Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Devil in the details

The recent ban on 55,000 freelance clerics from preaching and the closure of small community mosques have raised concerns over freedom of speech, reports Gihan Shahine

Al-Ahram Weekly

Relations between the state and religion remain to be defined in post-Mohamed Morsi Egypt and in the country’s new constitution. But there is no doubting that Al-Azhar is already playing a pivotal role in delineating the main features of the role of religion in Egyptians’ lives after the 3 July ouster of the first freely elected president, Morsi, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last Friday saw the closure of many small community mosques, known as zawaya, which are not subject to government scrutiny in villages and governorates after the recent ban on 55,000 freelance preachers from delivering Friday sermons. Although the ban is due to be applied to an estimated 1,000 small mosques of less than 80 square metres on 1 October, a rehearsal of the ban was already in place during last Friday’s prayers.

Worshippers had to cram in and perform their prayers on the streets in front of Egypt’s 1,500 large government-supervised mosques as a result, where licensed preachers are apparently abiding by the new regulations that restrict religious podiums to purely spiritual and religious sermons and do not touch on political issues.

Whereas some worshippers were respecting the ban on the grounds that it avoided possible clashes during the observance of the weekly ritual, many others were disenchanted with the decision, suspecting that it would be followed by security checks on those delivering sermons, ensuring that they toed the government line.

This seemed to have been what some Islamists thought following the ban, and violence erupted in the government-affiliated Mosque of Al-Rahman Al-Rahim in Salah Salem Street in Cairo when worshippers, believed to be members or sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, verbally attacked the mosque’s licensed imam during last Friday’s sermon.

The sermon focussed on the importance of tolerance as an Islamic ethic. The imam then ended his sermon with a condemnation of “armed rebels”, saying that “those who use weapons against their Muslim brothers in the name of Islam know nothing about Islam.” The imam had hardly completed the sentence when one worshipper started protesting that the “[pro-Morsi] protesters are not armed”.

“Who told you that the protesters carried weapons in the first place,” he asked the imam. “Who sent you to say that? Who paid you to say that?” the worshipper demanded angrily, accusing the imam of acting as a mouthpiece for Egypt’s military-backed government. Clashes soon erupted among the worshippers, who were split into two feuding camps, and the imam had to run out from the back door.

Last week, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, which oversees Islamic assets and supervises government-affiliated mosques, announced that it would be revoking the licences of some 55,000 freelance clerics, not graduates of Al-Azhar, from preaching in mosques.

Although the Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa refuted claims that the move was politically motivated, the ban was seen as “the latest move against sympathisers of deposed Islamist president Morsi”, according to Reuters.

Gomaa insisted that the ban was meant “to spread a moderate message of Islam and keep Egyptians away from radical ideas” and to “clamp down on unqualified imams delivering political sermons inciting violence”. He added that the banned clerics were unlicensed to preach and were mainly freelance preachers who were only allowed to do so because of a lack of licensed Al-Azhar-affiliated clerics.

“These clerics were considered to be fundamentalists and a threat to Egypt’s security,” Gomaa said. “The decision is only meant to legalise the preaching process during Friday prayers and allow only those authorised to do it.”

However, Friday prayers have in the past served as flashpoints for the launch of Islamist demonstrations since Morsi’s ouster on 3 July and the subsequent closure of three Islamist and pro-Morsi TV channels. It could thus be only logical for some to agree with the Los Angeles Times when it speculated that the regulations were meant to “ratchet up the pressure on followers of the Muslim Brotherhood”.

“The ban appears to be aimed at neutralising imams, or preachers, who have been speaking out, even if only in allegorical fashion, against the 3 July coup that deposed the country’s democratically elected Islamist president,” the paper noted.

Since the ouster of Morsi, the authorities have been cracking down on members of the Muslim Brotherhood and on the group’s supporters. More than 2,000 Islamist activists, including Brotherhood members and their supporters, have so far been arrested, according to Reuters.

Most of the Brotherhood’s leaders, including Morsi, have been jailed on charges of inciting or taking part in violence. Some have also been accused of terrorism or murder, while hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators were killed at the hands of the security forces during the break-up of the protest camps at Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda Square in August.

Many human right activists and international organisations have expressed concerns over the unprecedented waves of political violence that have swept the country since. According to the NGO Amnesty International, “between 14 and 18 August, at least 1,089 people were killed, many due to the use of excessive, grossly disproportionate and unwarranted lethal force by the security forces,” Peter Splinter, the Amnesty representative in Geneva, said.

But the ouster of Morsi has also unleashed a wave of terror attacks on the security forces and churches across the country, particularly in Sinai, and these have claimed the lives of dozens of members of the security forces.

A suicide car bomber recently blew himself up next to Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim’s convoy in a daylight attack in Cairo that killed a passer-by and an unidentified person and wounded 20 others. Such incidents have raised public fears of the recurrence of the kind of terrorism that swept Egypt in the 1990s.

The military-backed government has blamed most of these attacks on either the Brotherhood or on the Islamist terror groups that support it. The interim government has thus called for the dissolution of the 80-year-old group on the grounds that it has been inciting hatred and violence, and it has asked for the Brotherhood to be designated as a “terror group”.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, have repeatedly argued against claims that they have participated in any of the terror attacks on the security forces or churches, or even had links with any of the terror groups involved in such attacks.

According to the group’s website Ihwanonline, “such allegations are part of a systematic campaign to vilify Islamists and justify the military coup against constitutional legitimacy and the massive killings of protesters.”

The international media seems to have adopted a similar viewpoint. “Riding a wave of popular support for the coup, even from liberal elements of Egyptian society, [Minister of Defence General Abdel-Fattah] Al-Sisi and senior officials have sought to portray Morsi’s followers as terrorists,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “Many of the Brotherhood’s adherents have gone underground, and the mosque rules were viewed as a means of intimidating those who have not.”

Under the new mosque regulations, imams who do not have licenses can either apply for reinstatement to the government or be replaced by imams from ministry-supervised institutions, Gomaa said.

But the criteria for obtaining the licenses remain a source of concern. Salafi preacher Yasser Borhami said that whereas “it is absolutely the right of the Ministry of Endowments to make sure preachers are qualified to deliver sermons and ban those disqualified for the job,” the devil nevertheless remains in the details.

Licenses, he argued, should be obtained according to competence and not by reference to security records and loyalty to the regime. Borhami suggested that preachers should undertake tests, unrelated to personal affiliations and security checks, to decide whether or not they were qualified for the job.

In the meantime, there was almost a consensus among Salafis that preaching should not be restricted to graduates of the Al-Azhar institutes, but that it should also include those graduating from Dar Al-Oloum and other institutes known for their moderate discourse.

“With due respect to Al-Azhar and its graduates, many of the suspended preachers were also professionals, had preaching talents, and had adopted a moderate discourse,” spokesman for the Salafist Nour Party Sherif Taha said. “The imams of the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence were not graduates of Al-Azhar, and there is nothing in Islamic Sharia law that restricts dawa [preaching] to the graduates of a particular school or university.”

Borhami argued that there is nothing in Sharia that makes the size of a mosque a condition for the integrity of the prayers performed within it. “Would prayers be proper when performed in an 81 square metre mosque and not in a 79 square metre space? Is that what Sharia Law is about?” Borhami asked. “The ban is a political decision to channel religious discourse in a particular direction.”

Sheikh Sabri Ebada, deputy minister of endowments, said in a press statement that the new mosque regulations were not politically motivated, but were aimed at “restricting mosques to worship and stopping their misuse for mobilising protests, which is against the principles of Islam”, according to the newspaper Al-Shorouk.

Critics insist that the move is “a throwback to Mubarak-era practices,” when Friday sermons and preachers were subject to state security checks and had to garner support for the authorities.

During the era of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, “Al-Azhar was under the tight grip of state security, and this used to review sermons and even infiltrate university classes and lectures,” according to political analyst Adel Amer.

Dependent on the state for funding, Al-Azhar lost much of its credibility as a result, with some scholars being seen as compromising their fatwas (religious rulings) in a way that would please the regime for fear of losing their livelihoods, he said.

In the meantime, state control over Al-Azhar and its use as a tool to garner support for regime policies also placed a tight lid on the institution’s academic life, creating an environment of repression and self-censorship in which professors felt reluctant to develop their views.

A parallel demise in the educational standards of Al-Azhar institutes and schools equally resulted in a generation of Al-Azhar preachers with few skills and little credibility to reach out to the people, leaving the ground open for alternative, sometimes unreliable, sources of fatwas and other foreign schools of thought.

After the 25 January Revolution that put an end to Mubarak’s three-decade rule, thousands of Al-Azhar scholars protested against their loss of independence and the intervention of the state security in their work in front of the offices of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled the country during the transitional period.

According to Amer, Al-Azhar also managed to regain part of its independence and was no longer under the scrutiny of state security, thanks to the 25 January Revolution.

Today, however, Zaki Othman, a professor at Al-Azhar University, expects the arrival of throwbacks to the Mubarak-era police state. “The closure of the mosques, especially on Fridays, reminds one of the Mubarak era and may signal the return of the police state, depriving the people of the freedom which they have been long demanding,” Othman told Press TV.

Reuters similarly speculated that “previous secular governments tried to move against fundamentalist preachers and their mosques but failed to clamp down on them because of the wide influence of the Islamists.”

Today, any crackdown on the Islamists could garner public support, now that the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood has been sharply damaged and public fears of an outbreak of terror attacks similar to those that took place in Egypt in the 1990s are escalating.

“The army and security forces now have backing from a large section of the public,” Reuters said.


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