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University sacking exposes religious, political tensions

The administration of Egypt’s state-run Al-Azhar University in Cairo dismissed its president last week after he had accused a prominent Muslim researcher of apostasy in what appears to be a power tussle between the traditional university and a head of state determined to fight violent radicalism.

Ahmed Hosni’s sacking came days after he had appeared on a private Egyptian television show and called Islam el-Behery, a self-styled religious reformist, an “apostate”. The remark triggered an outcry in the Middle Eastern country.

Months ago, el-Behery was released from prison on a presidential pardon after serving a year’s sentence after a conviction of defaming Islam in a case that raised concerns about freedom of expression in Egypt.

El-Behery had questioned the credibility of some widely-accepted sources of the Prophet Muhammed’s sayings, a major reference to Islamic jurisprudence.

Under fire for his remark, Hosni made a public apology, saying his apostatising of el-Behery was a n incorrect view that did not conform to the methodology of Al-Azhar, which is Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning.

“I apologise for this wrong, hasty and personal remark,” Hosni said in a statement. “Judging people and their sayings and behaviour is up to the judiciary, not scholars.”

However, despite the apology, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, who is in charge of supervising the university, dismissed Hosni from the post three months after he had taken office. El-Tayeb also decreed that the dean of Al-Azhar’s faculty of Arabic language, Mohamed Hussein el-Mahrsawy, would temporarily run the university until a new president is appointed.

The replacement comes at a time when Al-Azhar Mosque and its university are the target of criticism in the mostly Muslim country.

Over recent weeks, critics in pro-government media have accused both institutions of failing to respond to repeated calls by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to reform religious teachings in order to help fight violent radicalism.

According to local media reports, a committee of education experts, created in 2015 at the behest of el-Sisi, has been reviewing Al-Azhar's educational curriculum to weed out content perceived to be inciting violence.

Egypt has been hit by a spate of militant attacks since 2013 when the army, led at the time by el-Sisi, toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following massive protests against his divisive rule.

Some secularists have played down Hosni’s sacking.

One of them is Gaber Asfour, a former minister of culture noted for his criticism of Al-Azhar.

“This is a superficial step after the man [Hosni] landed them in an embarrassing situation,” Asfour told private newspaper Al Watan. “How come a man who belongs to Al-Azhar accused a Muslim of apostasy while the sheikh of Al-Azhar refused to apostatise Daesh?” Asfour asked, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State terrorist organisation. “This has exposed to the people contradictions inside Al-Azhar.”

The 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar was originally an institution for Islamic learning. In 1961, Egypt’s then president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the seminary to be expanded to teach non-religion subjects such as medicine, pharmacology, engineering, science and foreign languages. However, non-Muslims are not allowed to attend Al-Azhar University.

“This exclusion violates the law and the constitution,” said Asfour, who is also a well-known writer. “The government universities, financed by state money, should be accessible to all citizens regardless of their religions.”

He suggested that schools teaching non-religion disciplines be separated from Al-Azhar whose role should be limited to religious instruction.
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