Al-Azhar takes up anti-terrorism fight through kiosk on Cairo metro station

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Two elderly sheikhs have set up shop at a kiosk in one of Cairo’s busiest underground stations, ready to dole out religious advice to commuters queueing outside.

It is the latest attempt by Al-Azhar university, Egypt’s highest religious authority and one of the world’s most eminent seats of Sunni Muslim learning, to touch base with the wider public and counter the appeal of militant Islam.

“We are saving (people) energy, time and effort by placing this desk in this blessed place that is the greatest meeting point for the Egyptian population,” said Saeed Amer, deputy secretary general of the Al-Azhar department in charge of issuing religious edicts and one of the clerics in the kiosk.

Almost 2,000 people have come to seek advice since the initiative began two weeks ago in the Shohadaa subway station. Many questions to the clerics have touched on issues of Islamic prayer rituals, inheritance, marriage and divorce.

Commuters appeared to welcome the initiative, with some even calling for more kiosks to pop up at other stations across the capital. But some critics were not impressed.

“It is clear (Al-Azhar) is disconnected from reality. I am shocked that after almost four years of requests from the ... president, and passed through all levels of society, to make amendments to religious rhetoric, they only come up with this (kiosk) idea,” parliamentarian Mohamed Abu Hamed told Reuters.

“I will not respect what they are doing in this domain until they practically do what is demanded of them, which is the ... revision of the context (of religious discourse). That is the core problem.”

The 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar has come under fire from parliament and local media who accuse its clerics of failing to modernize their religious discourse to better counter the lure of militancy among disaffected, marginalized young people.

Islamist militants are waging an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police in clashes since 2013. Militants’ attacks have increasingly spilled into the mainland, killing Christians and tourists.

In 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on Al-Azhar to update their Islamic teachings to better engage youth and steer them away from violent jihadism.

The Azhar Observatory was subsequently launched. Operating in 10 languages, the Observatory tracks social media where militants spread their rhetoric so as to counter and refute it in timely fashion.

The university has also published several books about terrorism as a threat to international peace and stressed the need to correct militants” interpretations of Islam. The books are displayed for sale on shelves outside the kiosk.

The kiosk advice project will last until the beginning of September, Transport Minister Hisham Arafat said, but he added that the government is open to repeating the experiment if there was enough public demand.