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Abdulla Ghneim
عبدالله غنيم
A freelance journalist interested in cultural and social issues, Abdulla Ghneim has worked since 2011 in many media outlets as an economic editor.

Government Enforces Script for Sermons

Worshippers in Cairo.
Government Enforces Script for Sermons
The Ministry of Religious Affairs has angered Egyptian imams by issuing guidelines for 'unified sermons'.
16/12/2016 | Cairo

Since August this year, the Ministry of Awqaf (MoA - Egypt's Ministry of Religious Affairs), posted the following warning for religious sermon leaders - imams - on its website: “The Ministry of Awqaf emphasizes the need for all imams to comply with the prescribed Friday sermon or at least its main theme, and to read it within a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes. The Ministry is confident in imams’ scientific and intellectual capacity and informed understanding of the religion and of the current need to control religious discourse.” 

The move is the latest in a three-year campaign by the MoA to impose an official religious discourse. Since the 2013 ousting of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the MoA took a number of measures to control the religious sphere in Egypt. In September 2013, the Minister of Awqaf suspended all sermon permits issued to non-appointed imams, supposedly to prevent the use of mosques as incubators for certain political attitudes. 

Count and rule

In January 2014, the MoA carried out a census of all mosques and zawiyas in Egypt. The census found that there were nearly 240,000 mosques in total, 89,000 of which were under the MoA’s control. The rest either belonged to Islamic societies or were built through local contributions. On March 21, 2014, the MoA posted the first unified Friday sermon on its website, followed by regular weekly sermons, with violators facing prescribed punishments. 

A number of imams and inspectors were interrogated and suspended from their duties due to their failure to adhere to the prescribed sermon. In March 2014, head of Cairo’s Awqaf Sheikh Safwat Morsi debarred the director of Southern Cairo’s Awqaf, Sheikh Rabie Khouli. Kouli was accused of "negligence of duty and failure to comply with MoA’s instructions, especially with regard to the unified Friday sermon."

In June 2014, Interim President Adly Mansour passed a law regulating Friday sermons. The law states that no sermons may be performed in zawiyas and small mosques of less than 80 square meters. It grants MoA officials and inspectors the right to arrest violators in coordination with the Ministry of Justice. Moreover, the law provides that imams who deliver sermons or give religious classes in mosques without permits shall be imprisoned for 3-12 months and/or fined L.E. 20,000-50,000 ($1,100-2,700).

Political imams punished

According to the head of the MoA’s Religious Sector, Sheikh Mohammed Abdurrazzaq, the MoA set up a committee to follow up imams’ performance, where it could immediately suspend the permits of and prosecute any imam criticizing the police, army or state.  Salafist preacher Yasser Barhamy’s permit was suspended several times in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

The decision to unify sermons has come with the blessing of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Following a meeting that brought the Minister of Awqaf and President el-Sisi together last July, a presidential spokesman ssaid el-Sisi expressed full support for the MoA. The spokesman said the president underlined the need to rehabilitate informed and moderate imams who would impart the true image of Islam, uphold the role of religion among people and change words into positive behavior. 

"Violates freedom of opinion"

A similar proposal had been tabled by by Talat Afifi, former Minister of Awqaf under Morsi's prime minister, Hesham Qandil. But it was met with large-scale resistance by people, not least from the Al-Azhar Mosque. “This call is a message by the minister to promote the thoughts of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb,” said Sheikh Mohammed Bastawissi, head of independent imams and preachers. “It restricts imams’ thinking and violates freedom of opinion and expression. No former minister of Awqaf dared unify Friday sermon or impose such a call on imams even under the previous regime. Imams reject to succumb to pressures and do not accept to be a pliable tool in the hands of the Muslim Brothers and their schemes.”

The MoA has justified its streamlining of religious discourses as an effort to prevent mosques and Friday sermons becoming forums for political purposes, especially in times of crisis. This was exmplified during the 2011 revolution. On January 5, the theme of the sermon was ‘Joining Forces to Build and Preserve the Country as a Religious Requirement and National Duty;' the next Friday sermon on January 15 focused on ‘The Blessing of Peace and Security.’ In both sermons, the MoA embraced a clear political position against the calls to take to the street on January 25, which was consistent with the minister’s press statements in which he branded those calling for demonstration on January 25 as “promoters of instability.”

The January 8 Friday sermon concluded with a reference to a statement published by Dar Al-Ifta in which it described the calls for protests on January 25 as "a perfect crime" and an attempt to implicate Egyptians in violence and terrorism, which was prohibited by religious orders. 

“The unified texts contradict the diversity of society,” says Sheikh Ismail Rifaat, an iman from Kafr El Sheikh Governorate. “A sermon that suits Zamalek in Cairo may not suit Sidi Salem city in Kafr El Sheikh Governorate. The views held by many imams regarding the protests of January 25 differ from the MoA’s vision.” Sheikh Riffat says mosques are often made to "mimic" the MoA's line and mirror a state-sponsored vision of religion.

Under the radar

Sheikh Mustafa Saeed, an imam in El Mahalla El Kubra, says smaller mosques with independent sermons flourish all the same. "The MoA concentrates on big mosques more than it does on small ones, which allows the imams of the latter to depart from the prescribed text," Sheikh Saeed told Correspondents. He says many imams do not adhere to the unified sermon.  Imams in smaller mosques deliver independent sermons with the approval of "some security officers who do not prefer the unified text and have a tendency towards a sermon that addresses local needs," says Sheikh Saeed.  

The imam of another mosque in Kafr El Sheikh, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says many mosques of the Salafist calling do not observe the unified sermon, yet still deliver sermons that support the state. For example, the sermon of the imam of one of Kafr El Sheikh mosques on October 21 focused on the high cost of living, attributing the problem to traders’ greediness, while the theme prescribed by the MoA was about ‘Voluntary Work Controls.’The imam says he regularly departs from the MoA prescribed script. The MoA says it does not have enough inspectors to monitor all mosques and imams. 

Unified extremism?

Another imam in one of El Mahalla El Kubra's mosques believes thee unified sermons could be counter-productive and push people towards extremism. “Terrorism and extremist ideologies cannot be confronted through unified sermons, but through training imams to research, review and have new research sources,” he says. “Unified sermons are likely to cause worshipers to fidget and feel bored, given the large number of mosques that are close to each other within the same residential area. This infuriates worshippers and forces them to look for a new narrative that may contain extremist and misleading thoughts.”

Image: jcarillet /Getty Images