Who’s minding the mosque?

New freedoms, differing standards amid the Arab Spring complicates the job of government censors monitoring mosque sermons.

Muslims pray in mosque 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj)
Muslims pray in mosque 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj)
Whether as a conduit for government policy or the headquarters for insurgencies, mosques have always played an important political role in political events. But the Arab Spring is playing havoc with the simple rules that once prevailed and complicating the jobs of government mosque-minders.
On Sunday, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan reported that preachers who speak out against Syrian President Bashar Assad are bring arrested, whereas sermons targeting the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi are permitted and even encouraged. "This is a political decision," an unnamed source in Kuwait's Ministry of Religious Endowments told the daily. "The Endowments Ministry receives its orders from the Foreign Ministry."
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Friday sermons are the linchpin of the weekly service, when Muslims gather in the mosque for communal prayer. The preacher, or khatib, is often a government appointee – subject to censorship or pushed to self-censorship. The outbreak of the Arab Spring has upset the system, enabling preachers to speak freely in some countries while in others upsetting the messages governments want the faithful to hear.
Although mosques have often taken a backseat to Facebook and other social media in many countries this year, for many in the Arab world the Internet isn’t accessible and politics is governed by religions. For activists in Syria, where the government has shut down communications, the mosques have taken on their traditional role.
But the government, which is struggling to quell widening protests across the country against the regime, still tries to keep sermons on message. When US Ambassador Robert Ford angered Damascus by visiting the rebel stronghold of Hama earlier this month, Syria’s preachers were ready with a response.
They denounced the ambassador's visit without prior permission, calling it interference in Syria’s internal affairs, according to the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency. In his Friday sermon at Damascus’ historic Umayyad Mosque, Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan Al-Bouti warned against foreign interference in the events witnessed in Syria, stressing that the Koran warns against making mistakes during such critical times. Some ignore these warnings, he was reported to have said.
In Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as a bulwark against the change taking place in the Arab world, government-appointed clerics have condemned Arab demonstrations as un-Islamic acts of rebellion against leaders. But even that has changed this year to some extent.
"Preachers follow the government line," Abdullah Jaber, a Saudi political cartoonist, told The Media Line. "I don't remember Arab revolutions ever mentioned in Friday sermons."
The Saudi government has remained silent on demonstrations in Syria and Bahrain, Jaber added, and as a consequence mosque preachers have remained silent as well. The exception to that rule, he said, is Libya.
"During the Tunisian revolution no one spoke, nor during the Egyptian revolution. But when Libya revolted, the Imam began speaking about the citizens of Misrata and the oppression applied against the protesters."
In Jordan, where King Abdullah has faced increasing vociferous protests against corruption and the absence of democracy, preachers must be authorized by Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate (GID), and the text of Friday's sermon must be sent to the Ministry of Endowments ahead of time. So far, the government hasn’t relaxed its stricture.
"Generally speaking, political sermons are banned in Jordan," Fatima Al-Smadi, a Jordanian media professor and columnist for the daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, told The Media Line. "The Ministry of Endowments, which controls the mosques, won’t allow it."
Jordan didn’t always exercise such tight control over sermons, Smadi said. That began to change after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center created worries about Islamic fundamentalists. She said that historically Muslim Brotherhood preachers dominated mosque pulpits, but today they are almost completely absent. The clampdown has intensified over the past five years, but Smadi said it has done little to affect public opinion.
"Most Jordanians supported the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but the Friday sermons opposed them, arguing they caused fitna (social chaos)," she said. "What is said on the pulpit does not represent the majority of Jordanians."   
Kuwait, an oil-rich Gulf emirate so far unscathed by social unrest experienced in other Arab countries, controls mosque sermons through its Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs. In 2009, the government published a "Mosque Charter" outlining the role of the mosque in society, and that of its leader, the imam.
"The imam must maintain an atmosphere of submission, calm and peace in the mosque. He must not allow any activity that arouses disunity or confusion, corrupting the spirit of submission. He should not discuss matters he does not understand," the charter reads.
Nabil Al-Awadi, a well known Kuwaiti preacher, was recently expelled from the pulpit for four months after criticizing the Syrian president in violation of the Mosque Charter, local media reported this week. 
But in Egypt, where popular demonstrations succeeded in toppling former president Husni Mubarak last February, preachers have found new freedoms, Ali Khafagy, a youth leader in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, told The Media Line.
"In the past, sermons in Egypt used to be purely religious, with no one but the Muslim Brotherhood talking about politics," he said. "Today, politics is the rule in mosques rather than the exception."
Khafagy said every large mosque in Egypt used to have "supervisors" who would inform the government of the content of Friday sermons, with erring imams subject to arrest and torture.
"Today everyone can say anything about any leader," he added. "The revolution has changed a lot, especially in terms of freedom of speech."