Think of Cairo’s al-Azhar University as the Harvard of Sunni Islam: Founded in the 10th century, it has played a foundational role in the religious and cultural development of modern Egypt and the entire Muslim world. In the first half of the 20th century, some of the era’s most important political and intellectual figures — including secularist Taha Hussein, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin — passed through its gates. In recent years, however, al-Azhar has lost some of its prestige to upstart Wahhabi preachers in Saudi Arabia and unaffiliated firebrands throughout the Arab world, including radicals sympathetic to al Qaeda. Now, a new television station is trying to help al-Azhar reclaim the initiative in the 21st century.
Azhari TV was founded on the heels of President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech, with a mandate to promote a "moderate" interpretation of Islam. This week, the station expanded to offer programming in English, French, Urdu, and Pashto. In its first year of existence, Azhari TV’s owners have funneled around $18 million into the station, and expect to spend between $8 and $10 million a year to keep it operational. They claim that they currently attract an audience of approximately 7 to 8 million viewers.
I spoke with Hassan Tatanaki, a Libyan businessman who is one of the financiers of the station, to get a better understanding of the version of Islam he’s trying to promote. "Our main principle is living together — Copts, Muslims, Jews, it does not make a difference," he said. When asked for an example of the extremism that Azhari TV sets out to combat, he criticized Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian preacher who hosts a popular religious program on al-Jazeera, for issuing a fatwa against Iraqi immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship while the United States continues to occupy Iraq. "All Qaradawi has done is made those people believe that they are excommunicated, and therefore could be killed," he said.
Tatanaki hopes that Azhari TV’s expansion will now reach Muslims living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Europe’s immigrant communities. Because non-Arabic speakers aren’t versed in the original language of the Koran, he argued, it is easier for them to be misled by a preacher that distorts its meaning. "They’re living in their own domain, forgetting their own language, and feeling lost — you know, neither here nor there. That’s the danger that’s coming to the West."
Still, it’s a tall order to expect Azhari TV to restore al-Azhar’s lost luster. The primary cause for the university’s decline isn’t its dated communications technology, but its inability to respond effectively to its audience’s political concerns. On whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is one of the extremist organizations Azhari TV was designed to oppose, for example, Tatanaki said that it was "sensitive to reply," but criticized the organization for extending its religious agenda into the political realm. He also had little to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beyond the religiously-charged issue of Jerusalem. Other issues affecting Palestinian politics, he said, are "of no interest to us." By neglecting to tackle these issues head-on, Azhari TV runs the risk of surrendering vital political turf to those who it is attempting to supplant.