Egypt’s imams fight for their mosques’ independence

At a time when political Islam is thriving in Egypt, mosques and imams had hoped to garner more relevance than in pre-revolution days, when they were mostly controlled and sidelined by the ruling regime. But many imams speak of ongoing marginalization today, and particularly bitterly about the use of their spaces for political ends.

“Before the revolution, we were sidelined but at least we weren’t used for political gain,” Ahmed al-Bahey, general coordinator of a newly launched movement dubbed Imams Without Constraints, says. “Now imams are being used for electoral publicity and candidates hold conferences in mosques.”

Bahey argues that the political exploitation of mosques is most apparent during elections, and that a recent trend of hiring ministry officials “who belong to a certain political current has become obvious to everyone” — a not-so-subtle reference to the dominant Islamist political trend.

He urges the Endowments Ministry, which is responsible for organizing mosques and imams and which is currently under strong Muslim Brotherhood influence, to set clear criteria for employment and not to exclude anyone unless they are proven to be corrupt.

But it is not just political exploitation. The group, which Bahey estimates is comprised of 2,200 imams so far, also complains about political marginalization.

At a news conference held at the Journalists Syndicate in March announcing the launch of the Imams Without Constraints, participating imams complained of the hiring of “unspecialized personnel” in the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs “whose ideologies contradict with Al-Azhar’s moderate methods.”

They accused the Endowments Ministry of nepotism, claiming the minister resorts to hiring unqualified advisers who receive tens of thousands of pounds in monthly bonuses. The imams said there are no criteria for employing ministry officials, which has led to further polarization between them and the ministry.

On their Facebook page, Imams Without Constraints lists 13 demands, among which are setting criteria and a transparent environment for promotions, involving imams in any decisions pertaining to mosques, and holding an annual event during which the ministry’s achievements can be showcased and the imams’ problems discussed.

Chief among these demands is establishing a union that represents Egypt’s imams and upholds their rights, as well as activating Article 4 of the new Constitution, which theoretically guarantees Al-Azhar’s independence and states that the Council of Senior Scholars is to be consulted on issues related to Sharia.

Khalaf Masoud, spokesperson of the movement, explains that the imams’ impasse is “an issue of national security, rather than special interests,” adding that their demands are not solely limited to the improvement of their conditions but to the overall practice in mosques and religious establishments.

“Imams need to be endorsed culturally as well as financially,” he said during a seminar held late April, hosted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, adding that there is a total disconnect between them and the Endowments Ministry.

In a nod to tackling imams’ demands, the Endowments Ministry amended a set of bylaws regulating the mosques’ boards, issuing a 24-clause decree that alternatively pushes for the formation of a “mosque development council.”

A council for each mosque would be formed by its patrons to oversee operations, in an attempt to avoid political exploitation or money squandering. The entire process of selecting the council’s members would be conducted under the imam’s supervision.

This, says Salama Abdel Qawy, adviser to the endowments minister and the ministry’s official spokesperson, will help restore the status of imams.

“Since the imam will oversee the vote, he will become the decision maker,” Abdel Qawy said during the seminar. “We believe that imams are partners in the decision-making process.”

However, this set of bylaws did little to satisfy the imams’ demands for independence.

Masoud says these bylaws are a superficial way to tackle a deeper issue.

“We need to identify the disease to be able to offer remedies. If someone is sick you cannot offer him a gift, you need to offer him treatment,” he says. “The state needs to be treated.”

Masoud explains that any respectable state needs four cornerstones in order to excel: an armor, which is the police; a sword, which is the army; a scale, which is the judiciary; and, finally, a conscience — its religious scholars.

Highlighting the need for the four cornerstones to be independent of any political influence, he suggests “this is why [Hosni] Mubarak’s state failed.”

For him, the most crucial problem is the state’s imminent control over imams.

“Even if you hire enough imams, they will still be a tool in the state’s hands … We should be discussing placing those imams under the authority of Al-Azhar, not the state,” he says. Making an imam a “decision maker” is not enough, he says.

In their first statement, Imams Without Constraints called for forming an independent body to oversee mosque operations, and whose head would be elected by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars.

Mosques have been traditionally put under executive control to reflect the ruling regime’s tendencies. Before the revolution, nepotism and corruption played a large role, where most mosques were registered by a state security decision to ensure government control without consideration for the criteria set by the ministry, recalls Abdel Qawy.

But in the process, the system became muddled, he adds.

Abdel Qawy says there is no official census on the number of mosques in Egypt, and that some of the 110,000 mosques registered with the ministry do not actually exist.

Registering a mosque with the ministry entails hiring personnel to manage it as well as a muezzin to give Friday sermons, which Abdel Qawy explains is a financial burden on the state. Accordingly, he says there is a huge gap between the number of mosques and the number of imams, adding that the ministry’s budget doesn’t allow for hiring enough imams. He estimates the number of registered imams at 55,000.

A recent ministry-conducted census revealed that a number of registered mosques did not actually exist, Abdel Qawy says, but that there are people in the area who are receiving the salaries allocated for mosque personnel.

Masoud confirms, explaining that an Endowments Ministry’s imam “does not exist.”

“Those giving the Friday sermons are not imams,” he says. “The real imams are driving tuk tuks or working as waiters,” he says of many cases of imams taking accreditation from the ministry and working elsewhere.

Masoud has other reservations about the bylaws, such as its neglect of Upper Egypt, where mosques are primarily run by families, warning of tribal feuds.

He adds that the term “mosque patrons” is elusive and opens the door for many loopholes.

Also, there is bound to be an overlap between the development council and the mosque’s imam, he argues.

“Who will make the important decisions? Who will decide how long the imam can speak during a sermon?” Masoud asks. “The imam is appointed and the council will be elected, so naturally the elected trumps the appointed.”

Finally, Masoud argues that there is no guarantee that political currents will not participate in the development council elections.

“If the mosque is in a liberal area, it will be dominated by a liberal current; if it is in an Islamist area, it will be dominated by an Islamist current,” Masoud says. “Candidates will lose and others will win, and we will end up with a government and a salvation front,” he adds, referring to the current polarization in Egypt’s political landscape.

Last month, a group of 200 imams organized a protest in front of the Endowments Ministry, after which they marched to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, where they met with the minister and other officials.

Bahey says the imams presented the minister with their 15 demands and agreed to form a committee to follow up with the ministry which promised to look into their concerns.

The committee includes five members from Imams Without Constraints and set the ministry a one-month deadline, after which Bahey said the imams will take escalating steps.

Bahey explains that other committees were formed previously by independent imams, but that the ministry never followed through with its promises, and so he remains skeptical.

In a statement on the group’s Facebook page, Imams Without Constraints says it believes the ministry only agreed to form the committee as a “sedative,” and that it will renege on its promises.

“Unfortunately, we have no alternative,” the statement read. “Even if you hire enough imams, they will still be a tool in the state’s hands. … We should be discussing placing those imams under the authority of Al-Azhar, not the state.”

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