Backlash against state attempts to politicize sermons

Government attempts to control Egypt’s religious discourse were back in the spotlight, as unified Friday sermons criminalizing street protests in the lead up to January 25 were criticized by imams and prominent religious figures.

Although Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa has on more than one occasion stressed that preachers should not use their platforms to talk about politics, unified sermons from the ministry have carried explicit political messages in recent months.

The Ministry’s sermon on January 8 was titled, “Unity for the building and safeguarding of the country – a legitimate demand and a national duty,” and the following week it was, “The blessing of safety and security.” The ministry took a clear political stance against alleged calls for demonstrations on January 25 in both sermons, corresponding with press statements from the minister accusing those calling for protests of provoking instability.

Along with the ministry’s suggested sermon on January 8 were warnings on its website against any attempts to weaken the country, propagate chaos, cause division, evoke examples of states that have experienced civil war, call for protests, or call for the toppling of the state.

The sermons came under widespread criticism, not just from the media and online, but also from preachers of various affiliations registered with the ministry.  

One imam, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed 90 percent of imams did not adhere to the unified sermons because of the overt political messages they contained, adding that they voiced their concerns to the ministry. “We approached police officers, who themselves expressed their dissatisfaction due to potential anger from the public over such politicized sermons,” he added.

In response, the ministry highlighted a less political message from Friday January 22, “Prophets and messengers call for reform in light of the holy Quran,” which the minister delivered himself at the Police Academy mosque in New Cairo.  

“The standardized sermon has been controversial since it was introduced,” the imam says, “but the clear political flavor of the latest sermons has aggravated the issue. People can no longer bear listening to politics in mosques … we refused the political use of our platforms during Brotherhood rule and we shall not allow it now, regardless of our affiliations.”

The decision in 2013 to unify Friday sermons nationwide was a clear attempt by the Endowments Ministry to centralize religious discourse. After the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the ministry, under the leadership of Gomaa, who has served as minister since then, has been used as a tool by the post-June 30 state against the Brotherhood.

One of Gomaa’s first actions following his appointment was to revoke the licenses of 50,000 freelance imams. At the time, Gomaa said this was because they didn’t graduate from Al-Azhar and thus “do not fit with mainstream moderate discourse.” Friday prayers were also banned in mosques and prayer areas smaller than 80 square meters. Both moves were seen as an attempt to cripple the religious and political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Researcher in religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Amr Ezzat, says sermons, religious messages and other mosque-based activities have long represented a stronghold for Islamist movements. He maintains the state competes with these movements by wielding its direct executive control over mosques, and has recently intensified its regulations.

At the time, Gomaa said in a press conference that the standardized sermon did not aim to impose restrictions on religious freedoms, but was an attempt to spare mosques from the negative impact of ongoing political and partisan conflicts.

“This way the sermon will become a way to develop and unify the nation instead of being a source of fragmentation caused by talking politics,” Gomaa asserted, adding that the move was made in the context of the ministry’s efforts to modernize and revive religious discourse and help imams direct their sermons towards the needs of the people and their concerns.

Every week the ministry’s website publishes a detailed outline of the standardized sermon two days before it is due to be delivered. Many of the sermons warn against terrorism and extremism and emphasize the need for security and the role of the police and military, but there are often specific themes that are highlighted in moments of political tension and during significant religious festivals.

In November last year the Cabinet announced a bonus of LE1000 for imams and Endowments Ministry employees who abide by the ministry’s guidelines. Any imams caught not wearing the official Al-Azhar uniform when preaching, not committed to the topic of the unified Friday sermon, or exceeding the time limit allocated for the sermon, or preaching without a written permit, are not eligible for the bonus.

The decision to standardize sermons had its rationale back in 2013, when the state’s conflict with the Brotherhood reached its peak, according to Abdel Ghany Hendy, who specializes in issues related to Al-Azhar and the Endowments Ministry, and is a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. Hendy says the standardizing of sermons “was an appropriate temporary solution that was meant to prevail for six months, until the ministry articulates its vision for modernizing religious discourse and trains imams accordingly. “But this did not happen and the situation continued,” he adds. “The ministry lacks the culture of research and evaluation and therein lies the root of the problem.”

Hendy warns that the unified sermons are no longer effective and cannot be a permanent solution as, “society has radically changed and no longer accepts the logic of giving orders. Each governorate and village has its own circumstances that the imam should take this into account. Even if he wants to talk politics, he cannot address political issues the way they are addressed in the press.”

Imam Mohamed Badr works in one of the Endowments Ministry mosques in Gisr al-Suez, but is careful to point out he is not affiliated with the ministry directly. He says he doesn’t usually abide by the subject of the standardized sermon, but chooses issues appropriate to the area he is in. Badr explains that the ministry focuses on larger mosques, seeking to ensure they don’t host Brotherhood preachers and that they adhere to ministry regulations.

“I commit to not talking about politics in my sermons,” he says. “Worshippers can no longer bear it.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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