Tightening control of pulpits

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 6 Jul 2021

MPs will soon discuss draft legislation which seeks to ban clerics from issuing fatwas without a prior licence from Al-Azhar or the Ministry of Waqf, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Tightening control of pulpits
Yacoub testifying before the State Supreme Security Court

A bill drafted by Tarek Radwan, a member of the parliamentary majority Mostaqbal Watan (the Nation’s Future) Party and chairman of the House of Representatives’ Human Rights Committee, was last week referred by Speaker Hanafi Gibali to the Religious and Waqf Affairs Committee for review.

The bill is already endorsed by 60 MPs. Once the committee completes its report it will be discussed by the House in a plenary session.

Radwan says the new bill is based on a 26 June ruling by Alexandria’s Administrative Justice Court banning clerics from issuing fatwas if they are not licensed to do so by Al-Azhar or the Ministry of Waqf (religious endowments).

The ruling also bans unlicensed clerics from “ascending mosque pulpits”, meaning they will not be allowed to deliver sermons in mosques.

Mohamed Abdel-Wahab Khafagi, the Alexandria Administrative Court’s presiding judge, said the ruling targets clerics who preach terrorism in mosques or post extremist fatwas on social media. 

Khafagi argued that mosques, especially small ones, have been repeatedly used to spread division and dissension among people. He said mosques should never be used for political or partisan goals or election propaganda, noting that this contradicts with the sanctity of the mosques and harms the state.

Fatwas issued by non-specialists, including on social media platforms, have led to an increase in extremism, said Khafagi. He urged parliament to intervene to criminalise the use of Friday sermons to score political points or spread election propaganda even if the perpetrator is licensed to deliver sermons. 

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has frequently called the reform of religious discourse in a manner that combats terrorism. Earlier this month, Al-Sisi told the heads of African constitutional courts, supreme courts, and constitutional councils that judicial institutions should play a leading role in the fight against extremism.

The Alexandria Administrative Justice Court’s ruling came days after Salafist cleric Mohamed Hussein Yacoub was questioned by the State Supreme Security Court over allegations over his role in the issuing of online fatwas that encouraged a 12-member Islamic State (IS) cell, aka the Imbaba Daesh cell, to attack policemen, military personnel and Christians. Cell members have said their religious ideology was based on fatwas and sermons delivered by Yacoub and Mohamed Hassaan, another Salafist cleric.

Testifying before the court on 25 June, Yacoub denied issuing fatwas calling for attacks on security forces or branding regime officials as infidels. Though he failed to respond to most of the judges’ questions, Yacoub conceded that he was not a graduate of Al-Azhar and that his thought was based on his own reading of the works of mediaeval Islamic clerics and scholars.

The court has summoned Mohamed Hassaan to testify in the Imbaba cell case on 8 August. 

Yacoub’s testimony was widely attacked by television channels and MPs who accused him of hypocrisy and demanded tighter controls on Salafist clerics delivering unauthorised religious sermons and fatwas. On 20 June the government had already moved to shut down Yacoub’s YouTube channel.

“Salafist clerics are more dangerous than Muslim Brotherhood clerics,” Radwan argues. “But while the Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist group in 2013, Salafist are still free to deliver poisonous sermons and fatwas calling for jihad against the Egyptian state.

“Salafists had enjoyed a lot of freedom under president Hosni Mubarak but they were the first to call him an infidel when he was ousted from power. Like Yacoub they have two faces, one when they are in power and one when they are out of power. In both cases they believe they are in a war against a secular society.”

Ali Gomaa, a former grand mufti and the current chairman of the House’s Religious and Waqf Affairs Committee, said in a press interview that there is no difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. “Both adopt militant jihadist ideology, consider modern Islamic regimes as controlled by infidels, and espouse a regressive code of Islamic Sharia,” said Gomaa. “Brotherhood and Salafist so-called scholars are not graduates of recognised Islamic institutions, and both exploited the Muslim Brotherhood’s one year in power to spread their jihadist and takfiri ideologies on a grand scale, making use of social media and private television channels.”

Al-Ahram political analyst Osama Al-Ghazali Harb argued in an article that “though Egypt’s constitution stands against political parties based on religious foundations the Salafist Party Nour is still acting freely.

“Most Salafist clerics who issue fatwas in favour of terrorist attacks are members of this party,” wrote Harb.

Radwan argues that the Alexandria court’s final ruling exposed the legislative vacuum regulating fatwas and MPs should now intervene to fill the vacuum. The draft legislation, he says, will impose hefty fines and prison sentences on unlicensed clerics who preach in mosques or issue fatwas.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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