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Brothers target dissident imams
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 04 - 2013

Controversy at the Ministry of Religious Endowments over attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to impose its hegemony is part and parcel of the ongoing political turmoil since President Mohamed Morsi took office.
Last week tensions inside the ranks of the ministry reached boiling point when the Brotherhood approved Endowments Minister Talaat Afifi's suspension of Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, preacher at Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square.
Shahin, popularly known as the “preacher of the revolution”, was suspended because, according to Afifi, “his Friday sermons divide Egyptians and destroy the unity of the country.”
“The ministry has received many complaints accusing Shahin of meddling in politics in most of his Friday sermons. A video tape, on which one of Shahin's sermons was recorded, was attached with the complaints. What Shahin did violates the regulations organising the work of the ministry's imams,” said Afifi.
After issuing repeated warnings the Endowments Ministry ordered religious preachers not to include politics in their sermon, Afifi added. “Mosques should be reserved for the spiritual teachings of Islam and the ministry has warned preachers multiple times against using their sermons as political platforms.”
According to Shahin, his suspension was politically motivated. The suspended imam has told the media that he was removed to make way for a pro-Brotherhood preacher.
“I have been singled out because of my opposition to the Ikhwanisation of Al-Azhar and the state, and my defence of Al-Azhar and its grand sheikh,” says Shahin.
Two weeks before his suspension Shahin was instrumental in setting up the National Front for the Defence of Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, a group that has attracted both public figures and preachers, its avowed aim to “defend both Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments against attempts to Ikhwanise them”.
Shahin rose to prominence preaching sermons in Tahrir Square during the revolution. Popular among youth groups and the wider opposition, his revolutionary positions throughout the transition have irked Egypt's rulers. Shahin has been lately involved in the political debate between the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition over Egypt's troubled transition.
In recent sermons Shahin has expressed sympathy with protesters frustrated by President Mohamed Morsi's failure to deliver any of the revolution's goals. In last year's presidential elections he backed Morsi.
“He has turned Omar Makram Mosque into a political talk show. He uses the mosque to express his points of view on current events,” complained Ministry of Endowments spokesman Salama Abdel-Qawi.
The Muslim Brotherhood has responded to Shahin's criticisms by spreading rumours that he was appointed to Omar Makram Mosque only because he was “close” to Mubarak's elder son Alaa. Its members also released a video in which Shahin states he would “prefer” ousted president Hosni Mubarak “to stay in power in order to save the country from chaos”.
“The statements in the video were taken out of context. I do not deny them. The Muslim Brotherhood is doing its best to get rid of me because of my efforts to stop their Guidance Bureau from taking over the Ministry of Endowments and Al-Azhar,” says Shahin.
Abdel-Qawi denied any suggestion that the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau tells the ministry what to do.
“It is time to replace Shahin with someone who respects his preaching mission,” claimed the minister's spokesman.
Shahin has said he will file a lawsuit against the ministry.
“The decision to suspend me was taken without prior warning and in the absence of any questioning. As such it violates the law regulating the employment of imams and I will contest the decision before courts.”
Shahin defied Afifi's decision by giving the sermon last Friday at Omar Makram Mosque surrounded by hundreds of his supporters. He vowed to “struggle to protect the mosque of the revolution from Ikhwanisation”.
In recent months protests have been growing against Afifi as more and more imams voice concern over what they say are attempts to turn the ministry into an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Three weeks ago hundreds of imams held a sit-in in front of the Downtown headquarters of the ministry to protest against recent appointments of Muslim Brothers and Salafis.
“There is a systematic attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to control Islamic preaching across the country and tailor it to the government's policies,” says Imam Ahmed Al-Bahi, coordinator of the Imams without Restrictions movement.
Al-Bahi accused Afifi of flagrant double standards, objecting to “politicised” sermons only if they might be seen as critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, and raising not a word against preachers who speak in support of the group.
“In his sermon Sheikh Shahin addressed the basics of good governance from an Islamic perspective and with examples from history of the companions of our great prophet,” says Al-Bahi.
The Imams without Restrictions movement was launched last month in response to Afifi's decision to replace many senior officials in the Ministry of Endowments with Muslim Brotherhood members.
Shahin's case, says Al-Bahi, suggests the regime wants to co-opt preachers at mosques affiliated to the Religious Endowments Ministry as part of “an attempt to control the whole process of Islamic preaching”.
“This goes against the basic concept of imam's independence and dignity. Imams should preach God's words not those of the regime.”
Since Morsi came to power in June 2012 Brotherhood sympathisers have been appointed to a host of senior positions within state institutions.
Claims against Afifi by imams were backed by a report in Al-Watan newspaper a month ago based on leaked documents showing that Afifi had replaced 200 top ministry officials with new appointees, all of them Brotherhood members.
Under ousted president Hosni Mubarak the Ministry of Religious Endowments was dominated by the National Democratic Party and appointees vetted by the security apparatus.

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