With the Pope in Egypt, Debate on Al-Azhar’s Role

The most recent attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority have provoked fear and consternation. This week Pope Francis is due to visit Egypt, to express solidarity with its beleaguered Christians and to appeal for religious tolerance.

The attacks have prompted the usual commentary and analysis of the factors behind worsening sectarianism in the country. They have given new impetus to perennial demands that Islamic institutions in Egypt—foremost among them Al-Azhar University, the country’s largest and oldest Islamic university—embrace reform.

The bombings, claimed by a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group, killed at least 45 people on Palm Sunday, April 9. But they are just the latest attack on Copts, who regularly face institutional discrimination and acts of violence.

For many years, instances of sectarianism were met with denial, and platitudes about Egypt’s tolerance and unity. Today many blame escalating attacks on Christians on the influence of Islamist groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood (which governed the country for one year after Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power) to ISIS.

Others have argued that the problem is a larger cultural one, and have held the educational system responsible. A month before the bombings, columnist Fathia El Dakhakhny wrote in the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm of her shock at some of the ideas her younger brother had picked up at school: that Christians were “unbelievers who will go to Hell,” that their food is disgusting and that it is not fit for Muslims to eat.

“We need to work to change the culture of our society, which is raised on discrimination against others, and there is no doubt this must begin with schools,” wrote El Dakhakhny.

She called for an end to religious education in schools (in which Christians and Muslims are segregated), and for an end to the practice of including religion on identity cards.

In a welcome recent development, several Egyptian universities proposed removing religious affiliation from student identification cards. Yet when a similar, nationwide measure was brought before parliament last year, the former president of Al-Azhar University, now an MP, was vocal in his objections.

In 2015 President Abdel-Fattah-El Sisi called for a “religious revolution” and urged Al-Azhar University to lead the way. A thousand-year-old university, Al-Azhar is a sprawling institution that educates half a million students at campuses across the country. It trains the overwhelming majority of preachers and religious scholars.

Al-Azhar has come under repeated attack for what critics say is an outdated curriculum based on archaic ideas that encourage bigotry towards non-Muslims and support a very conservative interpretation of religion. It is a publicly funded university to which only Muslims are admitted.

Al-Azhar officials have sent mixed messages about their willingness to reform. Their public statements have been defensive in tone and seem intended to safeguard their authority.

In 2015, a spokesman for the university told the press: “Al-Azhar’s teachings are not supportive of terrorism. These curricula have been taught for over 1,000 years, while terrorism emerged only recently […] Claims that Al-Azhar’s teachings include terrorist ideas are nothing but media campaigns to downplay Al-Azhar’s role, and even Islam itself.”

Across higher education, observers note, Coptic Christians face discrimination. They are less likely to be hired, and less likely to be appointed to positions of authority. There are no Coptic Christian university presidents, although Copts make up an estimated 10 percent of the population.

A bomb blast at St. George’s Church in Tanta, Egypt, on Palm Sunday.

After the latest attacks, Egyptian media renewed their attacks on al-Azhar. “They’ve done nothing to face terrorism, nothing to renew religious discourse,” protested TV presenter Ahmed Moussa. Most terrorists, he said, “are graduates of al-Azhar […] The curriculum of al-Azhar, which discriminates between Egyptians, and even between Muslims, needs to be changed completely.”

Yet for the Egyptian state and its loyal media to focus on al-Azhar University as the main purveyor of extremism and sectarianism is also hypocritical. Many scholars and analysts point out that the state itself discriminates against Coptic Christians in matters such as marriage, appointment to public office, and permits for the construction of churches, and argue that it does little to prosecute those who commit acts of sectarian violence.

“The sectarianism faced by Egypt’s Christians is sadly not relegated to a fringe in our society,” wrote Timothy Kaldas, a political analyst and fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “While the majority of Egyptians rightfully condemns the murder of worshippers at Sunday mass, other beliefs are pervasive, beliefs that perpetuate sectarianism throughout society and have been behind most of the sectarian attacks throughout the country. A majority of Egyptians does not even accept that Christian citizens should have the right to build houses of worship as easily as Muslims can build mosques.”

He concludes: “Until Egyptians set aside differences of personal faith and demand rights on the basis of equal recognition and respect as citizens, the sectarian tensions that flare up in Egypt will remain with us.”

Similarly, in the online academic journal Jadaliyya, Paul Sedra, associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Canada, pointed out that under President Sisi, Egypt’s “sectarian structure of governance” has continued unabated. This makes future attacks on Copts more likely than ever, he wrote.


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