Sisi prays, along with Al-Azhar Grand Imam and other officials, on Eid al-Fitra Islamic holiday. Photo from his official facebook page.
By Hend Kortam
CAIRO, Jan 3 (Aswat Masriya) - Egypt is in need of a "change of religious discourse" or at least this is what the people who matter in the country say, with the president making the reference in at least two of his speeches this year.
Calls for renewed discourse
It has been a year since Egypt's president discussed the matter in an address to the nation but the "fundamental question" is what the state means by such calls, says a researcher on religious freedoms.
"In my opinion, the state has not expressed its intention," Ishak Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told Aswat Masriya.
On Jan. 1, 2015 President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told a crowd, featuring many religious clerics donning their white and red turbans, that it was time for "a religious revolution", in a televised speech. The crowd broke into applause.
Sisi was speaking on the day of Mouled, a celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad observed in Egypt, in an event put together by the ministry of endowments.
But Ashraf El-Sherif, a lecturer of political science at the American University in Cairo and an expert on political Islam, says there is "no serious concept" on what is meant by changing political discourse, describing the ongoing calls as a form of "deception".
Nearly a year after his first Mouled as president, on Dec. 23, Sisi was once again delivering the key speech in the state's celebration of the Muslim prophet’s birthday.
He marveled at the people who justified their "terrorism" in the "name of religion”, making unscripted comments when he was talking about "developing religious discourse."
He said "we are not ruining the religion", blaming "practices" like "killing", "destruction", "treason" and "conspiracy", but he did not say who committed them.
The Hijri calendar, followed in Islam, is a lunar calendar and is a few days shorter than the Georgian calendar, which is why the celebration did not come on the same day as the previous year.
Egypt's Dar al-Ifta, which issues edicts or fatwas interpreting the teachings of Islam, has adopted and praised Sisi's call to renew religious discourse.
Yet Ibrahim believes such calls are "propaganda", questioning what progress has been made a year after the first call.
They did not say what they want to do, he said, whether it was an "alternative for the Brotherhood?" Or a discourse that fits with humanitarian values? He added that the view of the religious institutions on "freedom of belief" and "non-believers" remain unclear.
But the deputy head of Al-Azhar, which is considered the highest reference in Sunni Islam, told Aswat Mariya that his institution believes in a “renewed” religious discourse “based on the Holy Quran, the Prophet’s Sunna (the practice of the Prophet Mohammad), sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) rulings, and the sayings of Muslim wise men and imams.”
Shuman added that the call for renewal includes using “appropriate ways” to understand and address “every human, without complexities, exaggeration or deviation from the truth, while adhering to complete objectivity and staying away from fanaticism.”
Al-Azhar seeks a discourse that is in line with today’s context and circumstances, he added.
Egypt's religious institutions and their "moderate" thought
Both Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta have held historical roles in shaping Egypt's religious discourse.
After a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri in October 2014, Kerry said Egypt has an important role to play in "publicly renouncing the ideology of hatred and violence" spread by Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.
"It is really important that the religious establishments at Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta are both fully supportive and understanding of the need to draw these distinctions with respect to religion," Kerry said, in an unusual reference to the religious institutions.
Whatever Kerry may have meant, the Egyptian state's religious voices had already been actively vocal against the Muslim Brotherhood as they have been for the past two years.
El-Sherif believes that the point behind the talk on changing religious discourse is to score points against "political Islam movements" and showing that these movements are based on "misrepresentation", and that there must be correct representation of "Egyptian", "centrist" Islam which is represented by the state through all of its institutions.
It is about presenting a "version of Islam" that meets the needs of the current regime, one that encourages compliance with the state.
Just last month, Egypt's Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website that "the West will not succeed in confronting terrorism unless it stops harbouring or supporting some terrorist and extremist groups ... On top of them is the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group which controls many religious institutions in the heart of Western states..."
The Egyptian state views the group as a terrorist group, as per a Cabinet decision in December 2013.
The minister added there must be coordination between all states that are serious in fighting terrorism, and that religious institutions that adopt "moderate thought" must be utilised, naming the ministry, Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta.
Al-Azhar’s Shuman told Aswat Masriya: “We do not deal with any group or movement. We say the truth and clarify facts in accordance with the true religion to refute extremism and violence.”
Commenting on how the Brotherhood fits into the process of renewing religious discourse, EIPR’s Ibrahim says that the "official religious institutions" want to "monopolise expressing Islam."
"They do not want anyone, regardless of our evaluation of them, to have a different model," he said.
Dar al-Ifta's observatory to monitor Takfiri and extremist thoughts said on Saturday, Dec. 26, that "beating the Muslim Brotherhood" on the security, intellectual and popular levels reinforces the possibility that the group will carry out "ideological revisions".
But on the other hand, the schools of "moderate thought" have also been unwelcoming of atheism. The endowments ministry launched a series of intensive training in April to confront atheism and in December 2014, Dar al-Ifta's observatory issued a report with a set of suggestions on how to "confront the spread of the phenomenon of atheism."
Dar al-Ifta blamed "Takfiri terrorist groups" and their brutality for the rise of atheism and said one of the most important ways to face atheism is to make Al-Azhar's "moderate" approach a matter of general culture.
The list, however, does not stop at atheism. On Apr. 15, Gomaa discussed the "dangers" of atheism, Baha'i thought and the spread of Shi'a Islam.
Ibrahim says officials are still using "exclusionary" and "discriminatory" speech, asking how they want to renew discourse to promote coexistence while at the same time, inciting against atheists and Shi'a.
In between Sisi's first and second calls to renew religious discourse in the Mouled speeches, Egypt’s top religious institutions have said and done much to protect religion from being used for political gains, according to statements they continuously release.
In August, the ministry of endowments said anyone who wishes to run in the parliamentary elections, which started in October and concluded in December, would not be allowed to deliver sermons or religious classes inside mosques.
The reason, according to the ministry, was to prevent "employing podiums for political or electoral purposes."
In June, the ministry of endowments said it will pay more attention to training imams across the country. The head of the religion department at the ministry told state news agency MENA at the time that the ministry has already made strides in "confronting extremist groups and in ridding mosques of their grip."
However, measures directly affecting imams or the heads of mosques practices had already been taking place throughout 2014, a year when thousands of imams were removed and replaced by ones trained by the government.
In fact, Egypt's religious endowments ministry had been engaged in "disciplining religious discourse," since December 2013, a few months after the Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi was ousted by the military after mass protests against his rule.
El-Sherif said there are no new methods or approaches that were taken this year in the process or renewing the discourse, only changes to the frequency. "[Creating] Islamic counter-speech is not new to the modern Egyptian state," he said. The expert on political Islam said the practices of "drying up" the sources of political Islam were taking place during the time of former president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years until he was toppled in 2011.
The single addition to Al-Azhar's role, El-Sherif said, is the task of "removing legitimacy from the Brotherhood."
Egyptians’ weekly dose of religious discourse
Muslim Egyptian men will usually receive a dose of religious discourse every week in mosques while listening to a sermon delivered in every mosque before the weekly Friday prayers.
In January 2014, the ministry of endowments decided to unify the sermon across the nation and has since been publishing the topic of the upcoming sermon at the beginning of every week.
How much politics there is in sermons, "really depends on where you pray," one young man who preferred to remain anonymous said.
Because of his work, the Giza resident has prayed in different mosques across Cairo over the past year and says some mosques are closely watched and do not address politics in any way, others will make hints, and some mosques will clearly make political statements.
Earlier this month the endowments ministry said the pattern it was trying to abolish was the use of mosques to serve a person, part or faction, adding "we assert that we have succeeded to a great extent" in all elections starting from the constitutional referendum held in January 2014.
But Ibrahim says in the parliamentary elections, which concluded in December, an imam was encouraging voters to vote for a Muslim candidate rather than a Christian candidate, Ashraf Shokeir. An "irony", Ibrahim said, especially since the imam was also the local official of the Al-Azhar-affiliated Egyptian Family House in this town.
The Egyptian Family House is an initiative of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, designed to bring Muslims and Christians closer to one another.
When trying to assess how much was made in renewing religious discourse, "we have nothing other than speeches by officials," Ibrahim says.
Shuman disagrees, noting that Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam formed a committee for modernising the institution’s curricula and “purifying them from anything that incites violence and killing.”
They also “sent hundreds of preaching convoys and preachers to various provinces across the republic (of Egypt) to eliminate extremism and terror and to address people and solve their problems.”
A real interest in reform?
But on the other hand, El-Sherif says that Al-Azhar does not have an interest in reform, which if really carried out would create enlightenment and awareness. “They have no interest in this,” he said. “They have no interest in real religious discourse.”
He stated that Al-Azhar itself is not made up a single school of thought. It includes reformists, Salafists, a group that is very close to political Islam and conservatives who dominate the institution.
He added that at this moment, Al-Azhar is acting as a spokesperson, its clerics dominate the people's minds and this is what "justifies" its existence.
At the end, according to Ibrahim, this process of reforming religious discourse "will not take place through the official religious institutions only, will not take place without their independence ... and has to migrate from magnifying their role in politics."
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Hanafi al-Tahtawi.)