Egyptian government working with US to secularise and Americanise Islam

A spate of recent events highlights the urgency with which the Americans are trying to reshape Islam in their own image and interests. Since mid-August, for example, reports in several Egyptian newspapers have told of dozens of mosque imams and khateebs being sent to America secretly in what are called "cultural exchanges". These have been funded by the US Agency for International Development ad "co-operation" with al-Azhar and the ministry of auqaf, which is the government body that now has full powers over Egypt’s mosques.

At the same time, the reports told of an institute for the training of religious teachers being planned in a northern Cairo suburb, to be funded and supervised by the Americans, and using curricula and textbooks prepared in America. Egyptians have become accustomed in the last decade to Americans intervening in the country’s education system to impose curricula and textbooks, with priority being given to purging syllabuses of all traces of Islam. However, if recent reports are true, this is the first time that America has openly made inroads into the country’s organisation of Islamic religious education.

This does not mean that this is the first time American encroachments have been made into the conditions of Islam in Egypt: far from it. In mid-August a furore arose as some reports were that the ministry of auqaf intends to impose a unified Friday khutba (sermon) on more than 80,000 mosques spread far and wide. It was said that the new, unified khutba, to be read out simultaneously in all of Egypt’s mosques, will expressly stress toleration and co-operation with the "other", in this case with America and Israel, and will avoid criticising the policies of the US and its allies. Although the minister of auqaf pretended to deny these reports, he was contradicted by anonymous testimonies from imams and by the fact that for many years Friday khutbas have not only sounded suspiciously similar but have confessedly been dictated by the ministry of auqaf to accord with the government’s policies, including its alliance with America.

In fact, even before the events of September 2001 in the US, which are being used as a blanket justification for all US-led attempts to "reform" Islam and free it of its "terrorism- breeding tendencies", there were attempts to interfere with Islam in Egypt. From the mid-seventies, in the heyday of the Islamic revival, many American academics, journalists and "secret agents" came to the country to study the condition of Islam and size up the nature, depth and directions of the "Islamic phenomenon", as it was called. So anxious and fearful were the Americans about the prospect of an Islamic revolution in Egypt that they were, and to some extent are still being, manipulated by the present regime, which took over after Sadat’s assassination in 1981, to provide it with political, financial and security backing against such an eventuality. Indeed, the enduring strategic pillar in the Egypt-US relationship over the last two decades has been the joint war against what has variously been called Islamic extremism, fanaticism and, more recently, terrorism.

America has also been engaging in its own crusade against Islam, independent of its "co-operation" with the Egyptian government. In the early nineties, when Dr Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi, the present shaikh of al-Azhar, was mufti of Egypt, he was feted in America, where his controversial opinions were hailed as "enlightened" and "progressive". When he became shaikh of al-Azhar, two of his controversial actions were meeting with Israeli rabbis and starting a "dialogue" with western Christianity. But for the last eight years or so his consistent line has been condemnation of what he describes as extremism, covering all movements advocating the establishing of Islamic systems of government.

The Americans also tried to attack the Islamic educational system in Egypt: pro-American intellectuals and officials have advocated the abolition of the al-Azhar-run schools and institutes as an unnecessary duplication of effort in education, undermining the general (secular-oriented) system, and advised the secularisation of al-Azhar, changing its curricula and opening it to non-Muslims.

The incidents of September 2001 gave the American administration and the dominant alliance of fundamentalist Christian and pro-Zionist circles in America a golden opportunity to produce the worst forms of anti-Islamic sentiment and policy. It is now the established view that to root out "Islamic terrorism" a thorough reformation should take place of Islamic ideas, teachings, values and beliefs. Even more seriously, almost all the Arab regimes have accepted the American characterisation of Islam and Islamic movements as actual or potential sources of terrorism all over the world. Consequently a coalition has emerged between both parties to make war on all sorts of Islamic groups, tendencies and organisations, and to ban them and harass them. The war on Islam, however, has a sinister dimension that far exceeds the security aspect which gets all the headlines. This is the war on the Islamic corpus of ideas itself; the "content" of Islam. The drive is to thoroughly secularise and westernise Islam, rendering it a docile "folkloric" component of the globalised world culture, that conforms to the ideas and values of the new world order presided over by America and the West. This involves a complete reshaping or rewriting of Islam, and the Americans are pushing this goal to an extreme extent.

The instances already mentioned are mere details and segments of a wider picture: a picture that is becoming larger and clearer. Moreover, it is a picture that covers all parts of the Islamic world and where the parts, the single countries, copy and learn from each other. For example, Egypt started the nationalisation of mosques in the early nineties and followed it with the dismissal of imams and khateebs who did not toe the official line. Today these policies are being implemented in many other parts of the Muslim world. In the sixties Tunisia took the lead in destroying the Islamic establishment; now it is in Egypt that al-Azhar is being undermined. Similarly, in the eighties Tunisia introduced the method of cutting off resources to starve Islamic activists and stifle their activities, thus preventing new generations from being nurtured in and by Islam.

This approach is now, about two decades later, the officially-accredited policy of all the Arab regimes. It involves very close control of mosques and the banning of all activities in them, except a few moments in which salah is performed. Islamic education and study of the Qur’an are frowned upon, if not actually banned. The space given to religious programmes in the media is being steadily reduced, and more time and space (indeed, many new TV satellite channels) are being set up to churn out Western pop music, soap-operas, dramas, comedies and ‘soft’ pornography. Islamic associations, even charitable ones, are being denied licenses and Islamic publications censored and confiscated. The official media and top officials everywhere now openly criticise and denigrate such things as Islamic dress for women and men’s beards. Secular intellectuals are encouraged, and subsidised, to hold conferences, publish books and magazines, and write articles against every aspect of Islam.

In a country like Egypt, for one example, the ministry of culture has started publishing a "cultural weekly" called Cairo. This magazine comes out every Tuesday, and its chief editor is a former communist. Under the telling slogan of "breaking taboos", it is the standard policy of this publication to commission articles from secularists and so-called "enlightened" Muslims to cast doubts on every aspect of Islam: the Qur’an, the Seerah, the Sunnah, fiqh, the Shari’ah, the Sahaba (ra), and so on. It is interesting that al-Azhar does not react to such articles, or is prevented from doing so. Most probably al-Azhar knows that all this is official policy, and does not dare to oppose it.

In fact, in August Dr Tantawi demanded in Malaysia that "extremist religious books" be confiscated. Paradoxically, it was spokesmen for the doctor himself who a few months earlier, under heavy attack from secularists, had vowed that al-Azhar will not try to ban, or take any legal proceedings against, any books that attack Islam, however malevolently and misguidedly they do so.

As an evil genius America, through its agents and its own organs, is the promoter and supporter of all these policies. American newspapers and official reports encourage these co-ordinated attacks on Islam, and measure the "performance" and "friendliness" of the regimes in the Muslim world by the degree to which they succeed in advancing such policies. Governments, officials, prominent personalities, organisations, the media, are all being judged and evaluated by the extent to which they further and execute the anti-Islamic agenda. Anyone in the Arab world nowadays who wants to be accepted or helped by the Americans knows that the quickest way, and the surest one, to American support is by attacking Islam or "reinterpreting" it to bring it into conformity with the secularised, Americanised reading that the US wants to promote to the exclusion of all others.