By Hoda Badry
Despite the religious and political challenges facing state institutions, Ibrahim Nigm, a consultant to the Grand Mufti of Egypt, is upbeat about correcting the image of Islam abroad. He placed the responsibility of correcting concepts about terrorist groups on the mass media; asserting the need to rebrand the “Islamic State (IS)”, the Sunni extremist group in control of parts of Iraq and Syria, to “Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria (QSIS)” to stop militants smearing the reputation of Islam.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt, Nigm said that Dar al-Ifta, the international flagship for Islamic legal research based in Cairo, is primarily concerned with issuing edicts on religious matters. However, in cases that concern the welfare and development of the Egyptian people, the institution can also issue political edicts, he said.
He added that the religious authority’s demand to ban the belly-dance TV show “The Dancer” shows that the state supports religion and piousness.
You studied abroad for a while and were named as an ambassador for peace and religious co-existence in New York by the mayor of Nassau County. From your experience and point of view, do you think that religious clerics do their job to correct the image of Islam overseas?
I think that the challenges facing Islam in the Arab region and the whole world are huge and require the cooperation of all religious clerics with security, political and religious government bodies.
I believe that the challenges are not only religious. Yet, the religious authority bears a great slice of the responsibility. We are doing our utmost, but the challenges are so great that they are not only confined to the religious institutions.
Do these challenges impede efforts to correct the image of Islam overseas or there is some negligence?
Negligence is not the reason, but there are many factors that led to an inappropriate performance. Yet, I think that the religious institution has regained great part of its role in the last few years thanks to the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb. We are pursuing efforts to improve the image of Islam which has been distorted by criminal acts committed in the name of Islam.
Which criminal acts distort the image of Islam?
Extremists who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam have created a stereotype about Islam and Muslims. That stereotype says that Muslims kill, slaughter, kick Christians out of their countries, and buy and sell women. But these acts are contrary to the instructions of Islam.
To act according, we have launched two initiatives: rebranding “Islamic State” to “Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria” and trying to theoretically counter the extremist ideology. For instance, we will answer questions like: What is the Islamic state? Does Islam incite to kill and slaughter journalists? Is IS really an Islamic caliphate? Were terrorist acts committed by Nigeria’s Islamist group Boko Haram compatible with instructions of Islam? We take such questions and then make the religion’s stance towards these acts clear.
We also clarify how Islam refuses and renounces the murder of human beings. We will answer such questions in 10 languages to deliver a message to the world that Islam is the religion of peace and that it completely opposes such heinous practices.
Are the measures being taken by Dar al-Ifta enough?
We had direct formal and informal contacts with all local and Western media outlets, sending them statements in 10 languages to change the name of IS to QSIS. We have also created a Facebook page that calls for the same demand. I think that all these measures will fulfil our goal.
You said that the Western media rhetoric stokes conflict and makes use of terrorist groups to make a fantasy war between the West and the East. Is it done intentionally?
Yes, but some Western media outlets – not all of them. I heard the expression “Islamic Terrorism”, and it is totally contradictory. Islam does not tolerate terrorism. Moreover, there is no Christian or Jewish or Buddhist terrorism. Terrorism has no religion. These matters further ignite the situation. Yet, I commend media outlets which try to bridge the relationship between peoples.
Do Muslim Brotherhood leaders overseas affect the Western media rhetoric?
The Muslim Brotherhood’s reign is over and their image has been smeared all over the world. The matter is bigger than the Muslim Brotherhood. It is in the hands of some anonymous powers that seek to worsen conditions in the Middle East region.
You said before that the government should launch a national project to improve the image of Egypt abroad and clarify some misunderstandings of Islamic ideology to US leaders and media professionals. Can you tell us about this project?
During my visits to Europe, the US, and East Asia, I found that Egypt’s image is largely distorted especially after the 30 June revolution. The political event was described in the Western media as a religious war between Islamists and non-Islamists. The revolt was totally political and it has nothing to do with the religion. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group has programmes which failed to address the people’s demands. So, it was replaced with another political group that gains public momentum and legitimacy. The approval of the constitution and the election of a new president were proof that the post-Morsi government is legitimate. The country will also hold parliamentary elections in coming months. The progress of the roadmap for the future shows that Egypt is on its way back to stability.
This rhetoric was not clear at first, but then we made it crystal clear throughout our visits to many Western countries that Egypt is in a transition to democracy. The image is gradually improving.
What do you think of the fatwa (religious edict) TV programmes now on display?
As a representative of an institution that issues fatwas, I affirm that authorised clerics should be the ones who issue religious edicts. If someone has a heart problem, he does not go to the plumber or the carpenter. But he goes to the doctor. Similarly, if someone has a religious problem, he should go to a religious scholar. Religious edicts should be issued by clerics who have a good understanding of religion and its instructions. Here, I put the responsibility upon media outlets which usually host unqualified religious figures.
Religious edicts issued by unqualified religious figures usually stir controversy. How will Dar al-Ifta confront such fatwas?
The fatwas that caused rows were very few and Dar al-Ifta issued a correction to them. Dar al-Ifta issues half a million fatwas every year.
Fatwas released by Dar al-Ifta are taken by most people. Yet, there is a minority who do not recognise Dar al-Ifta or its clerics. We try to convince them that our role is to issue correct religious laws.
We have also called to make a code of ethics for issuing fatwas. And that is the role of media outlets which should host specialised clerics and we are ready to help them in this regard.
A controversial fatwa banned chatting between men and women on a social networking site. Who issued that edict?
There is a misunderstanding about this fatwa. We did not ban chatting. The edict was issued after a girl asked about exchanging photos between men and women on social network sites. Afraid that someone could fool her or misuse the photos, we did not allow that. But chatting is a human necessity, but chatters should also observe morals.
Many extremist fatwas were issued in the last few years. Is the rise of hardliners, such as Salafists, a reason?
I think so. The rise of some Islamist groups which have no solid footing in the religious matters has led to a blurring religious rhetoric.
Do you think that clerics should weigh in on political issues?
We differentiate between two political concepts: politics practiced for the sake of the country, and partisan politics which mainly rely on competition between different parties for the sake of their own interests. We, clerics, only practice politics that will contribute to the development and welfare of the Egyptian people.
Some have lambasted fatwas issued by Dar al-Ifta urging citizens to take part in the elections and prohibiting boycotting. What are your remarks on this matter?
We do this for the betterment of the country and its people. What is more, we did not say that Islam urges voters to cast their ballots. But we mean to say that true Egyptians should participate in the elections to build their country. We know that boycotting is a political stance and we respect that. But patriotism requires us to call upon people to take part in the elections. We just urge – we don’t compel.
What is your estimation of the current political situation? And how do you advise political parties regarding the upcoming parliamentary elections?
The country is moving towards political stability and the parliamentary elections will be the last step of the roadmap for the future. I think that the forthcoming elections will pass by peacefully. I urge all political parties to cooperate for the nation’s ship to harbour peacefully.
How many fatwas does Dar al-Ifta issue every day? Who endorses them? Which fatwas does the Mufti endorse?
Dar al-Ifta issues 1,500 oral, electronic, written and phone fatwas per day. The Mufti is the one responsible for the whole process of releasing fatwas. Some fatwas which take a general shape, not personal, are submitted to him.
The Grand Mufti of Egypt refused to approve death sentences imposed by a court on the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide and 13 others. That has raised controversy and some considered that the Mufti has undermined the court’s ability to assess technical evidence. How true is that?
That is totally untrue. We are only concerned with the legitimate part of the cases. We do not interfere in the court’s work and the report written by the Mufti is consulting. The court has the right to issue whatever verdicts it chooses. Moreover, I do not know whether the Mufti’s report involves the refusal’s reason or not because it is confidential.
Can Dar al-Ifta issue politically-related religious edicts, like fatwas on importing natural gas to Israel?
We do answer all questions whether simple or complicated. But there are issues that we are not concerned with like the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] agreement. There are other authorities which are concerned with this issue.
As I have said, we answer questions that are under the jurisdiction of Dar al-Ifta. For instance, someone asked about the permissibility of adding some food additives to the milk. We asked him about the nature of these additives and it turned out that they are chemicals. We then queried the National Research Center about these additives and they told us that they are so harmful. The authority then issued a religious edict that is impermissible.
What is your explanation of the vehement criticism recently targeted at Sahih al-Bukhari [a section of the Hadith]? How would Dar al-Ifta counter such practices?
We differentiate between those who have suspicions about anything and need explanation and those who state the suspicions as if they are true. We called upon all media outlets to marginalise such statements that are not based on scientific argument.
Dar al-Ifta announced a study about extremist fatwas? What did the study reveal?
The study was founded early this year. It disclosed fatwas that aim at shedding blood. The study is working on three stages. The first stage records all fatwas that threaten national security. The second stage analyses the fatwas and the third provides comments on those fatwas. We recorded about 150 fatwas, some of which apostatise police and army officers.
Do you think that extremists in Egypt are still on the rise?
In Egypt, we managed to fight extremist ideology. But the extremists still do exist. After Al-Qaeda extremists disappeared for some time, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was brought to the fore. In East Asia, extremists appeared under the name Taliban and in East Africa under the name of Boko Haram. These are waves of terrorism that the authorities should shield the youth against.
What is your estimation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign? Were there any pressures on Dar al-Ifta during that time?
It is a political experience which cannot be judged by individuals but by the whole society. Their experience failed but we were never been subject to any pressures during the MB’s reign.
Why did Dar al-Ifta ban the TV show “The Dancer”, even though there were other art contests aired in recent months?
We have big challenges like poverty, unemployment and extremism. We have to join forces to counter such challenges. The programme feeds some extremist ideas that the state is fighting religion and piousness.
What did the religious institution do to confront the embodiment of prophets in TV series?
The religious institution is not authorised with forcing any bodies to pull these shows off air. We just ban watching such TV series.