Salafists, government fight over control of Egypt’s mosques
CAIRO - The Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments ended the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-orthodox Salafist presence in academic circles by suspending 68 preachers’ academies affiliated with Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
To replace the academies, which prepare mosque preachers, the ministry introduced 27 cultural centres, 20 to prepare students for mosque preaching and seven for Islamic education. The development is part of Cairo’s efforts to address extremism before it controls Egypt’s mosques.
The move by the Endowments Ministry was strongly opposed by Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who accused the government of animosity towards Islam and preachers and wanting to shutter mosques. They are trying to pressure the religious establishment to reverse the decision.
Preachers’ academies used to promote Islamist positions. The Salafist al-Nour Party benefited from the academies.
Soon after the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013, the government took a series of measures to prevent extremist forces from controlling Egypt’s mosques. It made preaching in the mosques conditional on permission from the Endowments Ministry.
Observers said the decision is a prelude to a renewal of religious discourse and an attempt by the government to limit extremists’ influence.
The Salafists made their presence felt at a number of mosques in Alexandria and the Nile Delta province of Qalyubia, violating the law that regulates stays in mosques. The Salafists tried to control the mosques, which led the Religious Endowments Ministry to force them out.
Observers said the Salafists would lose the most from the closure of the preachers’ academies. The Islamist NGOs used to operate 72 academies, graduating hundreds of pro-Salafist preachers every year. The Salafists used the preachers to try to sway thousands of young Egyptians to their thinking.
The government ordered preachers’ academies to get written permission from either al-Azhar or the Endowments Ministry to work. Academy owners must allow supervision by al-Azhar or the ministry.
“Keeping political Islam away from the teaching of mosque preachers and the closure of preachers’ academies will bring about the slow death of Islamist groups,” said Ahmed Kerima, a professor of comparative jurisdiction at the School of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University. “These academies were about the last hope of these groups to prepare people loyal to them who can spread their thinking among the public and convince them of their political point of view.”
He said these Islamist groups are “under siege”.
“They do not either control the mosques or have their own preachers,” Kerima said.
Kerima still said the decision was “belated” and that the government needs to maintain its campaign to eradicate extremist groups.
The religious establishment does not deny the presence of the academies. The Egyptian leadership wants to weed out the Muslim Brotherhood and prevent al-Nour Party from growing in popularity.
Sources said Salafist leaders will work to get around the decision by asking followers to apply to state-controlled academies but the Endowments Ministry said it was aware of this ploy.
The decision to close the preachers’ academies is final, said Gabir Taye, head of the Religious Sector at the Endowments Ministry.
“This is not a temporary decision, like some people say,” Taye said. “It has nothing to do with any special calculations either.
“Nobody will be able to preach at the mosques without permission. Preachers must also be graduates of al-Azhar.”
He noted that the ministry would work to keep radical thinking at bay.
The Endowments Ministry said its decisions are entirely religious and have nothing to do with politics. Some Salafist leaders, however, called for referring the issue to parliament in a bid to win sympathy, especially from those who send their children to preachers’ academies.