Mosques and Politics in Egypt

Nothing reflects the essence of Islam better than the pilgrimage to Mecca. It sums up the faith in a nutshell; humility, reflection, and most importantly, equality. In the haj, women stand side by side with men; the rich stand alongside the poor; brown people alongside white. All are equal in the journey toward redemption. All pilgrims have to perform the same rituals and endure the same suffering. Arguments, bickering, hatred, resentment, and revenge are qualities Muslims must abandon to avoid spoiling their pilgrimage.

 Sadly, outside the pilgrimage season, divisions, conflicts, and even wars between Muslims have been a recurring theme since the early days of Islam. The death of Caliph Osman , and then later the conflict between Caliph Ali and Muawyia were crucial events that planted the seeds of division among Muslims.

 It is pointless to reopen the narratives of past tragedies; however, it is paramount to acknowledge the stark similarities between past and present political blunders; the divisions, the tragic loss of lives, the blame and counter-blame. A feature of these tragedies has been the inability of the conflicting parties to detangle theological differences from political differences. The schism that took place 14 centuries ago is essentially no different than that countries like Egypt are experiencing now; a battle for power entangled with a conflicting interpretation of religious texts.

 When Egypt’s military chief, General Sisi, ousted president Morsi, he forged an intriguing coalition that included the grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope, and the ultra-conservative Salafi Nour Party, among others. The logic behind that move was to assert the notion that June 30 was a revolution and not a coup. Egyptian Muslims were divided between supporters of General Sisi, and supporters of Morsi and “the anti-coup alliance.”

The recent interim government’s plan to reform preaching by banning unlicensed Imams , banning prayers in small mosques, and cutting the length of Friday’s sermon was also viewed as cementing the coup and justifying the brutal crackdown against anti-coup supporters.

 During the Mubarak era, a growing plethora of unsanctioned, unauthorized, and unchecked preachers emerged. Anyone could easily build a small mosque (known as a Zawya) and appoint self-proclaimed Imams to teach religion with little scrutiny of their qualifications or credentials. The result was haphazard teachings; people could pray in several mosques and hear conflicting, even ridiculous fatwas. Logic gradually evaporated from the religious message and was replaced by nonsense, mixed with hatred and intolerance, and wrapped with intense emotional fervor.

 After Mubarak was ousted, mosques were used and abused for political campaigns. This was a natural outcome following the lifting of the ban on religious-based political parties, whose many members were linked to neighborhood mosques in their towns and villages. The trails of referendums and elections that followed the January 2011 revolution has entrenched mosques within the fault lines among political opponents. Many mosques have become well known for their links with certain political parties, either the Muslim Brotherhood or the various Salafi parties. The growing resentment against Morsi was also manifested in mosques. On some occasions Morsi was attacked during or after Friday prayers. Even the choice of Rabaa for the sit-in was based partly on the links of the Muslim Brotherhood with the Rabaa Mosque. Inevitably, mosques lost their sanctuary, and were breached by angry protestors and brutal security forces.

 Undoubtedly, the role of Islam in societies lies at the center of the current upheaval in the Middle East. Non-Islamist forces, most of which are not necessarily secular, are fighting against mixing Islam with politics, while trying to find some sort of workable formula that allows religion in the state constitution, but limits its impact on political life. Meanwhile, Islamists are not just insisting that religion and politics are inseparable; they are also labeling the new movement to standardize religious teaching in an effort to create “state Islam,” linking it with legitimizing the coup and giving it a religious blessing.

The current rift in Egypt has not just led to deep divisions in society; it has also transformed the Muslim Brotherhood from an organization to a religious and political sect. In fact, the anti-coup alliance can best be described as the neo-Shia sect, with the forced end of the Rabaa sit-in as the new Karbala. Members of the alliance express their solidarity with each other by showing the four-finger gesture that symbolizes their grief over the loss of lives of their brothers and sisters at the hands of the security forces, and they have gained the support of thousands of sympathizers around the globe.

 It has become increasingly clear that calls for reconciliation are falling on deaf ears, and the prospect of a political solution is becoming increasingly unlikely now. However, what is unclear is how the “neo-Shia” of Egypt will evolve in the future. Historically, the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Azhar has been tense, and even acrimonious, since the foundation of the group by Hassan el-Banna. Recent events in Egypt have compounded the tension and created new enmity that may continue for generations.

Nonetheless, it is paramount for al-Azhar to understand the challenges ahead. Although it is entirely sensible to standardize preaching and advocate a more tolerant Islam, it is crucial not to alienate supporters of ex-president Morsi. Those youth do not need their voices to be silenced, but they need acknowledgment of their grief, and they also need coaching on how to contain their frustrations and anger. Al-Azhar must not be seen as hostile to Morsi’s supporters; however, Egyptians, both pro and anti-Morsi, must understand that entering a mosque does not legitimize one’s political beliefs and neither does fighting with the police. Mosques should offer worshippers an extension of the Mecca pilgrimage journey; a daily redemption exercise that nourishes the soul and enriches the faith.

 It may be difficult to untangle Islam from politics in countries such as Egypt, but at least let’s leave our divisions at the doors of our mosques and let the houses of god become sanctuaries from the current poisonous environment.

Happy Eid everyone.

Also published in The Daily News Egypt

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
This entry was posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Mosques and Politics in Egypt

  1. waqas ahmed says:

    a good article


  2. Sunni Khalid says:

    Excellent post, Nervana. I remember when I was last in Cairo in October 2001, a month after 9-11, and the powerful social and political undercurrent of these “instant mosques” was palpable.


  3. I agree with you that there should be a limit to how far the curtailment should be. This is an exaggeration.
    But then, again, I was the one who wrote “Is the Mosque a venue for political discourse?”–1.html


  4. Amr says:

    Nervana I stopped commenting on your coup designation of the June 30 revolution,a revolution that I spent one week in the streets sometimes with my wife and 2 years old son,,,I guess you are set there and I respect you and your choices,just curious to know if army hadn’t followed people’s choice and took the necessary steps to implement the ouster,what would have happened in a country where it’s formers president wasn’t even able anymore to let some his appointed minister reach their ministries,or most of his appointed governors reach their office sometimes even Their governorate,as the Gamaa Islameya,appointed governor of Luxor,,,
    Where he and his gang simply lost control of a country that rebeleled? In most of its territory,if we want to compare to jan25,which I don’t I but I have to now,it was just a youth limited movement,never grassroots like June30,but of course it suit the plans of Super Power
    I don’t want to dismiss the jan25 youth movement,or some of them,as again some of them had great ideals,but you see Jan25 I watched on CNN,June30 I lived and don’t know anyone who didnt didn’t go to protest unlike jan25,
    Do I call it a coup? Or a CIA manipulation,or more generously what started as a good will movement ended fitting perfectly into big boys and their “think tank” plans,by coisidence?
    No I kept my repespect for it though I don’t think it was a real revolution

    But to compare the schisms that occurred spliting Muslims in Sunnis and Shias, with an underground US or others financed band of bandits called MB,with that major historical event is a bit far fetched I am sorry,
    About the self proclaimed preachers,that most had no religious education,just grew a beard,while having the creditials for some of mechanics,other drug dealers,police informants or simply taxi drivers,just to follow the wave,and spread hate and ignorance,it’s very good of you to point it out,I just added some extra details,

    Again I apreciate mots of your analysis and continue to read you respectfully

    All the best


    • To Amr, I agree with you that whatever was happening before June 30th could not have continued. The country had reached an impasse. And there is so much that we don’t know or haven’t discovered yet, but the stories are coming out slowly but surely. Do read “What construes betrayal?”
      This will solidify your notions that what happened on June 30th and then on July 3 were essential for the restoration of Egypt.
      And I don’t think it is Morsi alone, but I’m sure now it is the MB’s notions as a whole.


      • Amr says:

        To Azza I did read your report mentioned here,nothing that we didn’t suspect,I also read the commentary that some “well thinking” think tankers,said on it,I don’t mean Nervana who I repeat I respect even if disagree on some issues,
        And of course it wasn’t Morsy alone,his was just a figure head of what I believe,no worse calamity came to Egypt since the Tatars,and that Egyptians stood up almost as with a miracle,and overthrew,who thought came to rule 500 years,and who as Netvana pointed in a previous writing underestimated Egyptian notion of Nationhood,another proof of good analysis,,,thinking they could dismantle the longest existing Nation state,whose longevity should be a lesson to all empires and their court jesters who tried before to break it and failed
        Thank you for your reply


    • nervana111 says:

      Thanks Amr for your comment.

      few points to clarify:

      1- I do not call June 30 a coup, but July 3 with any definition is a military take over, therefore the over all academic definition is a coup with popular mandate.
      2- the piece focus only on the rule of mosques, not the over all events following June30
      3- We have to admit that some unarmed civilians have lost their lives in the forced end of the sit -ins
      4- What I am saying is the Brotherhood with its international branches has become as a sect rather than a group, with followers who are not necessarily members of the Organization. If you look at social media, most holders of Rabaa hand gestures are sympathisers not members of the Brotherhood.

      Again, thank you for your feedback. I truly appreciate it.


  5. Amr says:

    Thank you Nervana


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