Last week the Supreme Council for Media Regulation released a list of 50 preachers who are exclusively allowed to issue fatwas and religious opinions through media outlets, a step continuing the process of limiting religious preaching to a single discourse.
According the head of the council, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, the list includes 20 preachers from Dar Al-Ifta and 30 individuals from Al-Azhar.
The list caused controversy among circles concerned with religious preaching, leading to minor conflicts. The origins of the list can be traced back to the international conference of fatwas (edicts) last October, where Grand Mufti Shawki Allam named those who are entitled to issue fatwas. At the time, the suggestion was supported by several preachers and media personnel.
However, after the list appeared last week, many grew frustrated, with the method of choice being criticised as excluding. Several prominent names in the field appeared on talk show programmes receiving live calls from viewers in order to ask their opinions about different life matters. Names include Salafist preachers, some prominent Azhar preachers, and other popular preachers.
Prominent preacher Saad Al-Din Al-Helal commented on not being included saying, in an ONTV interview, that the decision, “is turning religion into some kind of priesthood,” where issuing religious opinions have turned into a job. Other opinions varied, with some announcing their happiness that they were not chosen, as it is a considerable responsibility, while others argued that the method of choosing the preachers is not clear.
The list included one female preacher, something that was criticised by Soad Saleh, a prominent female TV preacher, as a decision that will “limit the fatwas which are related to women.”
Al-Azhar has been trying to mediate between the conflicting sides, with deputy of Al-Azhar University Abbas Shuman saying that another list will be sent to the Supreme Council for Media Regulation for consideration. He added in press statements that this list was not made to evaluate the existing preachers, but to satisfy the request.
The Ministry of Endowments also said it will present other lists to the council. The decision to make these lists is part of the Egyptian state’s aim to limit “radical preaching” in mosques and to crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric, which often relied on public mobilisation through sermons delivered at mosques, especially during Friday prayers.
This started months after the ouster of Islamist former President Mohamed Morsi. After July 2013, the Egyptian state began asserting that Al-Azhar is the only religious institution which is constitutionally responsible for Islamic affairs in the country, including Friday sermons, religious lessons in mosques, and “advocating a moderate Islamic rhetoric.” President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has been pushing institutions in charge of religious affairs across the country, including Al-Azhar and other religious authorities, to renew religious discourse. The state seeks to rid religious rhetoric of extremist ideologies, and promote “moderate” Islamic teachings. Hours after the ouster of Morsi, religious channels supportive of the former president were forcibly closed, after being accused of “inciting violence”.
The first step was to restrict the Friday sermon to major mosques and to follow a common theme, because after the ouster of Morsi most of anti-state protests occurred after Friday prayers, sometimes leading to deadly clashes. A few days before he handed over power in June 2014, former interim president Adly Mansour amended the Speech Law, criminalising clerics who preach without prior notice to the Ministry of Endowments. The law allows for their imprisonment for a period between three and nine months, and a fine of EGP 20,000 – doubling the penalty if the act is repeated.
The amendments to the Speech Law modified the penalties from the original draft issued in 1996. The previous penalties were imprisonment for no longer than one month and a fine of EGP 100.
In April 2014, Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Razek, undersecretary to the Minister of Endowments for Mosque Affairs, said that any imam involved in a political group will be banned from preaching.
In December 2016, the ministry announced that a specialised committee was assigned to develop religious discourse and sermons, with the aim of discussing strengths and weaknesses in Egyptian society in order to develop a five-year road map aimed at reforming religious discourse. What followed was a plan by the ministry to unify the topic and actual text of Friday sermons.
A study titled “To Whom Do Minbars [preaching platforms] Belong Today?” was released in October by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), raising questions and concerns regarding the state’s attempts to monopolise religious discourse through the management of mosques and controlling the content of Friday sermons. The study argues that, after the mass protests that ousted Morsi, the state has been attempting to gain control over mosques and religious institutions through claiming “the religious unity of Muslims”.
It also mentions that, amid the current regime’s attempt to impose its legitimacy, a number of religious leaders have been preaching “total support for the police and the army”. The study claims that a campaign has been launched to ensure that all proselytising and Friday sermons should support the current regime, and to censor all dissenting preachers.
In several incidents, preachers were suspended for “preaching radical ideologies”. In May 2017, the Ministry of Endowments announced that former Deputy Minister of Endowments Salem Abdel Galil and Imam of Al-Sayeda Nafisa Mosque Abdullah Roushdy would not be allowed to lead Friday sermons, prayers or classes, describing them as harming the national interest and contradicting what the ministry calls for, such as citizenship and freedom of religion and choice.