CAIRO (RNS) — Long before the ascendance of the World Wide Web, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University served as the hub of global Islamic learning, its grand imam considered an authority on religious and public life for Sunni Muslims far beyond the borders of Egypt.
But over the years, the university's hold over the interpretation of key Islamic concepts, including jihad, competed with extremist groups such as Islamic State — organizations with proven capabilities for deploying digital tools just as effectively as they do explosive devices.
In response, this 1,044-year-old institution decided to up its game.
“(Terrorists) say killing people is great because this is what Allah wants but we say that living in the name of Allah and letting others live is much greater,” said Tarek Shaban Mohammad, supervisor of the Al-Azhar Observatory, a department of the university created to use online channels to moderate and modernize Islam.
“Our work began in 2015 with the electronic tracking of all publications issued by Islamic State and other armed organizations and then we launched a systematic refutation of their flawed fatwas and religious arguments on the internet,” he added.
2015 was a peak year for activity both on and offline by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, commonly known as ISIS or Daesh.
In Iraq alone, 1,802 civilians were killed in ISIS-linked violence. The group downed a Russian airliner carrying tourists from Egypt and staged a one-day spree of attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
Meanwhile, ISIS supporters operated at least 46,000 Twitter accounts, and a study commissioned by Google Ideas and published by the Brookings Institution found much of the content was graphic: The organization posted images and video of public floggings and executions while its followers praised the violence as mandated by Quranic verses.
With Islam itself under global scrutiny in new and uncomfortable ways, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb said, it's important to counter these messages.
“Al-Azhar, which has for hundreds of years managed to preserve and promote Islam’s real values of tolerance, moderation and knowledge, will have again to step up to shoulder its responsibility in the face of extremist currents that distort our image and refute their false claim to be acting in our traditions and interests,” said al-Tayeb.
Funded by the Egyptian government and the United Arab Emirates, the observatory's staff has grown to nearly 100 people who monitor jihadi websites and debate sheikhs who issue extremist fatwas.
The observatory has also taken on the seminary’s task of spreading the “true meaning of Islam” in multiple languages, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili and Chinese.
“Our main goal is to reach Muslims all around the world and to be Al-Azhar's eye on the world and the world's eye on Al-Azhar,” said Riham Abdullah, an Islamic studies professor at the university and supervisor of the observatory’s Urdu department.
“We began with English, Urdu and Swahili," she added. "People forget that most Muslims are not Arabs and do not speak Arabic. Our newest language portal is in Hebrew.”
Videos, multimedia slideshows, frequently updated news feeds condemning both jihadi attacks and incidents of Islamophobia all populate the observatory’s multilingual web page that extends its reach via social media outlets including Facebook and Twitter, officials say.
“This approach reflects a change to the pattern in which Al-Azhar was operating,” said Ziad Akl, a researcher at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Egyptian government. “The observatory shows that the institution is no longer satisfied with reacting to radical claims when a jihadist terrorist launches attacks.
“Through the observatory, Al-Azhar is thoroughly and meticulously searching for radical content and responding to it, which means that the observatory allows Al-Azhar to take initiative,” Akl said.
Despite recent territorial setbacks in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group is still calling on supporters across the world to stage attacks in its defense, with the organization releasing a new audio online recording this month.
Its “Sinai Province” branch remains active between the Suez Canal and the Gaza border, and last month, it tweeted out a claim of responsibility for an attack that killed 20 Egyptian soldiers.
Some analysts have their doubts about the university's efforts, arguing that Al-Azhar’s revered status as a traditional institution and as an Egyptian government-directed body hinders its ability to reach disaffected youth who have adopted anti-establishment political and religious mindsets.
“Developing narratives to counter extremism are obviously very important, but I am not sure that Al-Azhar is the right institution for the job,” said Khaled Diab, the Egyptian-Belgian author of “Islam for the Politically Incorrect."
“People vulnerable to radicalization are suspicious of and distrustful toward formal institutions – and Al-Azhar is very much part of the establishment,” said Diab. “This causes shaky street credibility among disenchanted segments of the population, and the explicit positioning of the observatory as a counterterrorism effort sounds a bit like preaching to the choir.”
Diab also said that the observatory’s effort to demonize and discredit the Muslim Brotherhood by likening it to the Islamic State group limits its grassroots effectiveness.
Last month, the observatory accused the Muslim Brotherhood of following the lead of the Islamic State and other terror groups in an attempt to “spread chaos, implement secret agendas, and trying to threaten Egypt’s peace and security.”
The remarks came in response to a Feb. 23 statement issued online by the Muslim Brotherhood calling for a "revolution in Egypt that will put an end to oppressors and retaliate the death of martyrs.”
Meanwhile, Al-Azhar officials say they don't take all the credit for recent gains in combating digital jihadis. But they add they do have a role to play.
“What I can say is that over the past two years, we have seen a decline in the volume of propaganda released by IS online as well as major losses in territory," said Mohammad, using another name for ISIS. "And I think that by challenging both jihadi and Islamophobic ideologies, the grand imam and Al-Azhar have renewed our place at the center of Muslim discourse.”