- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

CAIRO — Stunned by terror attacks in a Red Sea resort, Egyptians are in a remarkably frank debate about whether mainstream mosques and schools — and the government itself — should be blamed for promoting Islamic extremism.

Even some in the pro-government press say authorities have created a climate in which young people are turning into radicals and suicide bombers.

“There is no use denying. … We incited the crime of Sharm el Sheik,” ran a bold red headline of a lead editorial by Al-Musawwar’s editor in chief, Abdel-Qader Shohaib.

The bombers “didn’t just conjure up in our midst suddenly, they are a product of a society that produces extremist fossilized minds that are easy to be controlled,” Mr. Shohaib wrote in Wednesday’s editions.

In a country more used to hearing general condemnations of terrorism, critics on Wednesday were angry — and specific — hammering at instances when they say the government let state press and mosque preachers, including many appointed by the government, promote intolerance.

The debate since Sharm el Sheik has been a deepening of the soul-searching that has gone on across the Arab world in recent years over whether religious interpretations need reform in the face of terror attacks by Muslim radicals.

The debate began, hesitantly, after the September 11 attacks on the United States. And the voices have grown with each act of terrorism — particularly ones in the Middle East. A series of attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003 forced that country to begin taking action against extremist thought.

The 2004 Madrid bombings increased calls for change among Muslims in Europe and the Middle East. After the July 7 suicide bombings in London, Britain’s largest Sunni group issued a binding religious edict, known as a fatwa, condemning the attack.

Egypt has been hit this month by a double blow: the kidnapping and slaying of its top envoy in Iraq by Islamic militants and the bomb blasts that ripped through Sharm el Sheik, killing as many as 88 people — the vast majority of them Egyptians.

What was unusual about the self-criticism after Sharm el Sheik was that it came from government press, — and even from within the Islamic clerical hierarchy picked by the government.

In Al-Ahram, columnist Ahmed Abdel Moeti Hegazi wrote: “This is not just deviation, it is a culture.”

Mr. Hegazi said he went to one mosque after the July 7 London bombings and the slaying of the Egyptian diplomat but the preacher made no mention of either attack. Instead, he denounced women wearing bathing suits.

Abdel Moeti Bayoumi, a theology professor at Al-Azhar University and a member of Al-Azhar’s Center of Islamic Research, said change is needed. Al-Azhar, in Cairo, is one of the leading Sunni Muslim institutions in the world.

“Islamic preaching institutions are in a very acute need for a shake-up,” Mr. Bayoumi said in an interview.

“Issuing statements and holding conferences to condemn terrorism is not what is needed. They are more like a cover-up of unresolved problems.” Islamic leaders “need to do a lot of work to enlighten clerics and preachers and educate them about the true religious ideas … and teach them about the realities of the age we’re living in,” he said.

The government appoints the clerics of most big mosques in Egypt — but not of many smaller mosques. The Religious Affairs Ministry gives guidelines for Friday sermons, but there is no guarantee they are followed.

Critics have complained about the justifications of violence in Iraq by some clerics. Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi — who has a regular show on the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera — has issued a fatwa saying that since Iraq remains in a state of war, the kidnapping of those involved is allowed, but hostages shouldn’t be killed. He repeated that stance Monday, two days after the Sharm el Sheik attacks.

Not all are convinced that Islam needs reform, however.

Kamal Habib — a former member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad militant group who was jailed from 1981 to 1991 along with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri — denounced the critics as “secular extremists who hate religion.” He blamed terrorism, instead, on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule.

“Mubarak’s regime has produced this generation. … This is a nihilistic generation of a nihilistic regime.”

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