A quiet Ramadan as Egyptian government closes 20,000 mosques

EGY250518AT001CAIRO – Traditional Ramadan lanterns illuminate city apartment blocks and huts in country villages, and grocers do a brisk business in selling the traditional dried fruit and nuts eaten to break the daily fast at sunset.

Volunteers, meanwhile, brave Cairo’s traffic, standing at intersections handing out water and dates for commuters who need to break their fast on the road, and thousands of mosques and Islamic charities set up picnic tables in the streets every night, providing food for the poor.

Even so, Ramadan – which started last week – is more quiet than usual in Egypt this year after the government imposed a ban on the preaching of sermons at more than 20,000 local mosques.

Authorities have also stiffened penalties for mosque whose minaret loudspeakers announce anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

“There are now more than 110,000 mosques in Egypt,” said Ministry of Religious Endowments spokesman Jaber Taya. “With the numbers growing all the time, our ministry has taken steps to monitor violations of sermon guidelines, especially when it comes to the unacceptable promoting of extremist groups.”

The clampdown stems from President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s campaign against terrorism, and officials are targeting storefront mosques known locally as “zawyas” to prevent extremist incitement that has occurred during extended after-dusk prayers and recitations of the Quran.

When ex-President Mohamed Morsi and his allied Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt from June 2012 to July 2013, hundreds of zawyas popped up in violation of codes requiring distance between mosques, said Ghani Hindi, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, the chief state body overseeing Muslim religious practice. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to impose sharia Islamic law the basis of Egypt’s legal system. Their agenda sparked inter-religious clashes between Muslims, and between Christians and Muslims.

The military ousted Morsi in 2013, paving the way for El Sisi’s rise to power. But the zawyas remain. Most receive state subsidies to this day.

“Since then, the storefront mosques have been used for political organizing and unqualified preachers are giving religious instruction, putting their speeches out on loudspeakers especially late at night during Ramadan,” said Hindi.

Zawya attendees insist the blanket directive shutting down sermons at their mosques is unfair.

“I am very saddened,” said Abdul Aziz al-Ghafar, a 43-year-old teacher who attends the Rahman corner mosque in Heliopolis, a northern suburb of Cairo.
“The ministry made a generalized decision that had nothing to do with what was going on at my mosque," he added. "Our worship leader performs a great service to this neighborhood, giving us a place for prayer and interesting Quran instruction. Yes, some mosques turned to platforms defending the Muslim Brotherhood, but every imam deserves the respect of individual observation and feedback.”

While Ramadan is a time of fasting, spirituality and prayer, the Middle East also usually sees an uptick in terrorism during the holiday. In Egypt, the victims are often Christians.

Last May, jihadists attacked three buses filled with Coptic Christians, killing 28 pilgrims on their way to the Saint Samuel the Confessor monastery in southern Egypt.

Off-script Islamic preachers are also often accused of spreading intolerance in Egypt during the holy month.

“It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief,” said TV preacher Sheikh Abdullah Roshdi recently.

Meanwhile, authorities are firing scores of zawya preachers for violating the guidelines imposed by the El Sisi administration and straying from the topics authorized by the Religious Endowments Ministry.

The government imposed a nationwide testing of imams to “measure their skills as public speakers and religious educators.” That same directive, to upgrade speaking skills and further supervise content for imams, added that “any imam who is not qualified to deliver public speech and lessons in Islam will be barred from the pulpit.”

The government’s defenders insist the ban on sermons in the storefront mosques is a necessary step to get divisive politics out of the pulpit. “President El Sisi is calling for a renewal of religious discourse to show the tolerance of Islam for other religions,” said Usama al-Abd, a former president of Al-Azhar University, the main seminary in Sunni Islam.

Many disagree.

“I was suspended from my position after saying in a sermon that I thought Mohamed Morsi was a president who was only seeking to reform Egypt,” said 37-year-old imam, Abu Khalid, in the Nile Delta. “An Endowments Ministry official reported me to the higher ups. I have not been allowed to preach since March.”

Ministry of Religious Endowments officials said that in addition to random inspections, they also set up a telephone hotline for complaints about “immoderate discourse from citizens.” Closed circuit television cameras with audio recording capabilities have been installed in thousands of mosques, too.

El Sisi’s supporters say the zawya sermon ban and other measures makes sense since it’s impossible for the government to monitor every mosque in Egypt.

“Still there just aren't enough resources to check on all the zawyas,” said Abdul Aziz Mohammed Diab, a health ministry inspector in Sharkia, in the Nile Delta. “Other public institutions including hospitals and schools need the funds more than many of these half empty mosques that get taken over by extremists.”

Islam Barakat, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an opponent of Morsi’s Islamist agenda, thought the El Sisi administration was overreaching with the sermon ban.

“We need to move toward liberating the religious domain from the authority of the state,” Barakat said. “Now the security agencies are determining who gets appointed and who is excluded and some imams are informing on others to advance their own position.”

Worshipers who find community and solace at local zawyas believe the government is using the larger mosques to promulgate its policies, like drafting state-paid preachers to drive up voter turnout in last March’s presidential elections.

"The current government repeats the same means of control and monopoly used by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Yasser Abdul Aziz, a 54-year-old construction engineer who attended a zawya in Al-Mataryia, around nine miles east of Cairo. “Simple people like me have no interest in any political parties since they all are just about promoting their own private affairs. We come to the mosque to learn, and to pray.”

Photo: May 25, 2018 - Cairo, Egypt - Imam Mohamed Saled recites the Quran at state-funded Estkama Mosque in the Cairo suburb of Giza.
Credit: Amr El Tohamy/ ARA Network Inc. (05/25/18)

Story/photo publish date: 05/25/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.
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