Imams sent to New Zealand to foil radicals
EGYPT'S Government is sending Cairo-educated imams to "take control" of New Zealand mosques and Islamic centres in a new drive to reduce radicalisation and counter jihadism.
The imams - trained at the ancient Al-Azhar University, regarded as the foremost institution in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology and sharia law - will spend up to three years working alongside local mosque leaders promoting moderate Islam and tolerance.
One imam is already working at a Wellington mosque and three more are applying for work visas, according to Egypt's Ambassador to New Zealand, Tarek al-Wasimy.
Explaining true Islam and promoting its peaceful message was an important first, proactive step in protecting the world from militant Islam and terrorism, he said.
"We are all combating terrorism. It has no borders and nobody is immune," he told the Herald yesterday.
"We don't want anything to happen here like what has happened in Belgium, Paris, Madrid or London so we are sending imams to explain Islam and to take control of Islamic centres and mosques here."
Mr al-Wasimy said the imams were funded by the Egyptian Government and Al-Azhar, which dates back to 970 and in recent years has embarked on a global initiative to improve the image of Islam, promote tolerance, and battle radicalisation and recruitment of young Muslims by extremist groups.
"These imams are supervised by Al-Azhar and by the Embassy and the Government, so there is no way they will be misguided at any time," the ambassador added.
The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand said it welcomed the "extremely positive" move after checking out the authenticity of the offer.
"We decided to accept their offer, especially as Al-Azhar is a very well-known organisation promoting moderate Islam," said federation president Hazim Arafeh.
"While there are, to my knowledge, no Muslims who could carry out terrorist attacks in New Zealand, these sorts of troubles get exported to us via the internet.
"We just need to remain vigilant and make sure our public is just really well informed."
Last year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar that radicalised thinking had become a "source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world".
"You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world ... is waiting for your next word because this nation is being torn apart."
Muslims, now about 1 per cent of the population, are New Zealand's fastest-growing religious group.
Moderate Islamic texts, donated by the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Cairo, are also being distributed around New Zealand's 50 mosques and Islamic centres.
Mr Arafeh requested the English-language books to help explain the role and rights of women in Islam, as well as tolerance in the religion.
"We are making sure that the source of information, or the curriculum being used, represents the moderate Islam," Mr Arafeh said.
International relations expert Paul Buchanan described the move as "perplexing". There may be "one or two hotheads" in Kiwi mosques, but radicalisation was not a widespread problem. The imams would be of more value across the Tasman.
"Australia has a radicalisation problem, we do not."
Egypt had also had little success combating extremism at home, so he was not sure what they expected to achieve here. They might be interested in countering the influence of Wahhabism - an ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim sect - in NZ, he said.
The imams could also be New Zealand-bound as part of an as-yet-unannounced trade deal, with their work aimed at "softening" the inevitable views from opposition parties to any deal with Egypt, he said.
"Otherwise [the Government] opens itself up to the charge that New Zealand is cosying up to a dictatorship," Mr Buchanan said.
He doubted the gesture came without some kind of ulterior motive.
"There's always more than meets the eye ... why Egypt would choose New Zealand to export its anti-radicalisation views, you don't have to be an international relations expert to see that's unusual."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was approached for comment, but was not able to respond before the Herald's deadline. No one from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet could be contacted.
Superintendent Wally Haumaha, the deputy chief executive for the police's Maori, Pacific and Ethnic Services, said organisations such as the police sometimes engaged with diplomatic representatives regarding supporting the needs of communities.
This included in the case of educational, cultural and religious needs, Mr Haumaha said.