisis Group's North Africa project. (He's been the one writing the recent great overviews on political Islam.) Hugh had quite an elegant way of summing up why the really quite progressive early 20th century Islamist thought became more conservative. It goes something like this: in the aftermath of the First World War and the division of the Ottoman Empire's Arab provinces among Britain and France, progressive Islamist thought that was mostly focused on internal reform and catching up with the advances of the West was abandoned of anti-colonialist, nationalist Islamist thought mostly concerned with ending foreign occupation and dropped the progressive elements.

That foreign occupation (or at times the perception thereof), in various guises, survives today in much of the Arab world, and 80 years later it has produced extremist xenophobic movements like Al Qaeda. Compare Abdou's comment when he visited Paris in the 1900s ("In France I see Islam without Muslims, whereas in Egypt I see Muslims without Islam") to Sayyid Qutb's writings when he visited the US in the 1950s ("Even the Western world realizes that Western civilization is unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind. It knows that it does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.”) Kind of says it all.

Finally, do check out other articles this week in Cairo, including:

  • Stacey Philbrick of Al Hiwar on Yemen's journalists.


  • More on the judges by Ursula.


  • The press review, always a good read.


  • The latest on Al Ghad by the invaluable Magdi Samaan.
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    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.