Egypt’s Salafists exploit mosques shutdown to expand influence

Preachers are threatening the faithful that closing places of worship will bring divine wrath.
Sunday 29/03/2020
Egyptian men perform a prayer at a public park in Cairo, March 2. (AFP)
Desperately seeking a comeback. Egyptian men perform a prayer at a public park in Cairo, March 2. (AFP)

CAIRO-- As Arab countries take exceptional measures to confront the coronavirus pandemic, including closing mosques, the Salafist movement tried to exploit the religious naivety of many people and presented itself as a substitute for official institutions, dictating how people should connect with God and offering “religious prescriptions” to combat the disease.

Whether in Algeria, Morocco or Egypt, Salafists seem to have agreed on using the epidemic to serve their political ambitions. They started spewing extremist discourse, inciting people to rebel against closing of mosques and promoting ideas claiming to confront the disease by refusing to observe government actions under the pretext that they serve the goals of secularists.

While Salafism seems to converge ideologically in some countries, it has taken a different bent in Egypt. Egyptian Salafists are looking to regain control of mosques, making them places of political activism and fundraising.

The official Egyptian religious institution Dar al-Ifta intervened in the confrontation between Salafists and official institutions regarding closing places of worship to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Dar al-Ifta issued a statement saying that “insisting on having collective prayers in mosques (in the current circumstances) is forbidden in jurisprudence.”

Salafist leaders argued that closing mosques while urging people to pray at home is a major sin. “Eliminating the scourge of the disease must take place within the houses of Allah and not by closing them,” they said. They urged people to pray in groups because “closing places of worship will bring forth a divine punishment that humans will not be able to withstand.”

Dar al-Ifta said Islamic jurisprudence gave priority to preventing calamities over gaining blessings. It set out ways to protect oneself and the community from contagious diseases and epidemics, urged people to adopt preventive measures, including forbidding contact with those who have contagious

diseases, giving authorities responsibility to protect the community and power to decide on necessary measures to that end and condemning disobeying authorities.

Observers noted that Salafist strategy has been to grab major events to present the Islamist project as the only model that can save society and immunise people against calamities and epidemics because it is based on seeking Allah’s approval.

Salafists also tell people it is the ordained duty of every Muslim to combat all attempts to stop the project through illegal decisions and measures.

The Salafists’ strategy of mobilising popular support is based on exploiting society’s religiosity and deciding on red lines not to be crossed. They have promoted the idea that government is seeking greater secularisation of society by clamping down on Islamic voices. Their evidence includes government decisions to close mosques instead of disinfecting them.

Sameh Eid, an expert on Islamist groups, said Salafists were taking advantage of people’s religiosity to promote hard-line rhetoric and retaliate against the government for excluding Salafists from the social and political scene and for paying greater attention to the Christian community to protect them from harm.

There have been several instances of flaunting governmental decisions by the Salafists. Well-known movement figures began a campaign to impose themselves as the only legitimate source of religious education. In addition to telling people to defy the ban on group prayers, Salafist imams insisted on calling the faithful to prayer and purposely using mosques’ external loudspeakers to conduct prayers.

A parallel campaign began on social media, which buzzed with Salafist sermons and rants against the government’s decisions. There are also online sermons and religious lectures to “participate in the religious and intellectual education of the general public by urging people to use their confinement time at home to get closer to Allah.”

This is a repeat of the strategy used by the Salafist movement in the early 1990s before widespread internet availability. At that time, Salafist scholars recorded religious lessons and sermons on cassette tapes to spread their ideas. Later, they had access to satellite television channels to achieve an even wider spread. Now, they have turned to social media.

Salafists claim their opportunity has come to take back the mosques and religious affairs from the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf after years of being excluded. They are circulating religious discourse completely different from the one promoted by official institutions, a discourse based on convincing people that Salafist dogma is the foundation of protection from epidemics.

Some Salafist actions were directed at Egyptian Copts. The Coptic Church in Egypt has been observing the government’s decision to close all houses of worship

Since Salafists could not ignite sectarian strife in Egypt, their insistence to keep mosques open while churches are forced to close is seen as suggesting that Egypt is an Islamic country where mosques and churches do not have the same standing.

It is striking that the government appeared complacent in the face of Salafists’ efforts to return on the scene. No punitive measures have been taken against imams who violated official decisions to close mosques or against those who openly accuse official institutions of being against religion, which gives the impression that the Salafist figures are above accountability.

Eid said the Egyptian government is aware of the danger of using force to close mosques, even when it knows they are run by Salafists. The government also knows that Salafist figures have convinced some people that closing mosques is antireligious. Still, it prefers to avoid clashing directly with those who consider religion a red line.

Eid said the solution lies in convincing people that the Salafist challenge to government decisions is an attempt to exploit religion and public fear for political gain. This is why it is necessary for the grand imam of al-Azhar to declare the opening of mosques during epidemics unlawful because many citizens are not convinced by the Ministry of Awqaf. A statement by al-Azhar would carry more weight, Eid said.

If al-Azhar took this step, the Salafists could lose their sway but is al-Azhar ready for a direct confrontation with the Salafists?