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Bridging a cultural divide

Jancis McGrady on a programme promoting interfaith understanding

cultural divide pic

BUILDING BRIDGES Graduates celebrate at Al Azhar, the oldest degree-granting university in Egypt (Courtesy British Council Egypt)


For the past seven years an innovative project between the British Council and Al Azhar in Egypt has helped promote interfaith and cultural dialogue by providing over 1,500 young people with the language and cultural skills required to communicate their Islamic faith in English.

For Yasmeen Abd El-Azeem Hekal, one of the first female graduates, ‘Learning English is an open window to know a lot about other cultures, ideologies, and to have access to the outside world. And the first and foremost thing for me is to introduce the true image of Islam – it is a universal mission by Al Azhar throughout its history.’

Al Azhar plays a vital role in Egyptian and Islamic society. The grand imam of Al Azhar, together with the grand mufti of Egypt, is responsible for the official religious matters of the country. As the head of Al Azhar, the grand imam is responsible for the ‘Al Azhar body’, which comprises Al Azhar Mosque, Al Azhar University and educational institutes spread across the country.

Founded in AD 970, Al Azhar University is the oldest degree-granting university in Egypt and a revered global centre of Sunni Islamic learning. Tens of thousands of students from around the world study there, and around a tenth of the Egyptian school population (approximately 18,000 children) is educated in the Al Azhar system. Graduates of the Islamic Studies faculty become imams, teachers, lawyers and community leaders.

The language project is a joint initiative launched in 2007 by Sheikh Dr Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, grand imam of Al Azhar. Dr Al-Tayyeb was concerned that while his university was producing graduates with high levels of Islamic scholarship, these graduates were unable to share their understanding of Islam beyond the Arabic-speaking world. Dr Al-Tayyeb therefore approached the British Council, the Institut Francais and the Goethe Institute in Cairo with a project to create a dedicated language centre for undergraduates of the Islamic Studies faculty.

In 2008 the British Council opened a small language centre staffed by a team of three. The 100 top students from the Islamic Studies faculty began a programme of general English at CEFR A0 and A1 levels.

The centre has expanded year on year, and currently has over 600 students, who follow a programme of general English and English for religious purposes, and the majority of students now graduate at B1 or B2 levels of proficiency. Classes are delivered by a team of 32 Egyptian teachers who have completed the Cambridge Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT) and are working towards Celta through a structured continuous professional development programme.

In addition, the programme has expanded to work in a pilot project for ten Al Azhar institutes offering an Islamic Studies stream at secondary level. As well as delivering methodology through training and classroom observations, we are also piloting alternative methods of assessment for the Islamic stream, with a view to expanding this across the Al Azhar system in future.

Since the start of this programme, average entry levels to the university language centre have risen from broadly A0/A1 to A1/A2. A further fifty teachers in secondary schools across Egypt have completed TKT training and are expected to begin an online programme of study in early 2016.

Graduates from the programme find work within the Al Azhar body and are also well placed to apply for scholarships for overseas study. Mohammed Gamal graduated from the centre in 2012 and was awarded a Chevening scholarship for an MA in theology at Durham University.

He said, ‘More than anything, English has helped me understand the Western mindset. For instance, many conservative Muslims usually think of England as a Christian country (I used to think this way too). And yet when I went there I was astonished by the religious pluralism that Britain enjoys.

‘Similarly, many Westerners think of Muslims as “hardliners”, but when I had proper contact with many of them in England and elsewhere, I felt I could bridge the gap between these two cultures.’

The connection between the British Council and Al Azhar is therefore about much more than just language training. It is about a relationship of mutual respect and trust, a relationship where ideas and knowledge can be exchanged. This idea of mutual understanding and respect, and an awareness of each other’s culture is just as important for global communication as any language.

Jancis McGrady is Al Azhar project manager at the British Council Egypt