Egypt controls "religious discourse" as celebrity Quran reciter banned

Egypt controls "religious discourse" as celebrity Quran reciter banned
Analysis: As Mohammed Jibril is banned from reciting the Quran in Egypt and banned from travel, the government's attempts to control "religious discourse" may prove unpopular among Egyptians.
4 min read
15 July, 2015
Egyptians pray during Lailat al-Qadr in Cairo [Anadolu]
Mohammed Mokhtar Gomaa, the Egyptian minister of Islamic endowments, has banned celebrity Quran reciter, Sheikh Mohammed Gibril from continuing work in mosques in Egypt. 

On the night of Lailat al-Qadr – when the Quran is first thought to have been revealed to Prophet Muhamaad - Sheikh Gibril appealed God during Tarawih prayers to punish "corrupt politicians and journalists" at the Amro ibn al-Aas Mosque in Cairo.

Gibril, a cleric and Quran reciter who graduated from al-Azhar university, read prayers calling for divine punishment for "the oppressors", "the regime-aligned clerics" and "the misleading media".

He also prayed for detained young people, to an emotional reaction.

In a phone interview with a talk show on a local television channel, Gomaa said that Sheikh Gibril had interfered in political matters, would be barred from working in all mosques in Egypt and prosecuted.

The ministry also plans to ask Arab countries to impose an entry ban on the sheikh and to bar him from giving sermons in their mosques.

The minister said the cleric is a "mercurial figure known for manipulating people's emotions."

It was reported on Wednesday that Mohammed Gabril attempted to leave Egypt to London, but was prevented from travelling at Cairo airport. 

Sheikh Mohammad Gibril praying during Lailat al-Qadr in Cairo 

The latest dispute demonstrates increasing tensions between the government and religious figures, even those from outside the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Tensions with al-Azhar

Also on Lailat al-Qadr, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi accused al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb of failing to develop “religious discourse” in Egypt.

"You are the one responsible for religious discourse, and God will ask me whether I am satisfied [with your performance] or not," El-Sisi said.

"The role of clerics is not to give speeches in mosques, but to spread peace among humanity" he said.  

However, his comments came after meetings of al-Azhar figures, including al-Tayeb, in order to discuss the development of this “religious discourse”.  

"We need to focus on human values and concepts we need in our societies, such as tolerance and social justice," Tayeb had said after one of the meetings last week.

"There is a plot against Islam and the Egyptian dream, that aims to destabilize the country and its people…" he said.

Hisham Abdel Aziz, Chairman of the Reform and Renaissance Party, said that pamphlets and books by al-Azhar scholars outlining this new “religious discourse” was distributed on the night.

However, in the light of Sisi’s comments, it would appear that the President is not satisfied with el Tayeb’s efforts to change "religious discourse."

It is a development that might show developing tensions between, even regime-supporting, religious figures, and the government.

The Egyptian government’s relationship with al-Azhar university – the influential centre of Islamic learning in Egypt – has long been complex.

Since the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasr, al-Azhar university was brought under state control with most of its leaders and scholars being appointed by the government; Ahmed el-Tayeb himself was appointed by Mubarak and was supportive of Sisi’s military coup.

Over the years, Egyptian religious traditions such as Sufism and its discourse was appropriated by the state in an attempt to build popular support for the government, and lend the authorities spiritual credibility.

On the other hand, many of al-Azhar’s students are supportive of former president Mohammad Morsi, with the students holding massive sit-ins after the military coup in 2013.

Many of the victims of the States crackdown on young opponents have also attended al-Azhar, with students reporting harassment and abuse at check points in the university.    

Crackdown on Ramadan

The Egyptian state has also cracked down on popular religious rituals during the holy month of Ramadan. 

Mukhtar Gomaa, announced last month that the ministry of endowments would step up monitoring of mosques for potentially subversive speech, as well as severely limit night-time prayers.

The evening prayers, known as tarawih, are observed throughout the month and include ten days of "seclusion" at the end of the month, when some people sleep in the mosque overnight.

Under the new restrictions, in Cairo only 247 mosques were allowed to hold "seclusion" sessions and 196 allowed to hold night-time tarawih prayers.

Last month Mokhtar also instructed mosques to remove books authored by Hassan el-Banna, the 20th-century founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other "radical books," with a ministry under-secretary specifying that this includes books authored by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Shortly afterwards, the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar was caught plagiarizing Sayed Qutb – an intellectual guide and leader of the Muslism Brotherhood in the 60s.

The Egyptian government has also criticised atheism, with Sisi last night also accusing al-Azhar of failing to stop the spread of non-belief in Egypt.

As the Egyptian government's attempts to inhibit religious practice extends to political allies and ordinary Egyptians’ worship, as well as the persecuted Muslim Brotherhood, this may prove an unpopular move for the majority Muslim, observent population of Egypt.