McClatchy Foreign StaffApril 14, 2015
CAIRO — Al Mu’tasim Billah, Sufyan al Omari and Omar al Masri are 21-year-old students at Cairo’s al Azhar University, the oldest and most prestigious institute of Sunni Islamic learning in the world. But none of them is planning to graduate.
Al Mu’tasim Billah – the name means “he who seeks Allah” – traveled to Syria six months ago to join the Islamic State. Al Omari wants to follow as soon as possible. Al Masri is looking closer to home: He hopes to join Wilayat Sina, an extremist group in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.
The names are not real. They are the noms de guerre the men have chosen for their new lives as holy warriors. And that, they say, is the logical consequence of the education they received at al Azhar.
“The Islamic State is only putting into practice what we have been taught by al Azhar,” said al Omari. “It is doing what people always hoped al Azhar would do one day if they were not a mouthpiece of the ruling regime.”
In a world where the Obama administration, its allies in the Arab world and counterterrorism officials everywhere are searching to understand how Muslim youth become radicalized, it is possible, many say, to look no further than al Azhar, whose influence spreads far beyond its Cairo campus.
Al Azhar is more than just a local university. It sends imams to Islamic centers all over the world. It offers scholarships to thousands of foreign students to study Shariah – Islamic law – in Cairo. It decides which religious books may be published. In Egypt, it recommends which films can be shown and holds classes beginning in elementary school years.
Its curriculum, its critics note, also uses many of the same texts that the Islamic State cites to justify the beheading of Christians in Libya or the use of captured Yazidi women as sex slaves.
Ahmed Abdo Maher, a lawyer and former secret policeman who for years has been one of al Azhar’s fiercest critics, cites a passage from a book used in al Azhar high school classes that deals with cannibalism.
“It says that a Muslim is allowed to kill apostates and eat their flesh if they are hungry, as long as they don’t cook or grill it. This is taught to high school kids,” he said indignantly in his office in Cairo.
“It is a fantasy to think that al Azhar is moderate,” he said. “ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaida . . . all these groups stem from the way al Azhar has been interpreting Islam.”