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Egypt’s Al-Azhar pressed to call Muslim Brotherhood terror group

Religious institutions in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, increasing pressure on Al-Azhar to do likewise.
A few people walk in the vicinity of the closed Al-Azhar mosque in Egypt's capital Cairo on March 20, 2020, after the country's Muslim religious authorities decided to put the Friday prayers on hold, in order to avoid gatherings and the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 disease. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

CAIRO — During an interview on the local Sada al-Balad satellite TV channel on Nov. 27, Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam presented testimonies of Al-Azhar scholars, reading from their books that the Muslim Brotherhood has “a deviant ideology” that led to the killing of innocent people, assassinations, acts of destruction and sedition.

Some observers see Allam’s statement as an attempt to show that the religious authorities in Egypt are in alignment with those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which recently classified the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Al-Azhar did not follow suit.

Egypt declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and banned all of its activities in 2013. Saudi Arabia declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in 2014 and the UAE followed the same year.

On Nov. 10, for the first time in its history, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars declared the Muslim Brotherhood a “deviant terrorist group” that does not represent Islam and hides under the cover of religion while engaging in practices that contradict Islam while inciting division, discord, violence and terrorism.

The council said that the group’s goal is to rise to power, stir up strife and divide the nation.

In the wake of the Saudi decision, the UAE quickly also classified the group as a terrorist organization in a Nov. 23 declaration by the Fatwa Council that read, “Every group or organization that seeks sedition and practices or incites violence is a terrorist organization regardless of its name or advocacy.”

Al-Azhar's silence prompted several Egyptian government media outlets to criticize the religious authority and demand it brand the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

In his Nov. 11 show broadcast on TeN TV, journalist Nashat al-Daihi called on Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb to classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.

“Isn’t it time for Al-Azhar to issue a statement that warms the hearts of the nation?” he asked. "We are waiting for an inclusive and satisfying statement from Al-Azhar regarding this group.”

Journalist Hamdi Rizk wrote in Al-Masry Al-Youm Nov. 12, “I look forward to the day the Council of Senior Scholars of Al-Azhar, which is the highest Sunni religious authority in the world, issues a decision classifying the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization similarly to what the Council of Senior Scholars did in Saudi Arabia.”

“We are waiting for Al-Azhar to announce its stance on the terrorist group,” he added.

On Nov. 13, the state newspaper Akhbar al-Youm reported, “Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group,” stating, “It is strange that Al-Azhar chose to remain silent regarding the decision of the Saudi council and refrained from commenting.”

Amna Naseer, a member of the parliament’s Religious Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor that Al-Azhar refuses to classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization due to the presence of scholars and professors who follow the same ideas of the group inside Al-Azhar, hence its decision to remain silent and refrain from commenting.

Abdel Moneim Fouad, dean of the Faculty of Islamic Sciences for Expatriates at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor that Al-Azhar does not belong to any faction or party, and its position on the Muslim Brotherhood has been clear ever since the Brotherhood held power. Al-Azhar, he continued, was involved in several disputes with former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Brotherhood.

On June 30, 2012, Tayeb withdrew from the inauguration ceremony of Morsi at Cairo University because no seat was allocated for him at the VIP hall or for Al-Azhar's senior scholars in the main hall.

Tayeb said in 2014 that he refused to attend Morsi’s speeches because they included severe insults to Egyptians. He added, “Al-Azhar is a comprehensive institution whose work is based on institutionalism, and we must leave matters of jurisprudence and legal rulings to it alone. It is the most knowledgeable about the affairs of the Islamic religion, being the largest Sunni body in the world with millions of followers in various countries.”

Jamal Mazloum, an adviser at the Nasser High Military Academy, told Al-Monitor that the Saudi and UAE announcements came after the Muslim Brotherhood welcomed US President-elect Joe Biden, showing that Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are concerned over Biden’s policies toward the group.

Immediately after Biden’s victory was announced, the Muslim Brotherhood congratulated him and called on the elected US administration to address policies that support dictatorships.

Mustafa el-Feki, a former parliamentarian and current librarian in Alexandria, said in a Nov. 12 interview on MBC Egypt that Egypt was concerned about Biden’s stance on the Muslim Brotherhood. “Biden’s position was aligned with that of former President [Barack] Obama, who believed that the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is a crackdown on the national opposition.”

Mazloum added that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted to send the message to the new US administration that Arab countries will not tolerate any kind of sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood or accept its legitimization. He said they tried to form a united front to declare that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization from a religious point of view. 

Mazloum concluded, “The coming days will witness a new episode of the ongoing conflict between the three countries and the Brotherhood, as the latter will try to show that it is not a proponent of violence with the aim of garnering global support, especially from the US, to achieve its goals.”

On Nov. 12, the group said it was “very far from violence, terrorism and dividing the nation, and since its inception it has been an advocacy group.”

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