The future of Egyptian democracy:

Searching for the church of Islam

posted by Amr Ezzat

Amid the conflict currently underway in Egypt—between state authorities led by the military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies—another momentous battle is being waged over the country’s mosques and pulpits. Sermons, religious lessons, and charitable and development activities centered in mosques are an important sphere of influence for Islamist movements of various stripes. This arena is also a space to affirm the legitimacy of the regime in Egypt, whose government directly runs many mosques and oversees many more through the Ministry of Endowments (Awqaf). As such, mosques have long been the locus of struggles over power and influence between the regime and its men in the official religious establishment on one hand, and Islamist groups on the other. Currently, the Ministry of Endowments is instituting strict policies aimed at tightening its exclusive control over all Islamic rites and mosque-centered activities, in tandem with a sweeping security campaign targeting the activities of all Islamist movements, with the exception of the pro-government Salafi al-Nour Party.

By law, all mosques must operate under the supervision and oversight of the Ministry of Endowments. In practical terms, supervision means that every preacher, lecturer, and prayer leader must obtain a license from the ministry, and those who do not comply are subject to fines or prison time. The law also gives the Ministry of Endowments the right to bring all mosques under its centralized control, which entails the direct ministry appointment of imams, preachers, and lecturers in every mosque.

Also by law, every building or plot of land zoned as a mosque is subject to the administration or supervision of the Ministry of Endowments; no sect or religious group may establish and operate a mosque, or engage in public rites and preaching, outside of ministry oversight. With the exception of the minister in the Brotherhood government, successive endowment ministers have stated that the state will not permit the existence of any mosques devoted to particular sects or religious trends.

According to these ministers, every mosque in Egypt must subordinate itself to ministry control or oversight in accordance with “moderate” Sunni Islam as embodied by Azharite (of or related to the teachings of al-Azhar) intellectual orthodoxy; the state does not permit the existence of Shiite mosques or mosques dedicated to another confession or any current of political Islam. The endowment minister in the Brotherhood government implicitly recognized that moderate Islam encompasses all religious orientations, including the Salafis and the Brotherhood school, but he also rejected Shiite mosques and described the practices of some Sufi orders as heretical and reprehensible, saying the ministry would not support such practices, although he did not speak explicitly of a ban.

In contrast to the order suggested by the law and ministers’ statements, the reality is somewhat more pluralistic. The state cannot extend its direct control, or even oversight, to all mosques. Many mosques are administered by political Islamist movements and independent and charitable Islamic associations with varying degrees of affiliation to Islamist movements; other mosques are under the control of families and ad-hoc local groups that run the village or neighborhood mosque, or individuals that establish, fund, and administer mosques.

But until the January 2011 revolution, this diversity was largely managed by the security apparatus. Security agencies turned a blind eye to locally- or family-run mosques and those operated by politically anodyne associations, and negotiated with large civic associations engaged in major charitable work, particularly among the poor, to ensure that they did not function as a spearhead for political Islam. The security apparatus showed greater tolerance to Salafi movements that shunned power politics, while striking hard at politically oriented or jihadi Salafi groups and persistently suppressing any organized presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in mosques. In this, it had the help of the Ministry of Endowments. The security apparatus would pinpoint mosques that began to host unwelcome groups or popular preachers who opposed the regime, and the ministry would enforce the law, bringing the mosques under its direct administrative control or sending out new preachers with ministry licenses.

In all cases in which associations or individuals turned to the courts to challenge the decision to incorporate mosques into the ministry, citing the Egyptian constitution and its guarantees for freedom of belief and worship, or the violation of the sanctity of private property, the courts ruled that the management of mosques and their preaching activities are subordinate to the Ministry of Endowments. The courts held that, while mosques are “God’s property” rather than the property of individuals or groups, the state possesses the right to administer them.

In this respect, the law and court rulings do not recognize the existence of a congregation of Muslims who can worship—that is, engage in formal rites—outside the bounds of the state. This legal status seems to be a vestige of the Islamic caliphate (دولة المسلمين, “state of Muslims”), where the congregation of Muslims was conceived as a politico-religious entity, as it first took shape under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad. While this conception often accrues to the power and advantage of Muslims in the aggregate, it restricts the religious freedom of Muslim groups or individuals who do not wish to align themselves to the political or religious orientation of the political authority.

The margin of freedom allotted to Muslims to worship or engage in religious activities outside of state oversight has thus always existed under the threat of legal coercion, which would be brought to bear if the state believed that the religious activity involved support for opposition to the political regime. In a similar vein, Christians and Jews enjoy the freedom to convert to Islam, but state executive bodies do not permit a Muslim to officially convert to another religion, a policy upheld by the courts in numerous rulings.

For the state, then, “Muslims” are a religiously uniform, united people whose religious life is managed by a government ministry; religious diversity among Muslims is therefore an intolerable fissure in this unity. At the same time, non-Muslim religious communities manage their religious activities with internal autonomy, but under the authority of the state and within the bounds permitted by “Muslims.” The construction of a church still requires a permit from the president himself, another remnant of the Ottoman caliph’s authority to license any confession to operate or build houses of worship. This authority, too, has been upheld by the courts and is a legally sanctioned procedure that has not been invalidated by successive Egyptian constitutions, all of which uphold freedom of worship and equality between citizens without regard to religion.

During the year that Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, occupied the presidency, religious policies were upended, particularly the administration of Islamic affairs. Most of these policies had been used against the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies by past state officials and heads of al-Azhar who believed that the religious discourse of the Brotherhood disrupted the unity of Muslims and threatened public order, and was therefore intolerable.

Morsi continued to issue permits for churches, allowing the construction of one church during his tenure, and the government continued to support the general legal framework for the administration of religious affairs. The Brotherhood and its allies focused on replacing old regime personnel (Azharites) with their own people in the Ministry of Endowments, sparking administrative conflict and tension between the ministry and head administration of al-Azhar. But in some respects, the Brotherhood government sought to pursue consensus-oriented policies to avoid a major battle with al-Azhar and because the diversity within the ruling Islamist alliance—the Brotherhood and diverse Salafi groups, as well as religious associations and independent Islamists—dictated loosening some centralized policies to appease allies.

One area in which the Brotherhood government attempted to pursue conciliatory policies was the mosque boards of directors. In the early 1980s, a law was issued creating these boards in some large mosques that the ministry found it difficult to manage and fund on its own, or in mosques where the ministry’s management faced local pressure. Including local figures and businessmen, the boards helped manage the mosques’ financial affairs and some services, and cooperated with the ministry to develop religious activities, but had no authority to infringe on the ministry’s exclusive right to administer religious and preaching activities. The members of these boards were appointed in full by the ministry, and the ministry had the right to dissolve the board or revoke membership from those it deemed inappropriate. The security apparatus played a major role in selecting and approving members, to ensure that the boards did not include members of Islamist movements.

In some mosques, these boards may have been roughly representative of the general congregation of that mosque, but it was state-sanctioned representation. The board had no say in religious activities, its role limited to managing charitable activities, some services, and support services for the ministry-appointed imam of the mosque.

Even so, the operation of the boards was suspended in the mid-1990s because of the many problems and conflicts that ensued, according to the minister of endowments at the time. The minister said that some boards sought to exercise influence beyond their remit. Most of the objections came from imams and religious scholars who felt that the boards were undercutting their influence and that the boards’ financial administration, which included allocating part of the mosque donations for the imam and mosque staff, was demeaning.

After January 2011, when the security apparatus withdrew from the management of religious affairs, Islamist movements of all types gained new ground and extended their control over numerous mosques and their religious and charitable activities. They even competed for the administration of some large government mosques that had originally been founded by civic associations but were later appropriated by the ministry, with the support of the judiciary.

When the Brotherhood government assumed control of the Ministry of Endowments, reviving the role of the mosque boards was on the agenda of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political arm. Minister Talaat Afifi issued a decree reconstituting the boards under the name “mosque development boards,” giving them prerogatives similar to those of the old boards. The boards still had no influence over religious and preaching activity, which remained the exclusive purview of the ministry, but, controversially, the boards were to be elected.

This seemed to be a limited attempt to explore the idea of a congregation of Muslims who have a certain degree of input in selecting the people who will manage some of their religious affairs. It was also a way to deflect repeated accusations that the government was “Brotherhood-izing” the mosques and the Ministry of Endowments and showing favoritism to the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies in its appointment of imams and ministry leaders. For their part, the Brotherhood and its allies said that their positions in the ministry and mosques were their right after decades of exclusion. And lest anyone accuse the ministry or the Brotherhood of seeking to dominate the mosque boards, they would open them to elections.

But how to determine which Muslims possessed the right to vote in elections for this or that board? The official decree stipulated that “a general assembly of mosque patrons” be created from among registered residents of the neighborhood in which the mosque was located, as well as those who applied to the ministry-appointed imam to affirm that they were regular attendees and registered as members of the general assembly.

Despite the clear authority given to the appointed imam, imams—particularly those who were not close to the pro-Brotherhood Islamist alliance—were the most significant source of protest. They said that the boards would allow organized movements to mobilize supporters to take control of mosque activities and compete with the imams. Some members of these boards would control mosque expenditures or oversee donations, of which the imams receive a part under the law. The imams felt, as they had in the past, that this demeaned them.

Some mosque-goers, families running mosques, and members of the less well-organized Sufi orders believed that the elected boards would spark a conflict over mosques that were historically under their authority and that the elections would work to the benefit of the Brotherhood and its allies, who enjoyed a strong network. Others added that an imam appointed by the Brotherhood ministry might favor members of his organization and make them members of his mosque’s general assembly.

The decree also raised the hackles of imams and scholars who believed that it would give rise to local “churches” in Islam; churches have a discrete membership and members have certain prerogatives.

The decision to elect mosque development boards did not resolve the problem or mitigate conflicts, but only inflamed them further, partly because the idea was grafted on to a centralized administrative order and partly because it ran up against the idea of “every mosque for every Muslim”—a central tenet of Islam—making it “every mosque for every Muslim in this neighborhood.” In other words, when the decree attempted to give greater freedom to a subgroup of Muslims, it still recognized them as a uniform entity, albeit one defined by locale. But a recognition of the freedom of Muslims, as groups or individuals, begins with a recognition of their genuinely held sense of confessional or intellectual difference in liturgy or religious discourse.

Ultimately, the ministry suspended the decree and appointed a small number of boards of directors. After the anti-Brotherhood protests of June 30, 2013, the army’s removal of Morsi on July 3, and the resignation of the government, the new military-backed government repealed the mosque boards decree entirely and dissolved all the boards appointed under the Brotherhood, appointing in their stead boards stocked with the traditional Azharite elite and young, anti-Brotherhood imams.

In tandem with a massive security campaign that saw the arrest of dozens of imams and their referral to trial on charges of incitement to violence, the new ministry issued administrative decrees referring dozens of other imams to internal investigations, suspending or firing them, and revoking the licenses of thousands of preachers. The ministry took other draconian, unprecedented steps, such as unifying the topic of the Friday sermon in every mosque and declaring that all mosques would be brought under the ministry’s administrative control. Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa wrote an article in which he conflated national unity with Muslim liturgical uniformity in light of the country’s current difficult straits—a reference to the political conflict between the army and state on one hand and the Brotherhood, its allies, and violent jihadi groups on the other. Islamic jurisprudence, the minister said, holds that the “ruler of Muslims” or his surrogate oversees the congregational prayer and other rites. The ministry is therefore responsible for running all mosques and has the right to impose a uniform topic for the Friday sermon for all preachers in every mosque.

There is a traditional Islamic discourse that takes pride in the fact that there is no central religious authority in Islam—no church, no priesthood, no clerical class to govern the religious (and certainly not political) lives of Muslims. This discourse is well grounded in doctrine and Islamic jurisprudence, which indeed contain no reference to the specific shape of Muslims’ religious communities or clerical prerogatives. Historical practice also holds no precedents. The problem is that Islamic doctrine, jurisprudence, and historical practice do, in fact, both assume and fundamentally rely on the existence of a single Muslim polity with authority over Muslims’ religious affairs and the religious scholar class. The alternative is to abandon the Muslim state for a modern nation-state that fully embraces the concept of citizenship, which would entail the disappearance of political authority over religious affairs and open the door to religious freedom. Otherwise, the modern state will continue to draw on this legacy of religious authority inherited from the caliphate.

It seems that modern states that succeeded the Islamic caliphate continue to rely on this legacy of religious authority for their political legitimacy, affirming it through official religious institutions that possess a monopoly on the legal administration of Islam. In engineering its policies for managing Islam, the state proceeds from the belief that Muslims’ religious unity is part and parcel of preserving political unity and the patriotic line, and it legally suppresses any activity or attempt on the part of Muslim groups or individuals to freely worship outside the bounds of the centralized state administration or beyond the scope of a centralized, religious orthodoxy described as “proper religion.”

The refusal to recognize diversity within Islam and the efficacy of diverse Muslim congregations managing their affairs with relative autonomy—because this might entail the division of Muslims into “churches”—has legally and politically circumscribed religious freedom for all Muslims under the authority of a single church. In essence, the state functions as the church, relying on the Ministry of Endowments, state-linked scholarly institutions such as al-Azhar, and the security apparatus to monitor and maintain politico-religious loyalty.

Since this control and the de facto church it establishes have never successfully instituted effective uniformity, and since diversity has always existed outside of this official, legal sphere, the conflict in the religious arena between traditional forces in the Egyptian state and current Islamist trends seems, from this vantage point, to be a search for a workable church of Islam.

An Arabic version of this piece has been published at Jadaliyya—ed.

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