Arabs against extremism
Arab intellectuals gathered at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to discuss strategies to combat extremist thought. Ameera Fouad attended
During the March 2014 Arab Summit held in Kuwait, then interim president Adly Mansour called for a conference to be convened at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to debate ways to confront extremism.
On Saturday, his call finally bore fruit when a three-day conference, held under the banner Arab Strategy against Extremism, opened at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The conference, held in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was a brainstorming event aimed at formulating recommendations to be presented at the March 2015 Arab Summit.
The conference brought together more than 250 Arab politicians and intellectuals from across the political spectrum. They included representatives from both Al-Azhar and the Church, and writers and activists who engaged in heated debates over how best to counter radical ideas and fundamentalist beliefs.
“Confronting religious extremism is one of the biggest problems we Arabs face. Extremism has long been deeply rooted in our societies,” said Secretary General of the Arab League Nabil Al-Araby during the conference’s inauguration.
As part of its mandate to face down challenges to Arab national security, the Arab League, said Al-Araby, has placed the battle with terrorist groups, including the Islamic State (IS), at the top of its agenda.
“Countering terrorism and extremism requires a comprehensive strategy that must include a renewal of religious discourse and a return to ethics and moral values,” he said.
Addressing the experience of Saudi Arabia, Khaled Al-Malek, editor of the Saudi daily Al Jazirah, said: “The Saudi Arabian approach to tackling terrorism is two-pronged.
“It has an intellectual component, based on raising awareness among young people of Islam’s true beliefs so that they are not taken in by terrorist organisations, and on keeping the door open to those who acknowledge the error of their ways and want to return to Saudi Arabia. And then there are the strict police campaigns which target terrorists and outlaws who threaten the safety and security of Saudi Arabia.”
Amr Al-Choubaky, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, related an anecdote during a general meeting on the second day of the conference. “I was in Tunisia two months ago when 20 Tunisian soldiers were killed in an attack near the Tunisian border with Algeria,” he told participants. “Yet we all know that in Tunisia the army is separate from the central authority.”
He continued: “What I am trying to illustrate here is the falsity of claims that terrorist groups in Egypt have become widespread because of the army’s close ties with authority. Terrorist groups target both civilians and military personnel. In Egypt they attack soldiers, just as happened in Tunisia. They devour, they kill and they attack innocents as well as officials and army officers.
“When these terrorist groups grow it means there is a social, cultural and economic environment conducive to such growth. This means we must work not only on showing how their ideology opposes the true belief of religion but also politically, addressing issues that make fanatical groups such a magnet for our young people.”
Many participants referred to the Arab-Israeli conflict, saying it has fanned the spread of extremism.
“The Arab-Israeli conflict is responsible for half of the terrorist problems we face. Zionism acts like a Trojan horse. It drives Christians to emigrate from the Middle East in greater numbers than their Muslim counterparts,” said Gregory III, Patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church.
“We, as Christians and Muslims, are one body with one shield: one completes the other and we are all confronting terrorism which defies the beliefs of all religions,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I am calling for Arab-Arab reconciliation and for a joint working group of Christians and Muslims to be formed to produce a charter that promoted reaching the core values of both the Quran and the Bible.”
The conference ended by issuing recommendations that will be presented to the Arab Summit. They focused on four main areas: religious discourse, cultural policy, education and media.
Religious authorities should address false interpretations of concepts like jihad, and erroneous conceptions of the role of women. On the cultural front the conference recommended expanding the production of, and access to, enlightening books by establishing well-stocked libraries and cultural centres. The latter, it said, should strive to promote creativity among young people.
Similarly, education systems should foster creativity and promote skills such as music, poetry, photography, theatre and art. In addition, schools should work towards raising rounded citizens who are not vulnerable to the false doctrines of extremism.
The conference also called on the media to be objective in its reporting and to avoid using speech that incites hatred, violence or discrimination against others.