No freedom in delivering sermons, says state official

“There is no such thing as freedom of religion on the podium of Prophet Mohamed,” the deputy minister of endowments proclaimed, referring to podiums from which Imams deliver sermons. “There is a ministry that is entitled to regulate religious discourse and we should not leave our mosques exposed.”

Mohamed Abdel Razek’s statements came at a seminar organized by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) as part of the “Forum of Religion and Freedom.”

He said that those who preach ideas that contradict the ministry’s official rhetoric would be removed from their positions.

In a talk titled “Religious NGOs; between State Control and the Power of Islamist Organizations,” Abdel Razek said the ministry aims at unifying religious discourse through various tactics, in order to curb the increasing influence of Islamist organizations.

Forum director Amr Ezzat said that the activities of religious NGOs is one of the main mediums through which Islamist groups, either belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis, control Egypt’s religious sphere. He elaborated that these NGOs, especially those affiliated with the Salafis, signed protocols with the ministry to supervise their religious activities. These agreements came with a strong political twist following the January 25 revolution, especially for the Nour Party’s mother group the Salafi Dawah.

A state-run campaign targeted most of these NGOs in December, suspending many of their activities for alleged links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. The campaign followed a government decree declaring the deposed group a terrorist organization and a court order to freeze their assets.

As part of this campaign, the Social Solidarity Ministry released a list of over 1,000 NGOs that allegedly belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, including prominent Salafi organizations: Al-Jame’yya al-Shar’eyya, Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhamadeya and Al-Shubban al-Muslimeen (Islamic Youth), among others.

According to Abdel Razek, the Ministry of Endowments only seized the mosques belonging to these NGOs, leaving the charitable activities by these organizations to the Social Solidarity Ministry. The number of these mosques amounted to 40,000 across the country, according to the latest statistics.

As part of the protocols signed between these organizations and the ministry, the mosques should be led only by Imams who are Al-Azhar University graduates.  Boards running organizations like Al-Jame’yya al-Shar’eyya, Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhamadeya and Al-Shubban al-Muslimeen used to have their own institutes to groom religious preachers outside of Al-Azhar’s jurisdiction.

Abdel Razek asserted that these institutes should now be headed by deans and faculty members belonging only to Al-Azhar as part of the agreed protocols, while the curriculum should be prepared under the supervision of the ministry to ensure that preachers follow the ministry’s official rhetoric.

He added that these protocols are part of the efforts to control what he described as an extremist religious discourse that used to be widespread in the country and led to the control of extremist groups who incited violence.

“These mosques used to be run by imams who originally worked as plumbers and carpenters, who have no university degrees or proper religious education by Al-Azhar. They used these mosques to spread hate, extremism and violence. Mosques were also places to store weapons,” Abdel Razek claimed.

Following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi last July, the ministry moved to curb the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood by taking several measures, the most prominent of which was to revoke the licenses of 55,000 imams and ban Friday sermons in mosques smaller than 80 meters.

Ezzat argued that over the past few years, the state’s grip over religious discourse has caused it to wane. “State-engineered control over religious discourse made it less effective and attractive in people’s eyes. People resorted instead to the discourse of other religious groups independent from the state, like the Brotherhood and the Salafis,” he explained, adding that this has manifested itself in the reach and popularity of Salafi and Brotherhood preachers.

Researcher in Islamist religious institutions George Fahmy conducted a comparative study between Al-Jame’yya al-Shar’eyya and the Turkish Fethullah Gülen movement, named after a Turkish preacher, former imam, writer and Islamic opinion leader.

Fahmy explained that Islamist organizations of this sort commonly have intellectual and material interests that they usually tend to secure under the state. Both organizations, according to Fahmy, believe in grassroots, gradual change that would ultimately lead to running society through the implementation of Sharia, without trying to hijack power from the top.

Such a tactic, the researcher explained, would lead to preparing religiously educated generations willing to lead the country in the future without having to violently confront the state. Islamizing society by force, they believe, would lead to the disintegration of society.

Fahmy also explained that these institutions have to secure their financial interests by possessing mosques and charitable organizations, in the case of Al-Jame’yya al-Shar’eyya, and economic, media and financial institutions, in the case of the Fethullah Gülen movement.

The only difference between the two organizations is the atmosphere in which they function, Fahmy asserted. While the Fethullah Gülen movement managed to deal with a strong secular state that implements the law equally among all political actors, Al-Jame’yya al-Shar’eyya in Egypt needed to function without clashing with Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which would selectively crackdown on religious institutions.

“In 1997, Gülen was accused of being involved in plots against the state, but the activities of his movement were not suspended, simply because authorities could not legally prove a link between him and the movement’s activities. Unlike Turkey, Al-Jame’yya al-Shar’eyya’s board was dissolved in the 1990s for alleged links to the Brotherhood,” Fahmy explained.

Mai Shams El-Din 

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