By Mohamed Selim
The unfortunate daily events that are unfolding in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Libya, are prompting the question: when will the entire region fall into the hands of radical Islamists?
The demise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) reign in Egypt at the hands of its military has caused the re-emergence of terrorist attacks by violent Islamist groups in revenge for the heavy-handed tactics of the current regime. The birth of the Al-Qaeda franchise in North Africa, where rival Islamist militias are tearing Libya apart, posing a lethal threat to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, will inevitably cause mayhem in all of North Africa. Other similar incidents throughout the Arab World are sidelined when the western media are focusing on the barbaric actions of the Islamic State in north eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
The common denominator in all the chaotic incidents in the above-mentioned states is the extreme Islamic ideology that the variant factions are adhering to and calling for the implementation of their interpretation of Islam with a slogan reminiscent of the early days of the Arab Spring, “people demand, imposing Sharia” with every ruthless action that would take.
The void is immense, and if the ongoing radical indoctrination hasn’t been stopped immediately and skilfully, the entire region will witness further instability that will affect all ways of life. The radical groups, including the MB and its sympathisers, are deftly utilising social media towards recruiting more disenchanted citizens from the region and as far as Asia and Western countries with a clear message, that Islam is under attack and the holy war is easily won if they joined their ranks and re-establish the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle-East and North Africa.
They make it very clear that ascending to power via democracy and electoral processes have proved futile in the region, where the Algerian experience of 1991, followed by the Egyptian current predicament of 2013, have been bitterly swallowed by political Islam enthusiasts. Hence, the radical Islamists believe that they are in a holy war, where Islam is the victim, and only via merciless actions will their perception of the religion will prevail.
The void can and will only be filled, if the voice of the moderate Islam could win more hearts and minds, regardless of the sect, doctrinal belief and/or school of jurisprudence. Only through eloquence supported by verses from the Quran and the Prophet Muhammed’s Sunnah, the ugly defaced image of Islam would regain its peaceful nature and the religion would be saved from a perverse ideology that is marauding and self-obliterating.
And only one institution can fill that void, yet it’s cocooned in its selfish interests and doesn’t want to rise up to the challenge of saving Islam and thus the region by propagating the true peaceful nature of moderate Islam.
Why is ISIS so successful in recruiting embittered western Muslim citizens to join its perverse Holy War against other religions, creeds, sects and the West at large, while the oldest Islamic University established in 970 CE and have served for centuries as a beacon of moderate Islamic teachings, can’t counter such fundamentalist ideology?
Why should Muslims be divided into various Islamist splinter groups to the likes of MBs, Salafis, Sufis, and now Da’ishies (ISIS affiliates), while the Azharites, ie Al-Azhar alumnae (who have for ages represented Islam in the west) are engaged in their own selfish battles currying favours with that head-of-state or the other?
Mosques in Europe and the Arab World have been prey to radical infiltration in the past decades, which have inculcated its followers with a new form of Islam, one that cannot be impugned and believes in violence as the one and only way to impose an incorrect version of Sharia without a revived exegesis nor forward moderate critical thinking.
Al-Azhar’s crisis is part-and-parcel of Islam’s current predicament. It has failed to renew its religious discourse, and is unable to successfully recruit more moderate Muslims to join its ranks and get imbued with a reasonable version of the religion that forbids hate-speech, violence and annihilation.
It has also failed to accept the information revolution, where its embrace of the social media is farcical (a simple Google search will reveal how Al-Azhar’s online presence/social media embrace is ludicrous) compared to that of other Islamist groups, whose innovative utilisation of the new media have gained them more followers and thus a widened digital footprint. Al-Azhar’s laggardness in renewing its religious discourse and embracing the new media can’t be attributed to the lack of funds nor other logistical rationales. Yet, the main reason is political will.
Since the issuance of the Law 103 of the re-organisation of Al-Azhar in 1961 at the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the real crisis of Islam’s most influential and prestigious institution had begun. Its credibility has been shaken with every cantankerous decision and its failure to rise up to many challenges in the Arab and Islamic world has added insult to injury. Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam (whom is appointed by the Presidents of Egypt for a life tenure) has been ever since selected for his loyalty and subservience to the state, not for academic, intellectual nor personal merits.
Prior to this infamous 1961 law, the Grand Imam was elected by his colleagues of the Senior Scholars Association in order to advance Islam’s moderate and peaceful message and never shied away from voicing his concerns towards the current affairs, even if it was against the will of the rulers of the state. Since 1961, the credibility of Al-Azhar has been terribly shaken and allowed the rise of various splinter radical groups, beginning with the violent crackdown on the MB throughout the 60s, which have seen in Al-Azhar’s demise the chance to propagate their version of Islam.
Al-Azhar is living in the shadow of its former glorious reputation as Sunni Islam’s moderate beacon; one that teaches the four imams jurisprudence, advances various doctrinal beliefs, and relies on a number of Sufism schools. While the institution’s current perception is that of a state’s puppet with a preparedness to condemn the regime’s opposition and parrot the approved rhetoric. And the major winner is the MB, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates including Boko Haram and the boorish ISIS.
The cardinal dictum of Islam is conveyed in the Holy Quran’s Chapter 16 (Surat An-Nahl) verse 125: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided“.
If ISIS is preaching hate, decapitation and blood with a deteriorated ideology, Al-Azhar must be preaching peace, compassion and mercy, depending on the Quran & Sunnah, and utilising all modern media to widen its footprint and spread the real image of a religion deteriorated to an incurable extent.
The international community’s might and its troops won’t succeed in defeating Islam’s pariah groups. Al-Azhar’s reengagement in the region and assuming its historic responsibility as the guardian of moderate Islamic discourse will be the only way to counter their warped arguments with the reasonable, peaceful and righteous arguments of Islam. Until Al-Azhar rises to the challenge, the ongoing predicament of Islam will continue. At the time of Al-Azhar’s crisis, the world is witnessing the ongoing atrocities of ISIS.
Mohamed Selim Khalil is a media scholar with a research emphasis on Political
Communication in the Arab World, University of Osnabrück, Germany. Twitter @moselim