Author: Shahira AminPosted
Reuters (23.07.2017) – http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-egypt-religion-idUKKBN1AC1ZP – Commuters passing through Cairo’s downtown Al Shohada metro station, one of the busiest stops on Cairo’s subway system, are now being offered a new service along with the train rides: religious edicts or â€œfatwasâ€ free of charge courtesy of Al-Azhar.
Seated behind a desk in a small kiosk that bears a sign reading â€œFatwa Committee,â€ two on-duty clerics from Sunni Islamâ€™s oldest and most prestigious institution give religious guidance and advice to commuters who seek them out in what the sheikhs say is an attempt â€œto counter extremism.â€
The fatwa kiosk is the first of several that Al-Azhar plans to install at Cairo metro stations in the coming months. It is the brainchild of Mohi El Din Afifi, the secretary-general of the Al-Azhar-affiliated Islamic Research Academy, who hopes â€œto bring Al-Azhar closer to the people,â€ according to Sheikh Ali Mostafa, one of the two clerics working the afternoon shift when Al-Monitor visited. The kiosk, which began operating July 17, is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. â€œSince its launch, hundreds of curious commuters have stopped by to greet us and ask questions on a host of religious matters ranging from rulings on marital and divorce issues to life insurance and atheism,â€ Mostafa said.
â€œThe response from the public has been overwhelming. There is a real hunger for knowledge about religious matters,â€ Sheikh Ahmed Ramzy, the second cleric, told Al-Monitor.
â€œWe are here to clear misconceptions about religion, especially in light of the plethora of myths and false information that is being disseminated on social media and on religious satellite channels linked to radical groups,â€ he said.
Clad in a traditional Islamic caftan (the robe traditionally worn by Muslim clerics), Ramzy consulted with his colleague before responding to a question from 18-year-old Hagar Salah, a veiled commuter, about what Sharia says about practicing taekwondo in a mixed venue.
â€œDoes the sport involve physical contact with the opposite sex?â€ the sheikh asked. â€œIf not, then it is fine,â€ he said, but quickly warned, â€œAs long as you wear a loose sports outfit that does not show your body.â€ After hearing the fatwa, Hagar walked away to catch a train approaching the station, clearly relieved that the sheikh had told her she could continue to practice the sport she enjoys.
A small line was forming outside the kiosk, with commuters waiting patiently for their turn to sit down with the Al-Azhar scholars and pose their questions.
â€œLaunching the kiosk is timely,â€ Hanan Abdel Badie, a metro rider and mother of three, told Al-Monitor. â€œExtremist groups are finding it easy to recruit youths because the latter do not have much knowledge about their religion. Their ignorance makes them easy targets,â€ she said.
Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud, a middle-aged commuter working at the Endowments Ministry, said he, too, welcomes the idea, albeit for a different reason. â€œMost people are busy and donâ€™t often get a chance to consult sheikhs on religious matters. Now the knowledge is accessible and whatâ€™s more, the consultations are private.â€
While the consultations are one on one, guaranteeing a degree of confidentiality, visitors are required to sign their names and write their phone and ID card numbers in the large registration book on the desk in the glass and metal booth â€” a move that has raised concern among skeptics who prefer not to reveal their identity. The sheikhs, however, insist the measure is â€œnecessary.â€
â€œSometimes more research is needed or new facts emerge. We need to have the visitorâ€™s contacts to keep them updated,â€ said Sheikh Sayyed Tewfiq, the head of religious guidance for Cairo at the Islamic Research Academy.
But liberals see the kiosks as a sign of increasing religiosity and an attempt by Al-Azhar to impose religious values and morality on the public.
â€œDuring the one-year rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, Egyptâ€™s liberals had complained that the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was â€˜Islamizingâ€™ Egypt. The current government â€” widely perceived as being secular â€” is doing just that, yet few liberals are complaining. The subway is no place for religion; religion should be kept strictly within the confines of mosques,â€ a commuter told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
Many Egyptian liberals complain that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisiâ€™s talk of modernizing Islamic thinking is â€œno more than lip service.â€ Rights advocate Bahey El Din Hassan, an outspoken critic of the Sisi regime, tweeted that the kiosks were â€œanother attempt by the government to woo the ultraconservative Salafis,â€ warning that it would backfire as such measures â€œwere seriously undermining Sisiâ€™s popularity.â€
Sahar Naqy, a Christian commuter who had a cross tattooed on her wrist and was on her way to the Cathedral bookstore where she works as a sales representative, said she disapproved of the idea, calling it â€œdiscriminatoryâ€ and an â€œin your face bias.â€
â€œCan you imagine what the publicâ€™s reaction would be if Christian clerics were to give advice to the Christian faithful in a public space? We only want to be treated as equals in our own country,â€ she said.
The launch of the kiosk comes on the heels of a series of other measures recently undertaken by the management of the metro that have raised eyebrows. Last month, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a half-hour religious lesson was broadcast daily after the afternoon call for prayer on the metroâ€™s internal radio station. The metroâ€™s management decided to continue the broadcasts after the holy month ended due to â€œthe showâ€™s immense popularity,â€ Ramzy said. Meanwhile, a small prayer area has been designated at some of the main underground metro stations. Some Egyptian liberals see such moves as â€œsignaling a worrying trend of increased religiosity,â€ and the fatwa kiosks have sparked controversy on social media.
â€œReligion is for God and the metro is for the general public,â€ was one comment posted by Hisham Kassem on his Facebook account.
Pro-government lawmaker Mohamed Abu Hamed, who in recent months has presented a bill to parliament to reform Al-Azhar that includes term limits for the grand imam, also protested the launch of the kiosk. In a Twitter post July 20, he asked, â€œHow can the state allow such a shallow and scandalous move that reflects the inability of Al-Azhar to comprehend the need to reform Islamic thinking and only serves to affirm that the institution is far removed from the reality we are facing?â€â€¦â€¦.