This article has been updated to reflect the latest developments on Egypt’s terrorist attacks.
At least 26 people were killed and 25 wounded today when gunmen attacked a bus carrying Coptic Christians in central Egypt. According to Egyptian state media, no group has yet claimed credit for the incident.
The deadly attack comes on the heels last month’s Palm Sunday bombings of two churches in the Egyptian cities of Tanata and Alexandria, in which at least 44 Coptic Christians were killed.
The bloody events have pushed extremist terrorism in Egypt back in the spotlight, and Islamic institutions are feeling the pressure.
After last month’s bombings, commentators were quick to cast blame on one of the country’s oldest religious institutions, al-Azhar, a renowned Sunni centre of learning and research. Critics say its grand imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb, should do more to confront Salafi jihadism, which calls for the use of violence to establish an Islamic state.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has also pointed to the importance of formulating a more public response by religious bodies against radical Islamic philosophies. In January 2015, he leaned on the Al-Azhar centre to undertake what he called a “religious revolution” to reform the institution’s Islamic thought and correct the concepts it teaches.
Al-Azhar has rejected such mandates in the past, insisting that it is the responsibility of Islamic scholars to decide on the scope of reforms to the faith.
Still, Imam el-Tayeb has been careful not to clash with authorities. According to the Egyptian constitution, Al-Azhar’s grand imam is independent and may not be dismissed. But the Egyptian state exercises strong influence over all institutions, including religious ones.
But that alone would not likely have prevented the spate of recent bombings. Our research shows that such efforts would hinge on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of religion on the path to radicalisation in Egypt.
Youth look for extremist ideas
Pressuring mosques and Islamic leaders to “stop extremism” presupposes that people adopt extremist ideas before their decision to join jihadi groups, but we have found an inverse logic: individuals’ ideological change often occurs after they have decided that violence is the only way to change society.
In our ongoing, still unpublished study, we have so far followed 50 cases of Egyptian youth aged between 18 and 30 coming from different Egyptian governorates who joined jihadist groups between 2012 and 2016. A large proportion (95%) decided to engage in violent organisations for reasons unrelated to the adoption of rigid religious ideas, most spurred to extremism by their political and social conditions.
Take Mohammed, an Egyptian journalist, for example. Historically, he was a moderate practising Muslim. Though he prayed five times a day, he never asked any of his colleagues to join him in prayer or insist that women wear a headscarf.
In January 2011, like thousands of people in downtown Cairo, he participated in the Tahrir Square uprising against then-president Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981. The transitional period that followed Mubarak’s ouster was frustrating, but Mohammed never sanctioned the use of violence to achieve political goals.
The coup was a setback, he reasoned, and he opposed it. But democratic transition was still his goal.
Mohammed’s discourse shifted after he was injured while covering a Muslim Brotherhood protest of the military intervention in October 2013. He had always wanted to change society. But the violence he experienced on the streets and his time in the hospital led Mohammed to rethink how to do it.
He began to speak about the duty of every human being to face oppression, including with force, and reading Salafi jihadist literature. Several weeks later, he travelled to Syria to join an Islamic fundamentalist group. In July 2014, within months of getting to Syria, he was killed in combat.
Mohammed’s story is fairly typical. The specific paths of other Egyptian jihadists may have been different but the common factor most share is that they went looking for jihadi ideas to bolster their violent aims, and not the other way around.
Can imams stop extremism?
Our research confirms that simply renewing moderate religious discourse will not prevent young Muslims from joining jihadi groups – in Egypt or elsewhere. Confronting radicalisation requires a more comprehensive approach that empowers youth both politically and economically in addition to steering them away from Salafi extremist ideology.
Al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions do, of course, have a role to play. They must refute the arguments of Salafist jihadi discourse. But al-Azhar’s main problem today is political rather than religious. Though it is respected by many Egyptian Muslims for its Islamic guidance, the centre’s close relationship with the government undermines its legitimacy.
Young people like Mohammed who wish to join the jihadi movement will never consult al-Azhar scholars, whom they consider a mouthpiece of the regime. When state officials’ call for religious reforms, it only strengthens that popular suspicion. Whether moderate or conservative, al-Azhar’s discourse falls on many deaf ears.
In that sense, al-Sisi’s calls for al-Azhar to take action against extremism could be counterproductive, further damaging these institutions’ credibility and pushing youth to look to other venues for religious learning.
When that happens, a parallel religious sphere comprised of decentralised and relatively obscure religious actors emerges. The state has no control over this private world of religion classes and online Islamic networks, and al-Azhar is not a player.
Our study shows that these two venues – private classes and the internet – are where the majority of angry youth find Salafi jihadist ideas. Prison offers a third path to radicalisation, when non-violent activists jailed for a Facebook post, for instance, are put in the same cell as hardened extremists.
With no other religious forces to counterbalance it, this parallel, often online, religious network becomes a breeding ground for radicals. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the 1980s and 1990s resisted jihadi ideas, is now seeing members lose hope in peaceful political change and turn to to Salafi extremism.
Al-Azhar can and should play an active role in preventing radicalisation. But if mainstream Islamic institutions hope to mitigate violence enacted in the name of religion– whether against Christians in Egypt or on Syria’s battlefields – they must begin by changing their relationship with the state to restore their credibility as independent religious actors whose guidance angry young people can seek out and believe.
Reestablishing trust also requires that the imams of al-Azhar and other institutions refrain from imposing on society one “true” image of Islam. Rather, a network of independent-minded, well-trained religious scholars dispatched at the local level could answer the arguments put forth by Salafi jihadists and intervene early at signs of radicalisation.
Egyptians could thrive in a pluralistic and free religious environment in which the state does not try to monopolise by force to the exclusion of independent actors. Even if Al-Azhar can play a role in slowing the spread of extremist ideas, confronting violent radicalisation remains the responsibility of the regime.
In the meantime, the Coptic death toll continues to mount.