Doomed to fail: Egypt to teach 'moderate' Islam
Last January, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shocked the Islamic world by telling a group of religious scholars and teachers that Islam must reform. Since then, he has tasked the center of Islamic intellecutal and doctrinal thought, Al-Azhar, to teach "moderate" Islam in its 9,000 schools throughout Egypt.
Not unexpectedly, it isn't working out so well.
Al-Azhar's teachers, preachers, and researchers have so far introduced a few small changes. They include tweaking text books and setting up an online monitoring center to track militant statements on social media so the institute can better refute them. But there is no detailed reform program yet, and Al-Azhar officials openly acknowledge the magnitude of the challenge ahead.
To be successful, Sisi will need to achieve what many before him have not: balancing tough security measures with education to encourage a more moderate version of Islam. Past experiences in Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq show that attempts to crack down on extremism can also stoke it. So far the results of Sisi's drive have been mixed.
The president is deeply religious and has a mark on his forehead from years of pressing his head to the carpet in daily prayer. His wife and daughter wear the veil. His reputation for piety was so well known that his predecessor, Mohamed Mursi, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's first freely-elected president, appointed him army chief in August 2012.
Yet Sisi was also bold enough to seize power from Mursi after the Brotherhood leader became increasingly unpopular. Since then, he has cracked down hard on the Brotherhood. Hundreds of the group's supporters have been killed, and thousands jailed. This month a Cairo court recommended the death sentence for Mursi in connection with a mass jail break in 2011.
Balancing that sort of force with a message of moderation is difficult. Some students at Al-Azhar say they are deeply skeptical of the institution, and of the government's plans. Many dismiss Al-Azhar as a mouthpiece for the state, which favors the military and political elites over the poor masses where militants find most of their recruits.
Some students told Reuters the security crackdown was counterproductive. Cairo's heavy-handed tactics, they say, are radicalizing people who may have been open to a message of moderation.
Western officials praise Sisi's calls for action but question whether he has any real plan. "There's a kernel of a very big idea in what Sisi wants to do," said one. "But his vision of it is not exactly clear and it's not clear how it will be implemented."
Exactly. How do you "reform" a religion that's based entirely on the unchanging, undeviating word of Allah found in the Koran? There will be no "reinterpretation" of the Koran due to several additional texts that lay out exactly what a good Muslim should believe. Islamic thought is a straitjacket that traps Muslims in a singular worldview that brooks no opposition or apostasy.
There will be no Islamic Martin Luther nailing a list of accusations to the door of a mosque. Such a personality would have been stoned to death by a mob or had his head cut off by the state before he even reached that point. Al-Sisi is dreaming if he thinks that he can alter the reality that the extremists' beliefs are as legitimate according to the Koran as those of the so-called "mainstream" Muslims who condemn violence.