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Dominic AsquithHMA, Cairo
The young man stood at the tall desk, in his Azhari robes and his 'imma. There were no notes in front of him. It was hot in the Grand Hall of Al Azhar, full of people and television cameras, but there was not a drop of sweat on his face that I could see. He was confident but clearly enthusiastic about what he was saying. When he finished, another young Azhari scholar took his place and spoke similarly, without notes. I kept my eyes on the Ministers who were sharing the stage with me and on the audience. There was disbelief on their faces. It was not what the two scholars were saying that produced this reaction of shock. It was the language they were using. They were speaking in flawless English – and in an English accent.
We were celebrating the graduation of 68 young graduates after three years of learning English at the new language centre at Al Azhar. The idea of the programme was born five years ago, from the visionary minds of the senior leadership of Al Azhar University. How do you create the ability of Al Azhar scholars to communicate Al Azhar’s message of wasatiyya or “centrist” Islam to those for whom Arabic is not their mother tongue? With the help of the British Council and others who shared this vision, we set about cooperating with Al Azhar on the project. And here was the outcome. I said in my remarks at the ceremony that the students spoke better English than I did. That was not just a polite comment.
It has been difficult for me to hide my pride at the achievement of the students and the Egyptian teachers who gave them this ability – and the commitment of the three British Council teachers who helped throughout this programme. Why should I hide it, since their success has exceeded anything I could have hoped? The reaction of the news media who attended the ceremony and the publicity that followed has been equally rewarding.
Why is this important? Very simple. There is no one more destructive than the person who argues that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are a game one side has to win and the other lose. We all lose from extremism. Stereotypes, misunderstanding and distrust benefit no one but he who wants to create hostility. Ensuring that Islam is well understood, that Muslims and their faith are well understood and respected and that radical views are not allowed to prevail are all as important to us in Britain or in Europe or America as to those in this region. Similarly, ensuring that “the West” is not seen as an implacable enemy of Islam is vital for us all. We all have a stake in this.
What is genuinely exciting is that this is not the end of the project. Al Azhar will expand this to include women as well – and their other schools and institutes around the country. We are funding three students from Al Azhar to complete Masters degrees in Britain over the next year and Al Azhar are sending a further ten. More will follow. British students have already come to Al Azhar this year to study at the feet of the best Islamic scholars. More will follow. We will continue to develop the links between British centres of higher education and Al Azhar. These contacts will open minds and will create respect for each other.
Visionary? Yes, but achievable.
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