Dec 13th 2014
SAUDI ARABIA has long used a simple method to regulate mosques. The oil kingdom lavishes clerics with money and perks that can suddenly vanish if their preaching goes astray. If that does not work they are fired or parked in jail. Now Saudi preachers face a new constraint: starting next year authorities will install centrally monitored cameras in every mosque to record what goes on inside. The move is ostensibly meant to prevent theft and regulate energy use, but few doubt the real intention is to tighten the state’s grip on Islam, part of a trend across the Middle East.
Critics have long reviled Saudi Arabia for its sponsorship of a rigidly puritanical brand of religion. The ruling Al Saud family, whose legitimacy rests in part on a 270-year-old pact with the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, has tended to shrug off the complaints. But in recent months it has worried about a backlash from conservatives angered by the government’s enthusiastic support for the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as its participation in the American-led military coalition against Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Apparently fired up by IS propaganda, radicals in the kingdom have lately targeted “infidel” Westerners and “deviant” Shias in a string of small but deadly terror attacks (see article).
In fact, the Saudi effort to tone down its clerics is mild, hesitant and belated compared to what some Muslim states do. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan already routinely use cameras. Kuwait has long installed tape-recorders to monitor Friday sermons. Preachers in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates need not write their own sermons. Except for a few trusted senior clerics, they read instead from a text delivered weekly by the government department for religious affairs that also pays all their salaries. “Protecting Youth from Destructive Ideas” and “Our National Flag, Symbol of Affiliation and Loyalty” provided two stimulating recent topics. Similarly, Turkey has for decades enforced a monopoly of Islamic discourse via a religious bureaucracy, known as Diyanet that wields 121,000 employees and a budget of $2.3 billion.
Other governments aspire to such dominance. Tunisia’s government has in recent months restored strict state control of mosques that had slipped following its revolution of January 2011, leading to a brief flowering of Wahhabist-style jihad promotion. Morocco, whose king has traditionally posed as Commander of the Faithful, delivering televised Ramadan sermons, has steeply boosted state promotion of a relatively tolerant version of the faith. Its budget for training imams, including a growing number of foreign students, has swollen tenfold in the past three years. The unspoken aim is to counter the spread of extreme Salafist ideas in places such as Mali and northern Nigeria.
Egypt is conducting a still more radical overhaul. As long ago as the 1990s its government responded to a wave of Islamist violence by declaring the aim of bringing every mosque under full state control. The goal was never met, and by the time of the July 2013 army coup that toppled an elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, barely half of the preachers in the country’s 100,000-plus mosques were vetted or salaried by the state. The wide-scale infiltration of religious institutions by the Brotherhood and more radical groups markedly boosted their social standing and political influence.
Egypt’s government has of late clamped unprecedented controls. In January it decreed that all Friday sermons must adhere to a weekly theme set by the religious-affairs ministry, establishing a hotline to allow worshippers to denounce preachers daring to voice political dissent. Further decrees required all preachers to be government-licensed, imposed a code of ethics forbidding discussion of politics in mosques, and banned smaller prayer halls from holding Friday prayers. The ministry fired 12,000 preachers and now allows only those trained in government-approved institutes to deliver sermons.
As a foil to the powerful Brotherhood, the state had long allowed followers of quietist forms of Salafism to run some 7,000 mosques. But the ministry in September decreed it would take over their mosques too, after reports of a sermon forbidding the faithful from buying interest-bearing government bonds.
Amr Ezzat, an Egyptian researcher, sees the effort to impose state-ordained orthodoxy as misguided and possibly dangerous. Religious institutions will lose legitimacy with time, pushing more Muslims towards radical margins. And by acting in effect as the imam, the state takes upon itself a duty to enforce morality. It is perhaps as a sop to religious conservatives, for instance, that Egyptian authorities have mounted an increasingly lurid campaign against homosexuality, most recently by staging a midnight raid on a Cairo bathhouse on national television, dragging a score of naked men to prison.