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Religious Revolution

As the allure of going to fight in Syria appears to remain dangerously strong for some young Muslims, former Diplomatic Editor of The Times Michael Binyon outlines two counter-terrorism programmes initiated by the Brits

One of the main issues swirling through British politics at the moment is Islamist extremism, and what can be done to prevent young British Muslims being radicalised by extremist preachers and jihadist websites.

British government attempts to crack down on extremist literature or to introduce de-radicalisation courses appear so far to have had little success – those most at risk see them simply as government propaganda, and the allure of going to Syria to fight for Islamic State remains dangerously strong. But two recent British initiatives may go a long way to preventing Islamist ideas getting a grip on young Muslims in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world: a college set up to train young imams in Western and democratic values, and a new intensive English course for trainees at the main Islamic university in Cairo so that they are able to blog and tweet in fluent English in riposte to the extremist messages now being put out on radical websites.

The new Chief Executive of the British Council flew to Cairo for talks with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, the ancient seat of Islamic learning that is the highest source of spiritual authority throughout the Sunni Muslim world. Ciarán Devane signed a memorandum of understanding with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb to step up the English programme already running at the university. The Council is now proposing to teach every student training for religious leadership enough English to communicate online with Muslims who may have only limited knowledge of Arabic, the language of the Koran.

Al-Azhar has been in the forefront of the fight against Islamist extremism. But it has become increasingly worried that its voice is not being heard among young Muslims who live outside the Middle East. Fatwas and decrees denouncing extremism, issued in Arabic, are often less accessible than the online calls by jihadists, issued in English, that have recruited disaffected young Muslims to IS and al-Qaeda.

The need to counter extremist propaganda has been underlined by the killings in Copenhagen by a jihadist radicalised on the internet. The murder also of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya has horrified Egypt and given greater urgency to the search for ways of countering IS and Islamist extremism. President Sisi recently warned the university, in a controversial speech, that a “religious revolution” was needed to stop Islam becoming a source of fear to the non-Muslim world. He told the assembled clerics: “You cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.”

Sheikh Tayeb told Mr Devane that he hoped Britain would join France and Italy in backing Egypt’s call for international action against IS in Libya. He said there was “no scepticism in Egypt about the threat now.” The world should join forces against those who were trying to launch “some sort of religious war.”

He said that Al-Azhar needed English language skills so that it could launch an English-language television station and a sophisticated website to oppose extremism. “All the support for Al-Azhar will be used in the interests of a peaceful world and especially for a peaceful Europe,” he said.

Appointed five years ago by former President Mubarak, Sheikh Tayeb is from the Sufi tradition of Islam, which has been threatened by IS militants. He has been concerned that students at Al-Azhar do not have enough English to take part in debates about Islam, often conducted in English, that have won extremist bloggers and preachers a huge online following. He believes that, to provide mainstream leadership and scholarship for all Sunni Muslim countries, Al-Azhar students must not be isolated from these debates.

The same thinking lies behind an initiative launched by a Muslim lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, who has set up a postgraduate college in Cambridge to teach young British imams the values and ideas that have shaped British society, so that they are better able to understand the context in which young Muslims are growing up in Britain.

The Cambridge Muslim College, set up seven years ago to offer leadership training, is not intended as a bulwark against extremism or a way of inculcating “moderate” Islam. Nor does it aim to provide an “inoculation” against radicalism. But it is probably the most effective way of ensuring that the next generation of British Muslims will feel confident to engage in society and affirm their faith while also drawing on the traditions and values they see around them in Britain today. It is, in many ways, a far more effective way of integrating today’s Muslims in British society than Quilliam or other government-sponsored counter-extremism programmes.

The college, housed in a comfortable former Victorian vicarage in the city centre, is largely the brainchild of Tim Winter, a lecturer in the faculty of divinity at Cambridge. Himself a graduate in Arabic from the university, he converted to Islam, taking the name of Abdal Hakim Murad, and is now one of the country’s foremost Islamic scholars.

“The purpose is to allow students to use the resources that will introduce them to the modern world,” he said. “They cover such things as the challenges of science, Darwin, the Big Bang theory and the Higgs boson. They study a lot of English literature – all the way back to Beowulf. We try to give them a sense of place, of history, morals and beauty. They develop confidence in expressing themselves, so that they can enjoy ideas.”

The diploma course – three twelve-week terms – is rigorous. It covers Western intellectual thought (from the Greeks to post-modernity), British history, religious pluralism, Islam in Britain today, social sciences, British politics, gender studies and the structure of British institutions such as the police, health service, courts and local government. Academic, practical and pastoral skills are taught in classrooms, seminars and on visits. Students are expected to engage in interfaith dialogue and to relate their studies directly to their communities. They attend public lectures given by the university and go on visits to the House of Commons, to Canterbury Cathedral and to Rome. During the five-day visit to the Vatican – a compulsory element of the course – they stay in monasteries or the Irish College and debate with Catholic theologians and scholars. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and now master of Magdalene College Cambridge, delivers lectures at the college on C.S. Lewis or other topics. The final assessment is by examinations, projects and oral presentations, and the college is externally accredited.

The intake, of around 15 students a year, is competitive: only about half those applying from Muslim seminaries or, occasionally, after working as imams, are accepted. For those of Pakistani or Indian heritage growing up in the inner cities, adjusting to the very different look and feel of Cambridge takes time. “They can be a bit disoriented at first,” Mr Winter said. They live in hostels. Each pays up to £2,500 a year, but many are on scholarships. About two thirds are men, and one third women. Most will seek work afterwards on contracts with mosques or in positions of religious or social leadership.

Mr Winter insists that the essential aim is to equip Muslim scholars for full engagement in British society today. On the whole, he argues, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain are fairly good. “Islamophobia is growing but it is still certainly better here for Muslims than in France. And the press is less hostile than it is in America.” He insists that extremism is not making inroads: of the 2,000 or so mosques in Britain, not one has come out in support of Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.

Britain is well placed to make the most of both initiatives. Its standing at Al-Azhar University is high, thanks largely to the visit by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2006. Prince Charles was awarded an honorary degree in recognition of his interest in Islam. One of the few non-Muslims to have been invited to speak at the University, he told 800 Islamic scholars that religious leaders needed to encourage understanding between faiths.

And the interfaith centre at the faculty of divinity at Cambridge University is one of the leading academic centres studying relations between different faiths. The Muslim College has close links with this centre, and it may well set an example to other governments struggling to find a way of stopping the wave of Islamist radicalisation.


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