The Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's three-day visit to India – second in a year – clearly points to an increasing engagement between the two countries. For India, Egypt is emerging as a crucial link between northeast Africa and the Middle East. Given the paramount significance of the two countries’ consultations on international security, peace, counter-extremism and sustainable development, it raises the question that why it did not receive the kind of media attention it deserved.
In a recent Firstpost article, Shantanu Mukharji, a security analyst, has precisely noted that during his visit to India, Sisi may not have drawn substantial media attention – both in print and electronic – yet the bilateral talks between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi did yield tangible results: the security and defence deal was signed by the two nations to bolster both the countries' concern for growing threats of terrorism and ongoing radicalisation — a core area that merits complete attention.
In a landmark decision to combat the threat of extremism and radicalism, India and Egypt have agreed to enhance cooperation in security and counter-extremism efforts, considering terrorism and radicalism ‘the gravest threats the two countries face’.
The wide-ranging talks between PM Modi and Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi concluded that the two countries are required to strengthen ties to combat the sizable threats and common challenges from the dangers of terror and extremism that entails concerted efforts at all levels to climate change and sustainable energy sources for future generation. While Sisi laid emphasis on a “robust security cooperation” with India, Modi stressed the need for an "action-oriented agenda" to drive the engagements in a range of sectors. He reportedly said, "President and I are of one view that growing radicalisation, increasing violence and spread of terror pose a real threat not just to our two countries, but, also to nations and communities across regions."
Given the fact that the extremist ideology of all the radical movements across the region is quite identical, Egypt can be taken as a ‘trusted friend’ of India in this joint venture of countering extremism. For, Sisi hits out directly at the very ideology of terror that poses ‘a real threat not just to our two countries, but, also to nations and communities across regions’.
Substantial evidences reveal that the current Egyptian government has genuinely engaged in eliminating the extremist creed from its roots. After coming to power two years back, Sisi has initiated major reforms to curb the cancer of extremism. Most notably, Egypt is the first Muslim country which has banned the entire corpus of extremist literature on its soil. It has cracked down on the extremist thoughts underpinned by the radical Islamist ideologues like Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb who inspired the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — the champion of political Islamist ideology in the region.
It is noteworthy that the MB came into power in 2011 taking advantage of the Tahrir Square revolution when Hosni Mubarak, a quasi-military leader in Egypt, was ousted. But political Islamism was not compatible with the mainstream Egyptian Muslims’s moderate worldview. Therefore, the MB backed the former Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi who faced the ire of Egyptian people and was dethroned when Sisi moved in 2013. The mainstream Muslims in Egypt are traditionally anchored in a moderate narrative of Islam and hence did not reconcile with the violent extremism of political Islamists.
Sisi hit the nail right on the head by countering the ideological underpinnings promoting radical Islamism. The Egyptian Ministry of Religious affairs removed all books and digital material conducive to political Islamism and antithetical to the moderate narrative of Islam. In a remarkable example of counter-extremism, the Egyptian authorities confiscated the literature promoting the extremist religious ideas. Daily News Egypt had reported that the decision included an investigation into the small libraries in mosques in order to purge them of books that call for the opposite of “moderate Islam”.
In this context, Modi’s remarks while welcoming the Egyptian President at Presidential Palace in New Delhi assume significance. He hailed both the current leadership as well as the people of Egypt, calling Sisi “a man of many achievements”, and the Egyptian Muslims as a “voice of moderate Islam”.
Remarkably, the world’s largest Sufi Islamic seminary Jamia al-Azhar al-Sharif, also known as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, voices the silent majority of moderate Muslims. The former president and the current Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Shaikh Ahmad-ul-Tayeb, who is also the head of a Sufi shrine in Egypt, calls for radical reforms in the Islamic thought. In an anti-terrorism Islamic summit in Mecca, he showed his courage of conviction for introspection into the ‘intolerant interpretations of Islam’ to contain the spread of extremism in the Muslim world.
The world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb as saying that the Islamic world is currently “plagued” by extremist thinking which has bred groups such as Islamic State and Al-Nusra. Furthermore, Tayeb told the daily that the solution to preventing countless people from getting radicalised lay in reforming Islamic education programs in Muslim countries which are now infiltrated with “extreme and incorrect interpretations of Islam”.
Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb explained radicalism as a “product of extremist ideology” linked to “historical misinterpretations” of the Qur’an and the hadith (prophetic sayings). He opined that there were certain Islamic doctrines that have been manipulated over hundreds of years, which have led to the growing radicalisation. Therefore, he called for cooperation between different religious, educational, and media institutions to prevent youth from getting drawn into extremist thinking and joining terrorist groups.
Considered as the highest authority in Islamic jurisprudence, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb greatly influences the moderate Muslims worldwide. As someone who is also responsible for official religious matters along with the Grand Mufti of Egypt, he inspired the current Egyptian President in his effort to stave off radicalism. Consequently, Sisi cracked down on all the extremist underpinnings of the Egyptian Islamist ideologues such as Sheikh Hasan al-Banna and Syed Qutub and their ilk. He also asked the previously-appointed Salafist sheikhs at Al-Azhar University to shun their radical religious thoughts.
In his recent opinion piece in The Times of India, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself pointed it out that Egypt has also been at the forefront in the fight against terrorism. The terrorism which has taken advantage of the security vacuum in some countries due to the ongoing conflicts and crises. Furthermore, Sisi said that combating terrorism is primarily an ideological war against hatred, extremism and violence. Terming the Al-Azhar institution as a beacon of moderate Islam, Sisi said that it plays an essential role in rectifying the religious discourse in order to reflect the real essence and virtues of Islam.
Like Egypt, many other moderate Muslim countries are battling the onslaught of radicalism on a deeper ideological level, repelling the extremist thoughts and encouraging tolerant virtues of Islam
Some North African countries like Algeria, Morocco, Cyprus and even our neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Kazakhstan have also followed this model. These countries are ideologically combating the radicalism in all its forms, particularly in mosques, madrasas and in the educational curricula. They have replaced the hardcore Salafist-Wahhabi imams with spiritually-inclined moderates, with an aim to prevent extremism and restore peaceful narrative of Islam.
But the radical Islamists, on the other hand, are now growing in democratic countries like India, where they are free to further their nefarious designs. Scores of institutions and radical Islamist organisations well-funded by the petro-dollars are running in the country for long.
While the imam of al-Azhar hits out against radical thoughts and calls for reformation in the educational curricula in Egypt, many Islamist clergy in India are vehemently opposing such reformation. They reject it outright as an outlandish attempt to encroach upon their sphere of influence. Deplorably, a large number of Indian-Islamic seminaries, educational institutions and religious endowments are now influenced by the radical clerics and founders of global-political Islamism, who are no longer influential in their own Islamic countries like Egypt.
It is indispensable for the Indian Muslims as well as the security experts to delve deeper into this ideological challenge that Egypt has tackled in order to confront the radicalism.
The author is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. He tweets at @GRDehlvi. Email: email@example.com