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Muslims armed with English language to counter web extremism

27 February 2015

by Michael Binyon


The Chief Executive of the British Council, Ciaran Devane, exhanging the memorandum of understanding with Sheikh el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar University 

The Chief Executive of the British Council, Ciaran Devane, exhanging the memorandum of understanding with Sheikh el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar Un...

BRITAIN is to offer intensive English-language training to young Muslim scholars in Egypt, to enable them to counter online extremism by tweeting and blogging in fluent English, and preach on a new English-language television station.

The move comes after growing concern in the Muslim world that it is failing to respond to Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups that use social media to recruit young militants around the world. Leading Muslim scholars now wish to retaliate in the language that has become the universal medium of the internet and social media: English.

The new chief executive of the British Council, Ciarán Devane, last week met the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb, the highest source of spiritual authority in the Sunni Muslim world. Mr Devane signed a memorandum of understanding with Sheikh el-Tayeb to step up the English programme already running at the university.

The British Council is now proposing to teach every student who is training for religious leadership enough English to communicate online with Muslims who may have only limited knowledge of Arabic, the language of the Qur'an.

Al-Azhar has been in the forefront of the fight against Islamist extremism. But it has become increasingly worried that its voice is not being heard among young Muslims who live outside the Middle East. Fatwas and decrees denouncing extremism which are issued in Arabic are often less accessible than the online calls by jihadists, issued in English, which have recruited disaffected young Muslims to IS and al-Qaeda.

Sheikh el-Tayeb told Mr Devane that al-Azhar needed English-language skills so that it could launch an English-language television station, and a sophisticated website to oppose extremism.

The British Council began an English programme at al-Azhar eight years ago, and has since trained more than 1000 graduates in the language.

Britain's standing at al-Azhar university is high, thanks largely to the high-profile visit by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2006. Prince Charles was awarded an honorary degree in recognition of his interest in Islam.

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