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Sunni University's Anti-Extremist Message Undercut By Ties To Egypt


World leaders hope to counter the so-called Islamic State's ideology through the work of places like Egypt's Al-Azhar. It's a historic and revered center of Sunni Muslim scholarship. But its close ties to a repressive Egyptian government once backed by the West weakens its credibility. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In 2009, President Obama came to Egypt and gave his landmark speech to the Muslim world. And he singled out Al-Azhar for praise.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning.

FADEL: On a recent day in the same Cairo auditorium, it was the ideological war against ISIS being discussed by one of Al-Azhar's top scholars, Osama el Azhary.


OSAMA EL AZHARY: (Through interpreter) You young people, ISIS is a nightmare that must disappear. And it will disappear because it's betting on the ideology of calling others infidels.


FADEL: His words are met with applause, and outside, his books on the true path of Islam are distributed to the students. They're being printed in several languages. It's part of Azhary's roadmap to counter extremist groups luring a minority of young Muslims into their ranks. Later, in his office, the soft-spoken sheikh says he has a plan.

AZHARY: (Through interpreter) The first challenge must be the short-term goal, to extinguish the fire of what these extremist movements are doing here and now.

FADEL: For centuries, Al-Azhar has been one of the most respected and largest Islamic institutions in the world. It has some 500,000 students in various schools that range from elementary school to university. And it draws thousands of foreign students through its doors each year. The sheikh wants a satellite channel and better outreach on social media to counter extremist groups he says are perverting Islam and recruiting people online. El Azhary has another job too. He's adviser to Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, on religious affairs. And that, he says, will help Azhar's influence.

AZHARY: (Through interpreter) Azhar can do what's needed. And its proximity to the current president government is not a barrier. It's a positive thing that will push us forward.

FADEL: But others say it's actually a barrier. Al-Azhar is seen as an arm of a state that does not tolerate dissent.

IBRAHIM EL HOUDAIBY: Al-Azhar has significant moral capital, historical capital. But this is sort of an image of an Azhar that people are increasingly distinguishing from the current institution.

FADEL: That's Ibrahim el Houdaiby, an Egyptian analyst who is an expert on Islamist movements and a critic of the state. He says many young Muslims at risk of joining militant groups because of social grievances view Al-Azhar as hypocritical.

HOUDAIBY: You cannot really be combating extremism and insisting that these radical voices do not represent Islam while you are in bed with authoritarian regime - not only authoritarian regimes, with regimes that are literally killing.

FADEL: It's a problem around the region, autocrats co-opting religious figures or institutions and using them to control expression. And recently, Al-Azhar has squelched dissent itself. It accused a television host who questioned some traditional religious teachings of insulting Islam, a charge that led to his imprisonment. And Shia Muslim leaders say it encourages anti-Shia sentiment. Azhar expelled 19 students recently, accusing them of inciting violence on campus. But one of those students says that's not the case.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: This student, who's not using her name for fear of repercussions, says she was just in a peaceful protest for Palestinian rights when she was taken by security forces and beaten. Nearly all protests are banned in Egypt.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She says it's this kind of oppression that leads to the extremism Azhar says it's against. But Al-Azhar still has global influence.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: On a recent day at the university, Malaysian students sit through lectures, which 22-year-old Amir Aref sums up like this.

AMIR AREF: Islam is a religion of peace. And then we were taught here we have to spread muhaba. We have to spread love to the world, not hatred or war to the world.

FADEL: He still believes Al-Azhar is an effective tool to spread that message. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.