As Egyptian Laws Tighten, One Outlaw Preacher Defies State Power

May 2, 2014
Originally published on May 5, 2014 9:35 pm

Wary of the messages people are hearing in their mosques, the Egyptian government is now telling tens of thousands of preachers what they should or shouldn't be saying in their sermons. One preacher is defying the order.

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In Egypt, part of the government's crackdown on Islamists focuses on the thousands of mosques around the country. A coup in July ousted the unpopular Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. With him and thousands of his supporters now in jail, the government has reinstated controls on religious leaders. These are similar to the rules under dictator Hosni Mubarak.

NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo met one preacher who travels from mosque to mosque defying orders.

HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It's just after noon on Friday and Imam Hashem is preaching to his congregation, in this rundown mosque down a nondescript alleyway in Cairo.

HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Truth always wins, he says from the pulpit. With power you can own people's heads and their necks, but you cannot kill their beliefs or their minds. Those, he says, are in the hands of God.

HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The message may not sound controversial but, in fact, Hashem's mere presence here is an act of defiance. He's a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood movement which the government has banned and deemed a terrorist organization.

Hashem finishes the sermon and asks the congregation to bow their heads in prayer.

HASHEM: (Singing in foreign language)

FADEL: Hashem, an imam or prayer leader, never calls for violence during his weekly sermons, but that doesn't matter. To the government, he's an outlaw preacher openly defying the government ministry that oversees religious affairs. Three years after an uprising that called for greater freedom of expression, the state is back to dictating what should be said in the mosques on Friday, the Islamic holy day.

The government has revoked thousands of licenses of non-compliant preachers, provides the theme for Friday sermons and recently announced that it will put every mosque in Egypt under its control.

MOHAMED ABDEL RAZEK: (Through translator) Extremists attacked the state and continuously picked at it from the pulpit.

FADEL: That's Mohamed Abdel Razek, deputy minister at the agency that oversees religious affairs. He says the state now controls Egypt's 150,000 or more mosques in order to prevent extremism from growing within them. He says the pulpit shouldn't be used to promote violence or divide the country.

RAZEK: (Through translator) If this continues, then mosques and youth will be lost and murder and other crimes will be rampant.

FADEL: Hashem laughs at what he sees as the irony in that explanation. The most violence they've seen in recent months has come from the state.

HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: This is a battle, he says, a battle for control.

HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Three months ago Hashem, who asked to only use his first name for fear of arrest, was at a different mosque. But that congregation asked him to leave because his sermons were too critical of the military leaders in Egypt. They could hear his sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes the current regime and demands Morsi be restored as president. So Hashem left. But he didn't stop preaching.

HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: So now he preaches at a different mosque each Friday. When he receives the sermon dictated by the government, he throws it away and writes his own. He knows that he could be arrested any moment for the sermons and for his sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood. Often he doesn't sleep at home for fear of arrest.

On this Friday, following the prayer, he sits in the office in one wing of the mosque, with the resident preacher and a few of the congregants. The men who pray behind Hashem say he and his sermons are rare. One of them, Mohamed Hassan, sits in the preacher's small carpeted office with his young son.

MOHAMED HASSAN: If you can control the minds of the people so you can own everything. Egyptian people is religious people and they can listen to their imam. So if he can control what he telling them, so he can control the minds of the people.

HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)


FADEL: Hashem laughs. Today I was supposed to speak about respecting public money and properties, but I spoke about blood instead, the blood being spilled every day. He refers to the state crackdown on protests.

There's a joke in the mosque that at this rate soon all the sermons will be the same everywhere. And only one preacher will be allowed for the entire nation of more than 80 million people.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.



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