While I was considering what to write in this week’s article, and as I started doing some research on the ongoing controversy about the appointed and the elected members of parliament, I was shocked by the content of the Friday prayer address to the extent that I lost all interest in any election-related issue. Although losing interest wasn’t that difficult, since the parliament and all that is related to it is not really that interesting to begin with, what was said in last Friday’s prayer address should not go by unnoticed.
Before delving into the prayer address, it is important to mention that the Egyptian ministry of endowments decided in February 2014 to distribute one generalised address for every Friday prayer session at all the mosques of Egypt. The rationale behind the decision was to establish the ministry of endowments as the sole entity responsible for Friday prayer rituals in the country. According to statements made by some ministry officials back in February 2014, the generalised weekly addresses will be concerned with religious topics and issues, and they should not be utilised or manipulated to serve political or factional interests.
However, last Friday’s address was the perfect materialisation of political utilisation of religion. The address was titled “dangers of destructive calls and the necessity of resisting them to achieve security and stability”, and the key ideas in the address (according to the ministry’s official translation on its website) were the grace of security and stability, stability as a religious and national duty and an outline of the factors of national stability, which include obeying the ruler in good deeds and service of one’s nation and resisting destructive calls as an urgent necessity. Personally, I don’t think that the timing of that address is a mere coincidence, with its proximity to the anniversary of the January revolution and the ongoing criticism of police brutality.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to quote every single historical inaccuracy or political insinuation in the address, simply because I don’t have the space for that. However, the main component of the address and its true overarching theme was outright obedience to rulers. The address bluntly stated: “It is a religious duty to obey the rulers in matters of obedience to Allah and national interests, their orders and prohibitions shall be obeyed unless they lead to a sin.”
Now, if “sin” is a religious concept with divine standards upon which it could be measured, “national interest” is not. National interest is a purely political concept based on perspectives, ideologies, affiliations, interests and subjective visions of what constitutes priority. Merging an already lucid and evasive political concept like national interest into a religious context is nothing other than a vulgar process of politicising religion.
Among the main point on which we criticised and opposed the Muslim Brotherhood and their like was the regular politicisation of religion and its use as a tool of political justification and legitimisation. But in all honesty, the state’s religious institutions have recurrently proved that they are following the very same pattern. What was supposed to be a non-partisan and non-factional religious address was bluntly turned into a political statement cloaked in religious justification. What the state needs to ask itself is whether it’s against combining religion with politics or just combining religion with the wrong politics?
I am personally not against standing up to chaos. What I’m against is labelling peaceful collective action as chaos. I have no problem with preaching national unity, but I have a problem with perceiving political opposition as a form of disunity. I am perfectly fine with calling for patriotism; however, I’m not fine with stereotyping patriotism and advocating it through propaganda. I can understand a state’s intentions to monitor what is said in mosques in a country where people are dying due to religious radicalisation, but what I can’t understand is when religious space and rituals are used as a platform to diffuse political patterned perceptions.
Separating between religion and politics is one thing, and situating religion to fit political interests is something else.
Ziad A. Akl is a political analyst and sociologist. He is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.