Egyptian campaign confiscates ‘radical’ mosque books

Friday 07/08/2015
A bookshop that sells Islamic and reference books near the
al-Azhar mosque in Cairo.

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.”