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How Al-Azhar plans to strike back against 'fatwa chaos'

Egypt's Al-Azhar faces an uphill battle to confront religious extremism as it continues its efforts to launch a TV channel that promotes moderate Islam.

"Fatwa chaos" is a term commonly used by Muslim scholars at Cairo's Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) to describe extremist religious discourse.

Such discourse is created by leaders of Salafist movements or those who support the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Al-Azhar, which seeks to play a pivotal role in managing this conflict. In 2014 and 2015, the Ministry of Awqaf prevented imams who are not certified by Al-Azhar or by the ministry itself to mount pulpits for Friday prayers and preach to the congregations.

But it's been a long battle for Al-Azhar. For many years, Al-Azhar has been trying to start a satellite TV channel to counter what the university sees as extremist ideology and to disseminate what Al-Azhar sheikhs call “the principles of moderate Islam." Financing a nonprofit channel can be challenging.

On Nov. 25, the acting head of Al-Azhar University, Ibrahim al-Hodhod, said in a press statement that Al-Azhar is still seeking to launch the channel but is facing many difficulties.

Hodhod explained that there are relatively few problems for those who wish to launch typical channels that broadcast movies and other programs to make a profit through ads. But Al-Azhar would feature programming that reflects moderate Islam through, for example, talk shows, contests and children's programs.

Its cost is likely to exceed 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($55 million), Hodhod said, adding that the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, is exploring sources of funding.

Speaking to young people who participated in an Al-Azhar community dialogue Nov. 28, the school's undersecretary, Abbas Shuman, said that the channel's form and content will befit Al-Azhar and its history. Shuman explained that the channel will not be a religious channel, but one that offers all kinds of programs to all groups and discusses topics neutrally and objectively.

Extremist channels supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements began operating following the June 2011 revolution and the subsequent growth of extremist views in the media and politics. Though the channels were shut down following the fall of then-President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, their influence remains.

Asked about the feasibility of an Al-Azhar channel, Yasser Abdul Aziz, a media training consultant with the BBC's Creative Diversity Development Fund, told Al-Monitor the channel would be an important tool to counter radical religious dialogue and breathe new life into religious discourse.

“Chaos is plaguing the religious discourse, similar to the media discourse, and the content of [both] needs to be reviewed," Abdul Aziz said. "Extremist fatwas result from the erroneous understanding and interpretation of some religious texts. Such understanding needs to be boldly, impartially and transparently corrected, especially as far as takfir [accusations of apostasy], jihad and women's issues are concerned, for these have been the foundations of most extremist organizations.”

He called for the media to be held accountable for its content and to respect viewers' intelligence. Some members of the media, he said, try to sensationalize stories and take advantage of extreme fatwas to raise ratings, improve readership or simply promote bias, given the absence of media controls. "This increases the Egyptian viewers’ confusion and wrongly promotes those fatwas,” he said.

In 2012 and 2013, numerous fatwas were issued as pro-Muslim Brotherhood channels proliferated in Egypt. Sayed Zayed, a member of the Fatwa Committee of Al-Azhar, issued a study on “The Misguided Fatwas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists” in November 2013. The study looked at 51 fatwas Zayed deemed radical. Chief among them was one allowing women and children to act as human shields to protect demonstrators, as a way to participate in jihad. Another fatwa allowed girls to marry at age 10. Still others ruled that Muslim women who swam in the sea were committing adultery and that female students were not allowed to go out to study. Meanwhile, dozens of fatwas permitting violence against Christians declared that those who opposed the Brotherhood were infidels.

After the fall of Morsi and the Brotherhood in 2013, several more fatwas were issued that moderates also deemed extremist — but they fell at the other end of the scale. According to an August 2013 fatwa by Ahmed Karima, an Al-Azhar law professor, the Brotherhood was full of infidels and apostates. Other fatwas ordered men married to Brotherhood women to file for divorce and women not to marry Brotherhood members. Also, fathers were to stop providing for sons discovered to be Brotherhood supporters or state apparatus opponents. Another fatwa required everyone to vote in the presidential elections of 2014, the first to be held following the Brotherhood's fall.

Sami al-Sharif, former dean of the university's Faculty of Information and former head of Egypt's Radio and Television Union, told Al-Monitor that some media outlets have damaged young people's religious values and spread extremism.

He pointed out that Al-Azhar may be able to rectify the situation and called for the swift launch of its channel. He also highlighted the need to provide technical and financial support. “I imagine that the channel will greatly renew the religious discourse and fight extremism,” he said.

Asked about the controls needed for the success of the channel amid what Abdul Aziz described as “the volatile climate of religious and media discourse,” Sharif said, “Of course, there is a state of turmoil that requires renewing the religious discourse of specialists, namely Al-Azhar imams. And one of the reasons behind the faltering attempts to renew the religious discourse and fight extremism is that many satellite channels air commentary by people who are neither specialized nor affiliated with Al-Azhar on religious affairs, and issue fatwas.”

Sometimes even Al-Azhar graduates issue extremist fatwas and are treated by the media as if they speak for the university, Sharif said.

“One of the controls should require the media to distinguish between Al-Azhar as a religious institution and its graduates and others who speak on its behalf. … These only reflect the ideology of these graduates … and not Al-Azhar’s. No institution can control the intellect of all of its students and alumni.”

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