Near East and North Africa
Our focus is on building social and creative partnerships to improve levels of understanding between the UK and the region and to advance social inclusion and participation by young people. We are responding to new opportunities in Libya and Algeria and maintaining successful programmes in the Palestinian Territories despite a challenging operating environment.
The British Council in Egypt has forged a new partnership with Al-Azhar University, the world’s leading seat of Sunni learning.
Al-Azhar University in Cairo is one of the oldest universities in the world and is a global centre of Islamic teaching, theology and jurisprudence. Its 400,000 students are drawn from over 70 countries and many graduates join the wordwide network of imams and authorities on Islam.
Last year the management of Al-Azhar approached us with a view to working together on a small programme of common interest. The timing of the approach was perfect and the keen interest from Al-Azhar took us by surprise. Al-Azhar was facing a problem that the British Council was in a unique position to help it overcome.
How could Al-Azhar succeed in its stated mission of promoting an accurate understanding of Islam when its alumni were unable to communicate effectively at international conferences about religion and culture or engage in international conversations about Islam? As Dr Abdel Dayem Nossair, Vice-President of graduate studies and research at Al-Azhar said: ‘Al-Azhar has been acknowledged for its tolerance and acceptance of others. If this view and methodology of Islam are absent, then this gap could be possibly filled by unqualified people. Therefore, the right image of Islam and Muslims needs to be projected. This is our duty and it is people’s right to learn the true spirit of Islam.’
Working with us was a new step for the university’s authorities. Some faculties were concerned that the university’s independence might be unduly influenced. But the British Council ensured that it was Al-Azhar who set the strategic direction of the project to meet their identified needs for greater international outreach and improved international communication. On 23 February 2008, we opened a teaching centre in the heart of Al-Azhar’s campus in the centre of Cairo and started teaching English to 125 students from the Islamic Studies department. The project aims to produce graduates who not only excel in Islamic studies but are also able to communicate a moderate Islam around the world.
The Al-Azhar project also includes a quality assurance dimension, helping the university to achieve international benchmark standards in its teaching and curriculum design. This is resulting in a number of new UK university relationships, including an exchange programme between the University of Sheffield and the Department of Medicine for Women at Al-Azhar and an exchange of Al-Azhar deans with British academic institutions, focusing on quality assurance.
Al-Azhar is keen to develop the current project with us to engage other Islamic studies centres across the region. In doing so we would be creating new opportunities for thousands of students in the region, improving the quality of education and increasing intercultural understanding around the world.
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