Egypt’s president is taking control of the country's mosques — and risks driving his enemies underground.
Since the June 2013 military takeover, the Egyptian state has outlawed protests, disbanded thousands of NGOs, and tightened its grip on the press, all in the name of combating terrorism. But in the background, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been fighting a more subtle battle — the battle for Egypt’s mosques. Before the takeover, the Egyptian state directly controlled roughly half of the mosques in the country. In Sisi’s view, it was in the unsupervised half that the Muslim Brotherhood — his sworn enemies — had been allowed to thrive for 90 years, and it was high time for a change. Egypt’s mosques, he determined, were the place to start eradicating the Brotherhood once and for all — but his crusade against extremism may already be backfiring.
Abdurrahman, age 35, runs a men’s barber shop on a crowded market street near Cairo’s center. For 10 years, he attended the Rahman Mosque next door. Though he could have opted to walk a block down the street to the spacious, well-decorated Rahma Mosque, he preferred the teachings of the little hovel. “The imam was a simple guy,” Abdurrahman said, “but excellent, really excellent. He’s gone now though. I don’t know where.”
In February, the imam vanished and a sign appeared on the mosque door, reading “Friday prayers will now be held at the big mosque. This mosque will be closed except for daily prayer times.” Effective immediately, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments decreed that all mosques measuring less than 80 square meters would no longer be allowed to operate except as daily prayer rooms: no more preaching; no more soliciting alms for the poor. Just like that, Rahman and 27,000 other mosques like it were shuttered.
Although these decrees have only just begun to take effect, the state has been working toward this end for over a year. In January 2014, the interim government announced that for the first time in decades, the Ministry of Religious Endowments would begin enforcing a Nasser-era law making it illegal for any non-certified imams to preach, firing 12,000 in the process. Officials have also standardized Friday sermons, requiring all imams to preach on a predetermined topic each week.
Before, aspiring imams had a number of options for how they could receive their certification. They could study at the ancient and prestigious Al-Azhar University, take a course administered by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, or undergo training by a licensed NGO, such as the popular religious group El Gameya El Shareya. These NGOs were supervised by the Ministry of Religious Endowments but were allowed to train their imams as they pleased.
In March, however, the Ministry of Religious Endowments announced that, beginning next academic year, it would run all religious training centers itself. All certification exams will be administered solely by the Ministry and Al-Azhar. The Egyptian state is thereby further folding Al-Azhar — an institution that formerly took pride in its independence — into its web of ministries and administrations.
Since its founding over 1,000 years ago, Al-Azhar has served as the main pillar of moderate Islamic study, not only for Egypt but for the entire Sunni world. As a result, every Egyptian ruler since Mohammed Ali has vied for control over the institution and its message. While President Nasser managed to bring Al-Azhar under the umbrella of the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments in 1961, a healthy tension remained between the university and the state over its ability to teach and train as it pleased. But since the country’s brief encounter with Muslim Brotherhood rule, Al-Azhar has become the state’s greatest ally in eradicating unwanted strands of Islam.
Under the new leadership of Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, Al-Azhar has narrowed its teachings to the confines of a doctrine called Sufi-Ashari — a moderate strand of Islam that fits within the current regime’s vision of a modern Muslim state. “[Before], Al-Azhar didn’t enforce a single identity for itself,” said Georges Fahmi, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “That left a playground for the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood […] so now Tayeb wants to make Al-Azhar more focused.” If it is enforced, the law that all imams must be trained by Al-Azhar or the Ministry of Religious Endowments will ensure that Al-Azhar succeeds in uniting Egypt under a single Azhari identity, and that the state succeeds in eliminating voices of political opposition.
“The Ministry is now trying to enforce full control over all religious training centers, not just supervising, but full control,” said Fahmi. “You didn’t used to have to take the tests. You would go through the NGO’s training and then you would be hired to preach in that NGO’s mosques. Then the Ministry of Endowments started trying to control all the mosques and all the imams and this includes the formation of imams.”
Once these laws come into full effect, the Egyptian state will have total control over who is allowed to preach, where they are allowed to preach, and what they are allowed to say. As the epicenter of Sunni teaching in the Islamic world, this will have ramifications far beyond Egypt’s borders. This is all happening under the pretext of combating religious extremism and terrorism — a campaign that has earned Sisi high accolades within the international community, with some even talking of a Nobel Peace Prize. However, it also allows the president to further stifle the Muslim Brotherhood, his most dangerous opponent.
In the Giza neighborhood of Kom el-Akhdar, the unassuming al-Iman Mosque served as a community gathering point for 15 years before the Ministry of Religious Endowments shut it down two months ago. Walid, a convenience store owner from down the street, had attended the mosque since the day it was founded, drawn to its communal atmosphere and accessible teaching. In the mosque’s early days, community members took turns leading prayers and preaching the Friday sermons, but they eventually settled on one man to serve as their religious leader: Sheikh Mostafa. When the Ministry of Religious Endowments shut down the mosque, they also banned Sheikh Mostafa from preaching and warned him that if he continued to do so, he could be arrested. Mostafa refused to bow, however. He left Kom el-Akhdar and resumed preaching — in secret — at a mosque on the other side of Giza that had not yet been shut down.
“I feel like churches have more freedom now than mosques,” Walid said. “National security agents can’t go into churches, but they can go into any mosque and arrest people.” He now attends Friday prayers at the Tawhid Wa Nour mosque a few blocks away. There, he sits on a mat outside and listens to the sermon over a loudspeaker. He said that the members of his community feel like they’ve had something taken away from them. “People feel like their religious expression has been restricted,” Walid said. “Under Sisi, it’s the strictest it’s ever been.”
While the laws governing religion in Egypt haven’t changed in decades, there has been a marked change in their interpretation and enforcement since Sisi came to power, said Amr Ezzat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Egyptian law is intentionally ambiguous on the subject of religious pluralism, making it possible to use legislation to fit the political agenda of the time, Ezzat said. “Egyptian law does not protect religious pluralism when it comes to Islam,” said Ezzat. “It refers to imams as a single group and gives the state the right to oversee their religious projects. This is so that they can push them in a single direction.”
The problem, according to Fahmi, the Carnegie researcher, is that such laws are difficult to enforce. “Even under Nasser, when the state was much stronger than it is now, they couldn’t do it,” he said. “So imagine now. The rules exist, but it’s always a matter of enforcement.”
Case in point: El Doaa mosque in the Giza neighborhood of Dokki. El Doaa is a windowless room the size of a garage wedged between two apartment buildings. It delivers the call to prayer from a loudspeaker tied to a telephone pole across the street. The mosque falls far below the minimum 80 square meters requirement and its imam, Sheikh Anwar, has zero religious training, Azhari or otherwise. In fact, when he isn’t delivering the Friday sermon or leading prayers, the quiet, young man with the pointy beard works as a delivery man for a nearby pizza shop.
Despite this, Anwar said he continues to serve as the mosque’s imam and the mosque continues to operate. “I heard about the Ministry’s decision,” he said. “They make decisions like these sometimes, but they don’t actually make them happen.”
It is not only nearly impossible for the state to enforce its new regulations — the attempt to do so may have dangerous consequences. “This is going to lead to a parallel market,” Fahmi said. “You will have a parallel religious sphere where people don’t go to the mosques because they think the mosques only tell us what the state would like us to hear, so they go to private meetings.”
Fahmi’s current research focuses on combating youth extremism — and these restrictions, ostensibly to eradicate extremist thinking, will only serve as fertilizer to help it grow, he said. “Once you have this parallel market, radical ideas can spread much more quickly, because you have no control. Not only from the state but from the parents of the people, you don’t know where your kids are going. That’s the real danger.”
Like most items on the Sisi agenda, the motivation for controlling the mosques is to limit Muslim Brotherhood influence, but even in that, the state is likely to be unsuccessful, Ezzat said. “In reality, for the Brotherhood and those around them, the mosque is not the center of their activity,” Ezzat said. “Rather they use universities, schools, unions, and charitable organizations. They hold their meetings in private homes or in universities because mosques have long been supervised by the state.”
The state should be doing exactly the opposite, Fahmi argued. “If you’d like to face the Brotherhood or the Salafists, then you should strengthen the role of the mosque in the neighborhood: free it up to do activities, hold religious classes.” As Sisi tightens his grip, Fahmi fears that “legitimate Islam” is being turned “into a mouthpiece of the state.”
Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images