The phenomenon of Imams in mosques morphing into politicians – especially during Friday sermons and Eid – is not new in Egypt’s history. Likewise, the concept of politicians using the mosque pulpit as a platform is not new either, since politicians are aware of the importance of religion in people’s lives, and the ability of the pulpit to influence them and direct messages. Perhaps Gamal Abdul Nasser’s most famous speech came from the al-Azhar mosque pulpit in 1956, where he vowed to fight with sticks to confront the joint military offensive launched by Britain, France and Israel after the nationalization of the Suez Canal.
All regimes exert efforts to try and control the pulpits, whether through appointments, organizational measures, or through guiding Friday sermons towards the appropriate agenda that should be put forward. Yet this does not prevent the infiltration of undesirable characters, or the emergence of a religious discourse contrary to the discourse of the state and its direction. This happened during the eras of Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, when some mosques were dominated by Salafi sheikhs or the emergence of opposition preachers.
Intellectuals have tried to explain this phenomenon, suggesting that in light of other political channels being blocked – such as political parties or groups or other traditional forms – the mosque pulpit has served as a substitute. This is especially true for political Islam trends in their quest for power, whilst facing political and security pressure. Meanwhile, other groups, especially the youth, have found the internet and social networking websites to serve as an alternative space to substitute for university rallies and general political work, in order to exchange ideas and organize themselves. We saw this clearly with the January 25th revolution in Egypt.
Eid-ul-Fitr was celebrated this week, the first such ceremony to take place after the Egyptian presidential elections won by President Mursi, who rose from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The mosque pulpits witnessed a great intensification in their political use by the two main factions of political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement, in order to counter the calls recently issued to demonstrate against the Brotherhood on August 24th. It is not clear how serious these calls are, or whether they will be able to mobilize the streets, especially if they are associated with violence, but the volume of the Islamists’ reaction was puzzling.
Interestingly, the message conveyed through many pulpits during Eid-ul-Fitr this year was not greatly different to the messages of previous years. Many warned against straying from the principle of Wali al-Amr [showing absolute loyalty to the ruler], and called for obedience to the ruling system at this time. This is the same discourse that we witnessed in previous decades. However, others took advantage of the pulpit to attack political opponents through their religious discourse, and prior to that fatwas had already been issued to denounce opponents as infidels.
The truth is that no one can deny the importance of the pulpit and its role in society. However, given the magnitude of political exploitation it has suffered, the pulpit is now embroiled in controversial political issues that are supposed to be debated in the normal political channels, through political parties, conferences, the media and elected councils. Instead, the pulpit has been transformed into a political entity to confront parties, movements and other political groups, let alone religious ones.