A fatwa kiosk set up in Cairo’s al-Shohada metro station is reportedly proving a huge success, with people queuing up to get advice from a group of religious scholars inside a green patterned booth.
According to the Guardian, it’s the brainchild of sheikhs from Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar al-Sharif. Said one sheikh staffing the booth:
We usually talk about the issues of daily life, and what religion says about such things. The topics we mostly discuss are marriage, divorce and inheritance.
Al-Azhar al-Sharif says the project is intended to correct misinterpretations of Islam.
Sheikh Tamer Mattar, the coordinator of the authority’s International Centre for Electronic Fatwas, said that the booth was designed to direct citizens to seek advice from al-Azhar, instead of extremist groups.
The experiment was successful so far and we hope that it will expand. We can say it was successful, as in the eight days of the initiative, we received 1,500 questions. At any moment you can find tens of people waiting to present theirs.
The booth operates two shifts daily, welcoming visitors from 9am until 8pm.
Yet few seemed convinced that the project would attract those with pre-existing extremist tendencies to seek guidance, especially as those staffing the booth are recording the identity card number of those visiting along with their complaints.
Said the sheikh staffing the booth for its morning shift:
Extremists won’t come to us to seek advice. We’re targeting people on the street who are ignorant of religious matters – they come to us and we try to put them on the right track of moderation.
Mohamed Abu-Hamed, an Egyptian MP who has sparred frequently with al-Azhar over a desire for greater government regulation of the religious body and its teachings, poo-pooed the booths.
The whole project is absurd.
Other critics, according to The Times of Israel, argue that rooting out extremist ideology will not happen in metro stations. Many have used social media to slam Al-Azhar for setting up the booth in a public place, used by all sectors of the Egyptian society, to spread the teachings of Islam.
Said Beshoy Mikhail, a 24-year-old Coptic Christian:
This is not its place at all. I am completely against the idea.
Mikhail believes that if Muslim clerics can set up advice booths in subways, Coptic priests should be allowed to do the same.
Several human rights activists said the move is somewhat discriminatory. Activist Sherif Azer said:
We see the government feeding more religious education and interference of religion in the day-to-day life.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has repeatedly blamed what he says is outdated religious discourse for the rising Islamic militancy in the country that has targeted mainly security personnel and Coptic Christians.
He has called on Al-Azhar, which touts itself as the voice of moderation, to lead the “modernisation of religious discourse” since he took office in 2014, following the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi whose one-year rule proved divisive.
The Ministry of Endowments, which handles religious affairs in Egypt, has taken some measures to exert more control.
Imams have been asked to read standardised government-written sermons during Friday prayers, the high point of the Muslim week. Some small mosques across the country have been closed and any cleric labelled a hard-liner has been barred from preaching in mosques.
Al-Azhar has also tasked a number of clerics to preach in coffee and tea houses across the nation.
Amr Ezzat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said Al-Azhar is trying to:
Market itself in attempts to reach out to people. The state is treating religion as if it is public service.
Subway booths won’t root out extremists, he said, and militants “wouldn’t visit Al-Azhar clerics” in metro stations anyway, since they vehemently oppose the institute.
But Al-Azhar’s secretary-general Mohi el-Din Afifi said plans for more booths are continuing.