Deadly attacks on two churches in the Egyptian cities of Tanata and Alexandria in April, during which at least 44 Coptic Christians were killed, have pushed extremist terrorism in Egypt back in the spotlight. And Islamic institutions are feeling the pressure.

  • The religious institution, al-Azhar, is becoming the focal point for extremist violence in Egypt.
  • Can we leave it in the hands of Imams to stop extremism amongst the youth?
  • Islamic institutions must change their relationship with the state.

Many people have cast blame for the deadly attacks on one of the country’s oldest religious institutions, al-Azhar, a renowned Sunni centre of learning and research. Critics say its grand imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb, should have done more to confront Salafi jihadism, which calls for the use of violence to establish an Islamic state.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has several times pointed to the importance of formulating a more public response by religious bodies against radical Islamic philosophies. In January 2015, for instance, he leaned on the Al-Azhar centre to undertake what he called a “religious revolution” to reform the institution’s Islamic thought and correct the concepts it teaches.

Al-Azhar has rejected such mandates in the past, insisting that it is the responsibility of Islamic scholars to decide on the scope of reforms to the faith.

Still, Imam el-Tayeb has been careful not to clash with authorities. According to the Egyptian constitution, Al-Azhar’s grand imam is independent and may not be dismissed. But the Egyptian state exercises strong influence over all institutions, including religious ones.

Many Islamic scholars and officials agree that opening up debate on the religion’s traditions and renewing religious curricula is a necessary and positive step. But that alone would not likely have prevented the recent church bombings.

Such efforts are founded on a misunderstanding of the role of religion on the path to radicalisation.

Youth look for extremist ideas

Pressuring mosques and Islamic leaders to “stop extremism” presupposes that people adopt extremist ideas before their decision to join jihadi groups. But research in Egypt shows an inverse logic: individuals’ ideological change often occurs after they have decided that violence is the only way to change society.

Mohammed, an Egyptian journalist, is an emblematic case. Historically, he was a moderate practising Muslim. Though he prayed five times a day, he never asked any of his colleagues to join him in prayer or insist that women wear a headscarf.

In January 2011, like thousands of people in downtown Cairo, he participated in the Tahrir Square uprising against then-president Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981. The transitional period that followed Mubarak’s ouster was frustrating, but Mohammed never sanctioned the use of violence to achieve political goals.

Even after the military intervention against president Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in July 2013 as the the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed maintained his non-violent approach.

The coup was a setback, he reasoned, and he opposed it. But democratic transition was still his goal.

Mohammed’s discourse shifted after he was injured while covering a Muslim Brotherhood protest of the military intervention in October 2013. He had always wanted to change society. But the violence he experienced on the streets and his time in the hospital led Mohammed to rethink how to do it.

He began to speak about the duty of every human being to face oppression, including with force, and reading Salafi jihadist literature. Several weeks later, he travelled to Syria to join an Islamic fundamentalist group. In July 2014, within months of getting to Syria, he was killed in combat.

Mohammed’s story is typical. The specific paths of other Egyptian jihadists may have been different but the common factor most share is that they went looking for jihadi ideas to bolster their violent aims, and not the other way around.

Can imams stop extremism?

Research confirms that simply renewing moderate religious discourse will not prevent young Muslims from joining jihadi groups – in Egypt or elsewhere. Confronting radicalisation requires a more comprehensive approach that empowers youth both politically and economically in addition to steering them away from Salafi extremist ideology.

Al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions do, of course, have a role to play. They must refute the arguments of Salafist jihadi discourse. But al-Azhar’s main problem today is political rather than religious. Though it is respected by many Egyptian Muslims for its Islamic guidance, the centre’s close relationship with the government undermines its legitimacy.

Young people such as Mohammed who wish to join the jihadi movement will never consult al-Azhar scholars because they consider them a mouthpiece of the regime. Whether moderate or conservative, al-Azhar’s discourse falls on many deaf ears.

When state officials’ call for religious reforms, it only strengthens the popular suspicion that religious state institutions are submissive to the regime. In that sense, al-Sisi’s calls for al-Azhar to take action against extremism could even be counterproductive, further harming these institutions’ credibility and pushing youth to look to other venues for religious learning.

When that happens, we see the creation of a parallel religious sphere comprised of decentralised and relatively obscure religious actors and ideas. The state has no control over this private world of religion classes and online Islamic networks, and al-Azhar is not a player.

Our study shows that these two venues – private classes and the internet – are where the majority of angry youth find Salafi jihadist ideas. Prison offers a third pathway, when non-violent activists jailed for a Facebook post, for instance, are put in the same cell as hardened extremists.

With no other religious forces to counterbalance it, this parallel – often online – religious network is a breeding ground for radicals. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the 1980s and 1990s resisted jihadi ideas, is now seeing members who’ve lost hope in peaceful political change attracted to Salafi extremism.

Al-Azhar can and should play an active role in preventing radicalisation. But if mainstream Islamic institutions hope to mitigate violence enacted in the name of religion, they must begin by changing their relationship with the state to restore their credibility as independent religious actors whose guidance angry young people can seek out and believe.

Re-establishing trust also requires that the imams of al-Azhar and other institutions refrain from imposing on society one “true” image of Islam. Rather, a network of independent-minded, well-trained religious scholars dispatched at the local level could answer the arguments put forth by Salafi jihadists and intervene early at signs of radicalisation.

Egyptians could thrive in a pluralistic and free religious environment if the state did not try to monopolise the religious market by force, and exclude independent actors. Even if Al-Azhar can play a role in slowing down the spread of extremist ideas, facing violent radicalisation remains the responsibility of the regime.