Institutional Radicalization in Egypt

Chloe Cushman — Radicalization

By Yasser Harrak

In answering questions about the radicalization of Muslim youth in Egypt, Dr. Ahmed Abdul Maher cited examples showing that the source of terrorism and radicalization is the religious material being taught in Egyptian schools. A lawyer and Islamic scholar prominent in the area of religious reform, he argues that as long as acts of barbaric violence in some Islamic texts keep being considered part of the Muslim faith, there will always be an environment suitable for domestic and international terrorism. 

The state run Al-Azhar University (Jāmiʻat al-Azhar) is responsible for drawing Islamic curricula in Egypt. It is Egypt's oldest degree-granting university and is renowned as “Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university”. Al-Azhar oversees a national network of schools with approximately two million students, and as of 1996, over 4000 teaching institutes in Egypt were affiliated with the university. The veneration of violence and terrorism, according to Dr. Maher, is obvious in the educational material offered by Al-Azhar university.

In the famous Egyptian show known as “Attention Gentlemen!” (Intabihu Yassada) on Al-Hayat TV, Dr. Maher presented viewers with shocking educational material from Al-Azhar being taught to children in Grade 5. There was a reading in  2014 titled “Abdurahman Ibn Awf” carrying the name of a sacred Sunni figure in which extreme violence is clearly venerated. One paragraph in particular says: “In the 6th Hijri year prophet Muhammad appointed Ibn Awf to lead an army of 70 warriors towards the Jandal area, inviting its residents to Islam three times as they refused to convert. After that there was nothing but clanking swords, streaming blood and flying heads”.  In a book titled “Al-Iftaa” dedicated to students in their 3rd year of secondary school, Dr Maher exposed disturbing passages talking about the treatment of prisoners in Islam so far interpreted by Al-Azhar institution. It talks about the permissibility to kill injured prisoners who are disabled or handicapped. It also talks about the permissibility to enslave women and children and to mutilate the hands or the feet of resisting war captives.  Introducing such themes to elementary school children and high school students makes them exposed to an institutional radicalization. This kind of content is being taught in the context of the right Islamic deeds, judgments and holy tradition (Sunat). Neither the students nor their parents can question this sort of educational content. When terrorist organizations revive such violent and cruel acts such as the case with ISIS, students risk finding state funded clerics illegitimate as they fall into contradiction. On one hand, they were taught in school that decapitation, mutilation and sex slavery are part of the holy law (Sharia), on the other hand, when ISIS adopts the holy law, state funded clerics criticize it. This, according to Dr Maher, does not solve the issue of radicalization because what we need to criticize is not every organization here or there that brings about a barbaric practice. We need to criticize the practice itself. 

Although the roots of terrorism cannot be limited to a set of violent religious texts. When young people face  rejection and suffer from poverty and hopelessness, it is  more likely that they will end up terrorists if terrorism is an act of emulating religious heroes.

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