Egyptian campaign confiscates ‘radical’ mosque books
Cairo - Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments has started removing what it describes are “extremist books” from libraries in mosques across the country. The ministry, which controls the nation’s more than 100,000 mosques, said the campaign targets books written by specific scholars known to promote radical thinking.
“The aim is to prevent these books from falling in the hands of youths who can easily be influenced by this thinking,” Mohamed Ezz al-Deen, deputy religious endowments minister, said.
“Some writers are known to promote extremism religious thinking, one that contradicts with the moderate version of Islam we are keen to encourage in this country,” he added.
Ministry inspectors have confiscated thousands of books, compact discs and tapes on unannounced visits to mosques across Egypt, saying they contain radical materials written or recorded by extremist scholars and sheikhs.
On June 24th, Religious Endowments Ministry inspectors confiscated 2,000 books containing fundamentalist and extremist thought from a mosque at the centre of Cairo. A few days earlier, the inspectors confiscated as many as 1,000 tapes of preachers, described by the ministry as “radical”, including the Muslim Brotherhood-backing Wagdi Ghoneim and Mohamed Hussein Yacoub.
The new campaign comes as Egypt has seen an upsurge in violence mixed with religious ideology championed by the Muslim Brotherhood or radical Salafists in the Sinai peninsula.
The campaign is one of a broad series of measures taken by the Religious Endowments Ministry in its crackdown on religious extremism across Egypt. In June, Religious Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa vowed to clamp down on radicals seeking to make the nation’s mosques springboards for extremist activities.
Ministry officials seem to be taking the pledge seriously. They have taken steps to tighten their control on mosques, especially in the countryside and small districts where there has often been a total absence of ministry inspectors.
The ministry is taking charge of sermons delivered by mosque preachers, especially prior to weekly Friday prayers, deciding the topics of the sermons and selecting the preachers to deliver them. It also acted to prevent observant citizens from staying in mosques for long periods without prior notice or permission.
The ministry recently said it would contract a company to secure, clean and maintain Egypt’s mosques. Currently, mosques are cleaned, secured and maintained either by volunteers or people commissioned and paid by the ministry.
These measures have drawn criticism from Islamist thinkers and groups as well as some among the general public.
“Now it is time Egypt’s mosques were privatised,” Nader Fergany, a political science professor, said. “Sometime later, Muslims will pay to be allowed to enter the mosques,” he wrote on Facebook.
Others say in its bid to take books off mosque shelves, the government is trying to silence dissenting scholars and religious leaders, singling out scholars who support the Muslim Brotherhood.
In this, these people have a strong argument. Ghoneim, for example, has been outspoken in his criticism of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But the same preacher, who now lives outside Egypt, has appeared in videos in which he defends the Islamic State (ISIS). Yacoub has been a diehard supporter of Egypt’s Islamists.
Nevertheless, when it comes to radical Islam, Egypt is a pioneer, some people say. This country of 89 million people — the vast majority of them Sunni Muslims — has given rise to Islamist movements that shaped the ideology of violent organisations, including al-Qaeda.
A large number of Egypt’s Islamists were members of al-Qaeda and the current head of the organisation, Ayman al-Zawahri, is Egyptian and he has relatives in Egypt.
Egypt is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that emerged in 1928 as an educational organisation but turned to politics and is described by some people as the “mother” of all radical organisations.
Despite this, some people say the government’s attempt to neutralise mosques and win them from extremists will be a challenge, especially when one thinks of thousands of mosques in remote or marginalised areas not easily reached by religious inspectors. Thousands of small mosques, including some the Religious Endowments Ministry does not know exist, are in the countryside.
Kamal Habib, a leading Islamist thinker, says some mosques are controlled by Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat Islamiya and the Salafist Call.
“These are mosques where activists from these religious trends fill people who frequent them with their own thinking,” Habib said. “These mosques are even more dangerous than extremist books.”
He particularly referred to southern Egyptian provinces, where Islamist movements such as Jamaat Islamiya, the movement whose members assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, have a strong following.
However, Ezz al-Deen says all mosques are controlled by his ministry and that ministry officials will act seriously to crack down on books of extremist nature.
“Mosques are houses of God,” Ezz al-Deen said. “They are no place for extremists, divisions or incitement.”