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    December 20, 2007 -- The English Language Resource Centre (ELRC), inaugurated at Al-Azhar University to teach the English language to the grand institution's lecturers and post-graduates, was like throwing a stone in stagnant water. Although the ELRC will be supervised and administered by Al-Azhar University, it will be financed and supported by the Regional English Language Office (RELO) of the American Embassy, instigating protest between those who welcome foreigners to study at Al-Azhar but not to teach in order to preserve its indigenous traditions and methods, and the official stand of the university which has hailed and defended such collaboration.

    A professor at Al-Azhar University who preferred anonymity said, "Most of the professors at the university oppose the opening of the centre because we abhor the brutal US foreign policies in the Middle East. Al-Azhar played a significant role throughout history in resisting French and British occupation and we view this American centre as a gradual cultural occupation which will eventually lead to American hegemony over Al-Azhar curricula."

    Omar El-Deeb, a spokesman at Al-Azhar, piles up justifications for opening the ELRC with American financial and expert support. "What initiated the establishment of the centre is that we made an English assessment of the lecturers and the assisting professors teaching at four of Al-Azhar's theological faculties at the British Council. The result was not satisfactory at all. Only four reached the pre-intermediate level. Al-Azhar's administration found that each one will cost the university a minimum of LE50,000 if enrolled in courses at the British Council."

    El-Deeb added, "Al-Azhar administration believes that it is essential that Islamic lecturers and professors be in full command of the English language for many reasons, including being able to prepare their thesis if they study abroad, and to have the upper hand in any religious debate conducted in English. They should be able to participate in academic research with foreign universities, and train Islamic preachers who will work abroad."

    Ahmed Rayan, professor of Islamic law at Al-Azhar University, advised both sides not to be hasty in evaluating the ELRC. Rayan greeted the idea of learning English and saw no harm in cooperating with the RELO. Nevertheless, he stressed the importance of putting the ELRC in a trial period to be able to judge the experience objectively and at the same time monitor the participating American professors to make sure they do not violate Al-Azhar's customs.

    The argument over establishing the ELRC, the opening of which was attended by US Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone, was not limited to the university's campus but moved to Egyptian cultural and political spheres. Some observers view it as a good opportunity to open up to the West and modernise the rigid curricula at Al Azhar. However, others are sceptical of American intentions. Azza Korayem, sociologist at the National Social Studies Research Centre, recalled the saying: "He who receives a gift loses his liberty."

    "I am dubious of US intentions for many reasons. After 9/11 the US regarded Islam as the enemy and sought to limit its prevalence in the world, so I find it perplexing that the US opens a centre to help Muslims communicate with others in order to serve Islam. It is a paradox," Korayem said, suggesting that donations from Egyptians and other Islamic and Arab countries be collected "instead of accepting US contributions".

    Ricciardone hailed Al-Azhar University's role as a centre of Islamic learning and its stature as one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. "The ELRC will not only provide the opportunity for Al-Azhar's junior lecturers in Islamic and Arabic studies to learn English, but will provide a venue where we can continue our discussions on mutual concerns and interests."

    Ricciardone marked the opening of the ELRC as a historic event. "Many of you here have worked hard to make this centre a reality and you should be proud of this accomplishment. It is a modern centre of learning, teaching, mutual understanding and communication. Learning another language does more than increase one's employment opportunities; it helps us to understand others and their way of thinking, moving away from intolerance and misunderstandings. I hope one day you all may travel to the United States as academic scholars."

    Ahmed Thabet, professor of political science at Cairo University, sees the ELRC as implementing the new Middle East plan adopted by US President George Bush. Thabet said that upon scrutinising Ricciardone's address "one can easily see that the ELRC aspires to more than teaching the English language. The Egyptian government's hesitation to modernise Al-Azhar's curricula and its entrenched ways of thinking and structural body paved the way for the American Embassy to violate the sacredness of Al-Azhar University using different claims."

    Those who oppose the ELRC wonder why Al-Azhar's administration disregarded highly qualified Egyptian academics and professors to take on the mission of teaching the English language to Al-Azhar's lecturers. Many Egyptian professors studied for their PhD abroad and excel in the English language as if it were their mother tongue.

    Al-Azhar University is trying to contain the criticism by reassuring sceptics that the curricula taught to ELRC students was revised, then approved by Al-Azhar.

    Korayem is not convinced. "I couldn't care less about the curriculum because as a professor myself I know that students are greatly influenced by their professors. The American professors could try to promote the American dream to their students and spread American traditions and concepts. Here lies the danger."

  • #2
    smart masris...

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