How politics and unrest are changing religious life in Egypt

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SHAFAQNA –  The call to prayer rings out over Sherif El-Sabbahy’s neighborhood just before noon, echoing across the urban landscape, drowning out the honking traffic and the chatter of the street market. From his window, El-Sabbahy, 20, can see the stream of men, prayer mats slung over their shoulders, heading to the mosque. But he doesn’t follow. He nudges his 17-year-old brother. “You ready to go?” His brother doesn’t look up from the game of “Throne Rush” he is playing on Facebook. “Five minutes,” he says.

According to the Quran, the Friday sermon is obligatory, and El-Sabbahy is the kind of Muslim who once took such responsibilities seriously. But his faith, like that of many young Egyptians of his generation, has become more complicated since the country’s 2011 revolution.

Mosques have long been central to political dialogue in Egypt, where, the Pew Research Center reports, 95 percent of the population is Muslim and 75 percent identify religion as a “very important” part of their lives. But over the past three years, a tug-of-war between Islamists and the military’s repressive “deep state” has turned mosques into a political battleground.

As the government continues to arrest Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers more than a year after the military ousted and imprisoned President Mohamed Morsi, who is a brotherhood leader, the conflict has made it difficult for many to “simply be religious,” said Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who specializes in Egyptian politics and religion. “In a lot of mosques, where you could have ignored the politics before, you can’t anymore,” he said.

Some young worshippers say they’re struggling to feel the spirit above the vitriol. Some have started skipping out on formal worship services because they no longer feel comfortable in mosques, choosing, instead, to observe Muslim traditions at home. Others have given up their faith altogether.

“Politics should just not mix with religion,” El-Sabbahy said. “When it does, things get ugly. It’s like religion becomes some sort of weapon for whichever regime comes into power.”

***

By the time El-Sabbahy gets to the mosque, slips out of his flip-flops and settles cross-legged on the floor, the imam is about three-quarters of the way through his sermon and only a few men have rolled out their prayer mats. Ten minutes later, the imam is finished and worshippers are overflowing into the street.

Since Morsi’s ouster last July, El-Sabbahy said, the preaching has become “dull and repetitive” and “usually just endorses the politicians in authority.”

“So I just tend to come at the end of the sermon, a few minutes before the prayer to save my mood of spirituality,” he said.

In recent months, the Ministry of Religious Endowment has issued a number of strict regulations to tighten the state’s grip on religious gatherings, including firing more than 10,000 preachers and shutting down thousands of small, informal mosques.

The government now dictates the topics to be discussed each Friday. Only preachers who were educated at Al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious schools for Islamic studies, are allowed to give sermons. Any imam affiliated with a political group is banned from preaching — regardless of educational credentials.

Experts say the government’s attempts to control speech are aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s main political rival.

Sisi began his term by vowing to fight the Brotherhood’s “extremism” and depoliticize religious worship. As one of its first moves, his cabinet announced plans in June to launch an educational campaign to fight “faith fatigue” brought on by the standoff between politics and religion.

Rather than separating politics and worship, however, the regulations suggest a plan to nationalize religion, said Brown of the Carnegie Foundation. From a human rights perspective, this is “alarming” because the government doesn’t have the money or the manpower to enforce religious restrictions nationwide. So, in practice, Sisi’s plan to unify religion is quickly becoming a tool to smother dissent.

“They can crack down whenever they want,” he said. “It’s kind of like a sword hanging over popular forms of religious expression, essentially criminalizing what plenty of people see as normal behavior.”

Sheikh Mohamed Nossairy, a former secretary-general of the Independent Syndicate of Imams, for example, said he was stripped of his title after he addressed Morsi supporters during a mass sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square last summer. Government forces dispersed the sit-in on Aug. 14, 2013, massacring hundreds of Morsi-supporters.

Since then, Nossairy said, fellow imams with real or perceived connections to the Brotherhood have been incarcerated on what he says are “made up charges,” including fraud and funding a terrorist organization.

Even government-approved, Al-Azhar-educated preachers who don’t have political connections are now more careful with their words, however.

“I feel that the Ministry of Endowment is being managed by a security cap,” said Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Kremah, during a televised interview with private satellite channel El-Mehwar on June 28.

Congregations, in the meantime, are shrinking, imams said.

The restrictions are “intimidating” to worshippers, said Nossairy, accusing the government of driving youths away and creating an immoral generation that “would prefer to sit at a bar over a mosque, for fear of being tortured by state security.”

The culture of fear has made it impossible for imams to address the difficult topics that Egyptians are facing, El-Sabbahy said.

After the Rabaa massacre, El-Sabbahy said, “people needed comfort and guidance.” His imam, who had enthusiastically supported Morsi before the overthrow, was suddenly silent.

“Your imam should be the person you go to when you have questions about God and about life,” he said. “But I don’t feel comfortable doing that anymore because everyone knows they are motivated by politics. If I have a question, I go home and look it up on the Internet.”

***

On the dusty walk home from the mosque, El-Sabbahy and his brother gossip. His brother had heard that the government was restricting the length of traditional Ramadan services from two hours to 45 minutes. El-Sabbahy reacts to the news with a disapproving tsk.

“Did you know it’s even illegal to pray for deliverance from ‘the tyrants’?” he says.

The government has denied the more radical accusations, and a little on-the-ground digging suggests they are likely unfounded. El-Sabbahy, though, like many Egyptians, has become suspicious after years of political interference in his religious routines.

“Of course I don’t believe them,” he said. “This is the least to be expected.”

Each political entity to take the country’s helm over the past three years has attempted to seize control of Egypt’s mosques to further its political agenda, said Amr Ezzat, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who published a study last week examining the politicization of Egypt’s mosques. Former President Hosni Mubarak, for example, was criticized for issuing permits only to preachers who aligned with his political party, the National Democratic Party. When Morsi took power, he filled the mosques with Islamist preachers.

While Islamists blame harsh government restrictions for youth disaffection. others point a finger at the Islamists, who they say turned mosques into political rallies.

As the country struggled to assemble a post-revolutionary democracy, religiously affiliated political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood’s now-outlawed Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al Nour Party started making the rounds during prayers, distributing brochures touting their political ideologies.

Sheikh Ahmed Abdel Rehim, an Al-Azhar educated imam who works in Cairo, said his mosque was “occupied” by Salafi leader Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who used the space each Saturday to rally supporters for a presidential bid.

“He invaded the mosque with his 5,000 followers,” Abdel Rehim said. “I could not stop them, so I just stayed in my room until they left.”

Egyptians have historically welcomed an intersection between Islam and government. In 2010, 95 percent of Egyptians who said Islam played a large role in politics identified that as a good thing, according to the Pew Research Center. Among those who thought Islam played a small role in politics, 80 percent said it should have more influence.

In the scuffle for power that followed Egypt’s 2011 revolution, however, the religious struggled to come to a consensus about how Islam should be applied to government.

While Nossairy argues that “Islam is politics,” Abdel Rehim advocates for a looser relationships between mosque and state. Islamic morals, such as eschewing dishonesty, should “regulate” politics, he said, but politicians should not twist Islamic script to support their political desires.

Sheikhs who lobby hard for political Islam are “con artists,” Abdel Rehim said.

“They use their position to scam the people,” he said. “Unfortunately, young people have this misconception that they represent Islam. But the fact is, nobody represents Islam. Everyone makes mistakes and sins.”

The political tension has set worshippers against one another.

Before the revolution, people didn’t care whether an imam was Al-Azhar affiliated, a Salafi, or a Muslim Brotherhood member, said Ezzat, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“It didn’t matter,” he said. “They were all sheikhs. Sometimes, if you were feeling lazy, you’d just pray at the mosque closest to your house.”

By the end of Morsi’s rule, though, fistfights were breaking out over the preacher’s identity, Ezzat said. In one particularly dramatic incident, former Minister of Endowment Talaat Afify was dragged off the pulpit and kicked onto the street because he was believed to be allied with the Muslim Brotherhood.

For some, particularly in intellectual circles, the solution was adopting an approach to politics that resembles American-style secularism, Brown said.

Mohamed Khaled, 25, a lawyer whose name has been changed for safety reasons, stopped attending worship services after an imam told him how to vote on a constitutional referendum. He no longer considers himself Muslim.

“Politics is a dirty game,” he said. “I believe it should have nothing to do with religion.”

El-Sabbahy still considers Islam his guiding light and feels conflicted about skipping worship services. But, he, too, is finding himself hoping for a time when the government will stay out of Egypt’s mosques.

“This isn’t just hurting my spirituality,” he said. “This is hurting my country.”

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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