Islam, scripted: Egypt reins in Friday sermons at mosque

Cairo - Sheikh Khalef Massoud used to draw about 250 people when he first started preaching in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba in 2007.

Today his Friday sermons at Al Montazah Mosque attract more than 3,000 people, filling both floors of the mosque and spilling out into the alleys. His penchant for talking about the importance of democratic freedoms has drawn listeners from all over Cairo and beyond.

But in January the government decreed that all imams must follow state-sanctioned themes each week – typically social issues like street children or drug addiction that steer well clear of politics. Authorities monitor Sheikh Massoud's sermons and keep tabs on his Facebook page and any political comments he posts on websites for imams and sheikhs. Since the military ousted an Islamist government last summer, he has twice been suspended from preaching, and ordered to stop making appearances on TV.

“They want to use religion as an anesthetic to calm people down,” says Massoud, who has a PhD from Egypt’s preeminent school of Islamic learning, Al Azhar University. “They’re using imams to channel this idea.”

The Friday sermon is perhaps the most influential institution in the Muslim world, and has long been used to inform, inspire, and rouse the public. During Egypt's 2011 uprising many of the largest protests followed Friday prayers, and during the Muslim Brotherhood's short-lived rule, it often used the mosques to rally supporters for marches and votes.

The secular government portrays its interference as essential to stabilize the country. But critics see it as a campaign to cleanse the mosques of Islamist politics and a blatant attempt to co-opt Egypt’s most respected religious institutions – Al Azhar; the Ministry of Endowment, which oversees religious affairs; and mosques – to silence dissent and shape the popular narrative.

Since last summer's overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first Islamist president, the Ministry of Endowment has laid off 12,000 preachers and hired 17,000 new ones in what they say is a bid to flush out unqualified imams. On Tuesday it vowed to take legal action against unlicensed imams after a prominent Salafi preacher allegedly blocked a government-appointed imam from replacing him.

“These demagogic acts are alien to religion, ethics, and genuine Egyptian values,” the ministry said in a statement, vowing to combat "extremism and intellectual thuggery.”

A ‘critical time’ for imams

Political control of mosques is neither a foreign concept in Islam nor a new tactic in Egypt. But the current government exerts far more control than its Islamist predecessor, says Amr Ezzat, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo.

“Right now all important state institutions, like the judiciary and the police, are on their side," he says.

The government controls Friday sermons primarily through Al Azhar University, which trains imams, and the Ministry of Endowment, which oversees the country’s 84,000 public mosques. The ministry employs 55,000 full-time imams, in addition to about 40,000 freelance preachers, known as khateebs, who are licensed to give Friday sermons on an ad-hoc basis.

Mohamed Eid Kilani, head of public mosques for the Ministry of Endowment, says the 17,000 new recruits were all freelancers, with a thorough knowledge of the Quran and degrees from Al Azhar – though often in fields such as engineering or medicine.

“The people… need to be able to practice religion away from any political affiliations. And by unifying the sermons we guarantee that no one is going to use religion to advertise a political point of view,” he says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “You need to understand that imams and khateebs are leaders in Egypt, they are the ones that drive the people, because of the religious core Egyptians have in them. So it is a critical time for imams and their role now is more important than ever.”

Choosing the gatekeepers

Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen, widely known as the preacher of the 2011 revolution, couldn’t agree more. Last year he was suspended as imam of the Omar Makram Mosque on Tahrir Square by the Ministry of Endowment after he called on Mr. Morsi to heed Egyptians' concerns.

“[The Brotherhood] knew that the biggest and the best gate through which they can spread their ideas and control the minds of Egyptian people is the Ministry of Endowment,” says the sheikh.

He appealed his suspension to the judiciary and was reinstated. He has since called for drastic measures against members of the Brotherhood – including sharia punishments like crucifixion – and established the National Front to Defend Al Azhar.

Many see the university as the only legitimate gatekeeper of Islam in Egypt, and the Ministry of Endowment says that only imams with Al Azhar degrees will be allowed to preach now.

“Our problem with Mubarak and the Brotherhood is that there was no law that specified who is allowed to be an imam,” says Ahmed el-Bahey, leader of Imams Without Restrictions, formed last year to oppose the Brotherhood's influence. “What we asked for during Mubarak’s time and the Brotherhood and now … is to have all mosques under one umbrella: Al Azhar.”

Mr. Bahey lauds the government for centralizing control of imams under the university, but says it is ultimately necessary to separate the two.

“We want to draw a very clear line between the government and religious preaching because today we agree with the government, but maybe tomorrow we won’t,” he says.

Cloaked messages

For Muslims angered by the curbs on sermons, there are few options. While some Brotherhood members pray at home in protest of pro-coup imams, others feel duty-bound to attend Friday prayers.

“It is a religious duty and we have to do it, we don’t really have a choice,” says a Brotherhood youth activist who asked not to be named.

Massoud, the twice-suspended preacher in Imbaba, worries that the restrictions will sow disillusionment with democracy and push some toward more extremist teachings. But he says he has found ways to infuse his state-sanctioned sermons with Islamic stories and ideas that convey his deeper points.

“Thank God, the people who usually come here have very high values, Islamic education,” says the sheikh. “Even if I do speak in metaphors … they still understand exactly what I mean.”

Amina Ashraf contributed reporting.