The fight over Egypt's mosques: The state versus the pulpit

Randa Ali , Saturday 5 Jul 2014

Is a new ban on unlicensed preachers and mosques meant to simply curb inflammatory sermons - or give the state a firmer grip on Islamic institutions?

Egypt has banned unauthorised preachers from giving sermons or teaching Islam in mosques and other public places (Photo: Reuters)

A recently issued decree restricting preaching to Islamic scholars who are certified by either Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh or the ministry of religious endowments has provoked divided views among preachers and Islamists.

The law, which also applies to public spaces used as mosques, further dictates that persons outside of these two institutions can also be allowed to preach, but only according to the endowment ministry's regulations.

Those who violate the law can face from three months to one year in jail and/or a fine of LE20,000-50,000. The punishment is doubled for repeat offenders.

The law, issued by interim president Adly Mansour in late May a few days before he left office, was followed by a campaign of closing down zawyas, or small mosques, which are common across the country and usually function without supervision from the ministry or Al-Azhar.

Last week, around 600 small mosques were closed in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria.

Ahmed Baheyi, an imam at Sidi Gaber Mosque in the coastal city, says the new regulations are a "positive" thing and necessary to prevent prayers and sermons being used for political interests.

"We are short of imams and preachers and so they are sent to the main mosques, leaving the smaller ones out of the supervision and control of Awqaf," said Baheyi, adding that such a shortage gives a chance to currents like the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists or jihadists to take the pulpits.

Baheyi explains that people have often filed complaints against preachers at zawyas whose sermons allegedly incited sectarian and political strife.

"People come complaining about imams that are not concerned with anything but calling Christians infidels and others that provoke political incitements and disputes inside the mosque," he added. 

The government's decision to regulate preachers hasn't been well received by loyalists of deposed president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, who see the move as politicised and linked to security issues.

In an interview with the pro-Brotherhood TV channel Mekamileeen last week, preacher Salama Abdel-Qawi, a former spokesman of the religious endowments ministry under Morsi, said that the regulations aren't bad in principle, but that they are "arbitrary" measures resulting from police intervention in the ministry.

Abdel-Qawi, known for his opposition to post-Morsi authorities, further accused the ministry of laying off thousands of preachers "who oppose the coup d’etat". He added that the closure of small mosques came due to a shortage of preachers in the "coup ministry". 

The idea of closing down smaller unlicensed mosques was however first introduced under former Awqaf minister Talaat Afifi, when Morsi was president.

Afifi's term as minister was marked by numerous protests by imams against what they described as the "Brotherhoodisation" of the ministry following the removal of several Imams. The accusations were vehemently denied by Afifi at the time.

At the forefront of the resistance to the ministry, Abdel-Qawi points out, was the Salafist Nour Party, who denounced efforts to close down zawyas as further proof of the Brotherhood's meddling. 

Now, though, he says, the Nour Party isn't objecting to the same decision from the government, which he calls hypocritical.

"Now they are silent, the coup ministry has withdrawn all the Salafist-run mosques and no one can speak," Abdel-Qawi added.

Established after the 25 January 2011 uprising, the Nour Party is the country's biggest licensed Salafist party. It was founded by the Salafist Call, which emerged in Alexandria and, with a significant following, has since become the country's largest Salafist group.

Once a Brotherhood ally, the party has since emerged as a vocal supporter of Morsi's ouster and the transitional roadmap, including the election of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as president.

Fears of backfiring

While the party has abided by the government's decision, it has still been a vocal critic of the Awqaf ministry's new decisions.

In an opinion piece written last month, Nader Bakkar, a senior party member, dismissed claims the ministry's new regulations will contain the problem of uncontrolled religious discourse.

"If the religious endowments ministry was searching for a [scientifically logical] solution and not causing a temporary media sensation, it would rather set conditions and determinants which would be applied to whoever ascends the pulpit," said Bakkar, warning that the ministry’s decision, which may seem "easier", might actually create possibilities for underground preaching in Egypt.

He pointed to the example of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, who, while in exile, managed to incite a sweeping revolution that overthrew the US-backed regime by secretly distributing cassettes of his sermons and lessons.

Bakkar suggested that if the state wanted "a religious discourse that reforms society and eradicates ignorance", it should instead invest more in institutions that produce preachers, especially Al-Azhar, the oldest seat of Islamic learning in the world.

Non-partisan mosques

For Baheyi, the imam from Alexandria, the new regulations are only positive in that they break a once-imposed domination of mosques by Salafists and the Brotherhood.

An especially problematic time was the month of Ramadan, says Baheyi, when Muslims tend to retreat into mosques in the last 10 days of the holy month, as per the example set by Prophet Mohamed.

And in a mosque dominated by a particular ideology, those 10 days can become like a preparation camp, he explains.

"You will find a boy in middle or high school who's excited for the Ramadan retreat, but what happens is 10 days of brainwashing so that by the end he will join this group," said Baheyi.

Such incidents happened, he says, in the absence of supervision from the ministry, whose role ends after evening prayers.

In accordance with the new regulations, Muslims who wish to spend the night in the mosque will have to turn in their names to the imam in advance.

Baheyi adds that the new regulations allow retreats for all Muslims, without any restrictions on attendance, as in the past.

"I won't ask [anyone] what group he belongs to," he said.

"The state is not trying to restrict anyone. It is just trying to stop prayers from being abused by a group or a political current," he added.

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