Fearing extremist violence, Egypt silences 20,000 storefront mosques

The Egyptian government has banned preaching at 20,000 mosques as a precautionary measure to prevent extremist violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

People buy traditional lanterns in Sayyeda Zeinab market in preparation for the holy month of Ramadan, in Cairo, Egypt, on May 16, 2018. Muslims throughout the world are preparing to celebrate Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, refraining from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

People buy traditional lanterns in Sayyeda Zeinab market in preparation for the holy month of Ramadan, in Cairo, on May 16, 2018. The Egyptian government is closely monitoring smaller, informal mosques during Ramadan. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO (RNS) – The Egyptian government has banned preaching at 20,000 mosques as a precautionary measure to prevent extremist violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Some Egyptian Muslims say the ban is unfairly curtailing religious life in their neighborhoods. But the government deems it an important step for public safety.

Penalties have increased for mosques that use their minaret loudspeakers for anything other than the traditional call to prayer. Scores of imams have been fired for straying from state-approved topics.

It’s all part of a crackdown on storefront mosques, or zawyas, that sprang up about six years ago when a government with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. Most still receive state subsidies but are viewed warily in a season known for increased violence in the Middle East.

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“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.”

Ramadan ends June 14, but it’s unclear whether the new restrictions will be lifted at that time.

The clampdown stems from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s campaign against terrorism. Officials are targeting zawyas to prevent extremist incitement that has occurred in multiple cities during extended after-dusk prayers and recitations of the Quran at Ramadan.

Egyptian Muslims gather for iftar at the end of the fasting day during the holy month of Ramadan outside Hussein mosque in Cairo on July 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

When ex-President Mohammed 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, according to 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 Shariah, or Islamic law, as the basis of Egypt’s legal system. The group’s agenda sparked interreligious clashes between Muslims, and between Christians and Muslims.

The military ousted Morsi in 2013, paving the way for el-Sissi’s rise to power. But the zawyas remain.

“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.

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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.”

Authorities inspect the aftermath of an attack on buses and a truck carrying Coptic Christians in Minya Province, Egypt, on May 26, 2017. Screenshot from video

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 St. Samuel the Confessor monastery in southern Egypt.

Off-script Islamic preachers who wander from state-authorized messages 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-Sissi administration and straying from the topics authorized by the Religious Endowments Ministry.

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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-Sissi 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.

A woman sells bread near the Tawfiqia market in downtown Cairo on Oct. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

Many disagree.

“I was suspended from my position after saying in a sermon that I thought Mohammed Morsi was a president who was only seeking to reform Egypt,” said Abu Khalid, a 37-year-old imam 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.

In 2015, cameras were first installed at the landmark Al-Noor and Al-Sayeda Zeinab mosques in Cairo. Religious Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said his staff would monitor sermons to ensure no extremist messages were delivered. The ministry has not released the total number of fired or disciplined imams.

Other countries have taken similar measures in the past. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait installed cameras in mosques in 2015 after three bombings for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility. In October, Saudi officials said they had dismissed thousands of imams to prevent spreading extremism.

People chat and smoke traditional water pipes under an election campaign banner for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with Arabic that reads “for the sake of the nation security,” in Cairo, on March 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

El-Sissi’s supporters say the zawya sermon ban and other measures make sense because it’s impossible for the government to monitor every mosque in Egypt.

“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, said the el-Sissi administration is 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.”

Worshippers who find community and solace at local zawyas believe the government is using the larger mosques to promulgate its policies, such as drafting state-funded 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, about 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.”

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