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Dominating Religion in Egypt's Pseudo-secular State

Recently, Egypt's ruling junta made a decision to withdraw the licenses granted to well over fifty thousand mosques. In a move that is unprecedented in Islamic history, hundreds of thousands of imams have been banned from leading religious services, and only clerics who, not only graduated from al-Azhar Seminary, but are also employees of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Ministry of Awqaf) will be permitted to lead services in Egypt.

I do not believe that commentators fully understand the profound implications of this decision. It is no exaggeration to say that if the Egyptian government actually implements this decision, it will change the course of history in Egypt, and indeed the trajectory of modern Islamic history.

The immediate reason that the military junta decided to cancel the permits issued to what are typically small-sized mosques known as zawaya (pl.) or zawiyah (sing.) is that these underfunded, grossly overcrowded mosques have played an increasingly important role since the revolution, and have been overwhelmingly opposed to the military coup. But in reality, since the mid-1970s, the zawaya have played an active role as dynamic forums for social and political mobilization in financially disadvantaged communities and among marginalized low-income areas all over Egypt.

What distinguishes this move from the numerous other oppressive and blatantly unlawful manoeuvres El Sisi and his generals have undertaken since their coup?

The generals and the Egyptian media claim that this was a long needed measure to insure that sermons delivered in the many centuries-old mosques of Egypt meet basic levels of competence and proficiency in the Islamic religious sciences. Moreover, they claim that these zawaya mosques have become a breeding ground for fanatic and extremist discourses that incite and excite ill-educated parishioners. According to the El Sisi apologists, this was a measure that should have been taken a long time ago, but finally, El Sisi had the sheer courage to get the mission accomplished.

It is true that Mubarak's regime had long considered this measure, but never dared to go this far. And decades ago, Nasser shut down a thousand mosques that resisted the socialist government's order of nationalization.

However, to appreciate El Sisi's audacious, even insolent step, we need to consider some of the necessary background. For centuries, mosques in Egypt were funded through a complex matrix of private endowments known as the awqaf (sing. waqf). The awqaf performed a variety of social functions including: funding schools like al-Azhar, orphanages, water works and even animal shelters. Islamic law added layers of complexity by developing a set of rules as to the consecration of mosques, the inalienability of places of worship and, most importantly, the assumption that once land is consecrated as a mosque it cannot be dedicated to any other purpose.

During the Nasser era, all the Muslim religious endowments were nationalized and placed under the control of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. This made all mosques and Muslim religious institutions, such as al-Azhar Seminary, state owned property. The idea of secularism in Egypt was not a separation between church and state, but a complete dominion by the secular state over all religious institutions. In this capacity, the rentier state is able to control, manipulate and leverage religion to maintain a fundamentally unjust and exploitative power structure.

Interestingly, the Coptic religious endowments remained under the control of the Coptic Church, but the government did not allow for the construction of churches or synagogues without the prior approval of the state. While the Coptic Church could elect its own pope, the consecutive military governments of Egypt insisted on appointing the Shaykh of al-Azhar, the Mufti of the Egyptian State and the Minister of Endowments.

Throughout the 1970s and continuing to the present day, several problems (which I discuss below), led to an increasingly prominent role for the zawiyah mosques in the cultural and socio-political lives of Egyptians.

The secular state in Egypt consistently tried to leverage al-Azhar and its graduates as a legitimating sword used aggressively to justify certain policies, such as the Camp David Accords and the privatization of the public economic sector. At the same time, the state used al-Azhar as a defensive shield legitimating reactionary and conservative power dynamics, such as patriarchy and the monopolization of wealth in the hands of Egypt's new class of super-pashas.

To these ends, the secular state strictly controlled the intellectual activity and curriculum at al-Azhar. Meanwhile, economic and political corruption became rampant in religious institutions, such as al-Azhar and various Sufi guilds. But nothing compares to the infamous level of corruption that continues to plague the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many of the medieval places of worship in Egypt fell into hopeless disrepair. At the same time, the Ministry of Awqaf did not meet the ever-growing demand for new mosques, and even worse, graduates from al-Azhar failed to meet the demand for imams. Since the 1970s, most of the qualified graduates of al-Azhar have left to work in the Gulf countries, Algeria, or other Muslim countries, while the remaining graduates have largely failed to meet even the minimal level of competency in memorizing and reciting the Qur'an.

Moreover, especially in the past two decades, the Ministry of Awqaf issued ready-made sermons to be delivered by clergy during Friday services. Before very long, all the Friday sermons delivered in the mosques directly owned by the Ministry of Awqaf sounded tediously the same. It is difficult to describe the mind-numbing repetitiveness, dogmatism, irrelevance and sheer monotony of the ten or so sermons authored by the institutions of the state, and regurgitated by uninspired, lethargic and subdued Azhari clergy in one mosque after another across the country.

This sombre, dreary reality became the fertile grounds for the spread of the zawiyah mosque. Without exception, all zawiyah mosques have been built and maintained by private funds and donations. Some are as big as full-sized mosques built on private property, while most are the size of a conference hall, typically found at the street-level floor of residential buildings, and or in the basement of businesses or apartment complexes. Usually, after such structures are designated as mosques, a license is obtained from the Ministry of Awqaf, but the mosque remains private property.

Imams hired to lead prayers and give sermons in these privately-owned mosques are usually paid from donations raised by the congregation itself. In most cases, the imams are either retired Azhari shaykhs, unemployed university graduates from one of the professional schools, such as engineering, or young men who have attended one or two years of instruction in one of the privately-owned Qur'an institutes that have sprouted all over Egypt. After passing an examination in Qur'anic recitation and memorization, these imams are issued a license, and although not under the supervision of al-Azhar, they become community-supported religious leaders.

The zawiyah mosques posed a problem on two fronts: First, they often did become breeding grounds for extremist discourses and meeting points for fundamentalist groups; second, because of their small size, worshippers would often end up overflowing to the outside of the mosques, praying on street pavements and, at times, blocking street traffic.

Since the Jan. 25 revolution, the zawiyah mosques have played an increasingly politicized role that contrasts sharply with the docile role played by the Azhari mosques. Critically, these mosques and their podiums constituted the only legitimate competition to the monopoly of state-sponsored religion in the crippled civil society of Egypt. By simply cancelling the licenses given to the imams and closing down thousands of zawaya mosques, the Egyptian government is forcing all religious discourse that is not under the formal tutelage of the government to go underground, and to grow more radicalized and polarized.

But even more troublesome is that the closure of these mosques once again demonstrates that Egypt will remain locked between the polarity of an authoritarian pseudo-secularism and an authoritarian pseudo-Islamism. Most of Egypt's secular intelligentsia, who have now become didactic apologists for the military, enthusiastically support the closure decision. In doing so, they once again demonstrate that the secularism of Arab countries such as Egypt has practically nothing to do with the post-enlightenment European tradition of toleration and religious freedom.

The patronizing secularism of Egypt's intellectuals and their military allies has little to do with the idea that a civil government should not presume to know God's will, and then claim to embody that will in its policies. It also has little to do with the state guarding the principle of freedom of religious belief and practice, including the right of religious groups to organize, assemble and participate fully in civil society.

Egyptian secularism is not about the separation of church and state. It is most decisively about the state dominating, controlling and leveraging religion. In effect, the state acts to form a church for the state, and then insures that this church has an uncontested monopoly over the voice of religion in society. Ultimately, the state defines the space that God may occupy and also defines the character that this God is allowed to have, and then allows this God a single voice, which invariably ends up supporting the state as the only real church within society.

We all recall the image of El Sisi bringing an end to Egypt's tragically short-lived democratic experience accompanied by the representatives of al-Azhar, the Coptic Church and the Wahhabi Nour Party. Soon El Sisi realized that there is a redundancy between al-Azhar and the Nour party because both are firmly in the comfortable control of Saudi Islam. In other words, even if the Nour party is suppressed, Saudi Arabia will not be strongly opposed because al-Azhar and the dependence of its administrators on lucrative deals with Gulf countries will insure that al-Azhar will never become a serious contender in civil society.

I wish that the smug pseudo-secularists in Egypt, and their short-sighted allies in the Pentagon, White House and State Department, would think seriously about the fact that the only secularism a country like Egypt has ever known is an autocracy that goes to great lengths to control and dominate the voice of God. God has one function in Egypt and that is to bless the privileges of the privileged, and to overlook the excesses of the self-indulgent.

I believe that we will witness in the not-too-distant future increasingly violent clashes between religious groups that feel secularism is hypocritically intolerant and unprincipled, and the old-style Arab elite that thinks secularism means that religion must always protect and guard the status quo. I fear that, eventually, a vicious and bloody revolution will bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Egypt. It is all too often forgotten that the CIA coup of the democratically elected Mosaddegh government in Iran led to the Iranian revolution twenty years later.

This post originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.

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