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January 26, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 790

Controversy in Egypt over Newly Established 'Religious Police'

January 26, 2012 | By N. Shamni*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 790

Introduction

Following the Egyptian revolution, which granted freedom of expression and assembly to many elements – especially to Islamist circles that were suppressed since the Nasserist Free Officers Revolution of July 1952 – a religious police force was recently established in Egypt. Dubbed "The Authority for Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil," similarly to the Saudi religious police, it aims to enforce compliance with Islamic shari'a. However, unlike the Saudi religious police this force does not operate on behalf of the state. In fact, it is unclear precisely who is behind it. Its Facebook page, launched December 25, 2011, states that its founders are members of the Salafi Al-Nour party, "the closest party to Allah's shari'a," but that they are not working on its behalf, or on behalf of any other political party. The page features many links to Al-Nour Facebook pages, and its founders seem to support the Islamist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Isma'il. It states that the religious police will not use violence or coercion, but rather dialogue and guidance, in performing its tasks. The page has thousands of followers, and has thus far published eight official statements from the religious police.[1]


Facebook page for "The Authority for Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil," with Al-Nour party logo[2]

For example, on December 26, 2011, the Facebook page featured an announcement about 1,000 available jobs in the religious police, intended for citizens aged 25-40, with preference for Al-Azhar graduates.[3] Another announcement on the same day detailed the functions of the religious police: supervising proper behavior by citizens; encouraging citizens to attend prayers, and merchants to close shop during prayer time; ensuring that tourists respect the customs of Egyptian society and the commandments of the Islamic faith; reporting shari'a violators to the authorities; and establishing popular committees to protect against theft and regulate traffic.[4] It was announced that members of the police force would wear a white robe with a religious police emblem and would carry electric prods, and that the police is considering employing female officers in places frequented by women.[5]

Barbers in Port Fouad reported that bearded men from the religious police, clad in white robes and carrying sticks, had entered their shops and warned them not to shave the beards of Muslim men, since this was forbidden by the shari'a.[6] Attempts by the religious police to enforce religious law in hair salons and women's clothing stores in Qalyubia province met with harsh reactions from local women.[7]

On January 11, 2012, the force reported on its Facebook page that it had received 1,000 electric prods, for use in case of need only, and that the members and volunteers of the force had begun training for their jobs.

The Salafi Al-Nour Party Denies Connection to Religious Police

The Salafi Al-Nour party denied any connection to the religious police, and said that the claims of its involvement came from elements who wished to harm the party's chances in the parliamentary elections.[8] Party spokesman Dr. Yusri Hammad said that Al-Nour had lodged a complaint with the interior ministry against the founders of the force's Facebook page. Hammad told Orbit TV that the duty of commanding good and forbidding evil was enshrined in the heart of every Muslim, but must not be enforced by coercion, but rather through persuasion and council.[9] He added that the members of the religious police were afraid to reveal themselves, and may in fact be non-Muslim elements connected to Israel.[10] Al-Nour chairman Dr. 'Imad 'Abd Al-Ghafour likewise denied any connection between his party and the religious police, and said that this police force was a private initiative.[11]

In response to these statements, a message was posted on the religious police Facebook page expressing disappointment with Al-Nour's position and declaring independence from the party. This was the last message that bore the Al-Nour logo. It said:


Announcement No. 5 by the Religious Police

"The Authority for Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil in Egypt, Announcement No. 5.

"We at the religious police declare full and permanent independence from the Al-Nour party, and a complete end to all activity relating to it, following the shameful position taken by the leaders of this party and its supreme founding committee regarding our decision to establish the religious police. This, after we joined the party based on a clear promise and a direct statement by its leaders and founders that they wish to establish a religious police force in this country similar to the one [in Saudi Arabia] after coordinating it with relevant government bodies...

"Now that the party has renounced us after winning a greater number of parliamentary seats than expected, we have decided to move forward and come out of the shadow of the Al-Nour party and Salafi Da'wa [stream]... As of today, our Facebook page will have a new logo [instead of the Al-Nour logo]."[12]

After posting this message, the religious police indeed adopted a new banner that has appeared on all subsequent messages:


The new religious police banner[13]

The Egyptian Religious Establishment Opposes the Religious Police

The establishment of the religious police caused a storm among various circles in Egypt, including Al-Azhar and Islamist forces. The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Studies, headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, announced that it opposes the religious police because Al-Azhar has been the sole source of Islamic authority in Egypt for over 1,000 years, and because the establishment of a religious police force usurps the authority of Egypt's legal institutions and is at odds with the country's religious character.[14] The religious police condemned Al-Azhar's statements on its Facebook page.[15]

Former Egyptian mufti Nasser Farid Wassel said that those who advocate a religious police in Egypt are considered Khawarij,[16] and that anyone who breaks the law in the name of implementing shari'a must be punished.[17] Minister of Religious Endowments Muhammad Al-Qawsi likewise rejected the idea of a religious police and said that his office would fight it in all the governorates.[18]

The Muslim Brotherhood's Position

In a TV interview, Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Muhammad Badi' called to stop the alarming talk about forming a religious police force in Egypt, because, in Islam, nobody may mediate between the believers and their God. If such a force is formed, he explained, the believers will fear it instead of fearing Allah, and that is the greatest danger for the Egyptian people. He advocated taking the path of lenience, justice and honesty, rather than adopting methods of intimidation.[19]

'Adel Al-Ansari, editor of the Muslim Brotherhood party daily, took a somewhat different approach. He implied that a religious police force is needed, but should be limited in its authority and subject to state laws: "There is no need [to repeat] that the command to do good and forbid evil [which is the task of the religious police] is an important virtue that puts every society on the straight path... [However,] we must focus on the legal and political ways to deal with transgressions that might be perpetrated by certain people who mistakenly think they are fulfilling a religious obligation [i.e., the self-appointed religious police]. The best way is for the qualified religious scholars to clarify the religious rulings regarding the concept of commanding good and forbidding evil, and define... the boundary between the authorities of the individual and the authorities of the state. [The religious scholars] must define the worst transgressions, from harming national sovereignty and external attacks on the country to political tyranny and economic corruption, and present them as the gravest crimes that must be dealt with..."[20]

The Position of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya

Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya official Dr. Naggah Ibrahim stated likewise that the religious police must operate on behalf of the state and within the boundaries of the law, as happens in Saudi Arabia, though there too there are occasional transgressions that cause jurisdictional battles between the religious police and the ordinary police. According to him, it is the role of the state, not of private groups, to enforce the command of doing good and forbidding evil. Mubarak's police force failed to perform this task, but now, with the rise of Islamic parties, the state police will have the legitimacy and encouragement to perform this role as well, he said.[21]

Coptic Lawyer Calls to Establish Christian Religious Police to Oppose the Salafi Religious Police

Coptic lawyer and human rights activist Mamdouh Nakhla called to establish a Coptic religious police to protect Egyptian Christians from the Salafi religious police, and said that he had suggested this to Patriarch Shenouda during last year's Christmas celebrations. According to Nakhla, every sect has the right to defend itself, since the state and interior ministry are failing to do so. Nakhla suggested that the members of the Coptic police force would wear uniforms with a cross on them, and would defend Coptic churches, as well as barber shops where people come to shave their beards.[22]

Coptic human rights activist Naguib Gobrail claimed that religious police activity on public transport and in universities in an attempt to segregate men and women threatened internal security, the economy, and tourism in Egypt.[23]

Columnists Attack the Religious Police

The former head of the Egyptian Journalists' Union, Gallal 'Aref, wrote in the daily Al-Akhbar: "If we were [living] in a healthy atmosphere – in which laws are respected, the state imparts its authority, and the revolution continues on its path – we would not be experiencing this state of anarchy, where people declare they have undertaken to command good and forbid evil and that there are jobs available in their illegal security force, and set a date to start persecuting people on the streets and possibly in their homes, in the name of implementing the shari'a as they understand it or misunderstand it...

"We must rise up against the usurpation of state rights by a group that is ignorant of the true ways of Islam, and which everyone disapproves of, even the Islamic parties and groups. The revolutionaries must not split up... and leave the scene to those who sow fitna, burn the homeland, and neglect [the issues of] poverty, healthcare, education, and awakening in favor of covering up women's faces and lengthening men's beards. Egypt does not deserve this, and we will not allow it."[24]

Muhammad 'Ismat, a columnist for the daily Al-Shurouq, wrote: "Some Salafis who have suddenly appeared in our political lives have not yet understood that they live in Egypt, not Saudi Arabia, and that it is easier to dig for oil in the Western desert with your bare hands than to turn Egypt into Saudi Arabia... This Salafi group is a victim of the political, ideological, and cultural decline that reached its lowest point during the time of President Anwar Sadat and the deposed President Hosni Mubarak. They do not understand the enormous historic value of the January 25 revolution, which finally toppled the myth of a president that is a kind of Pharaoh who rules Egypt with the authority of a demigod... They want to return us to a rule of clerics and Pharaoh-like leaders, and to the time of exploitation, oppression, and tyranny under the banner of Islam – but Islam renounces them."[25]

Hazem 'Abd Al-Rahman, a columnist for the daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "We must not allow the efforts to establish a religious police in Egypt to go without response, since they are contrary to the course of Egyptian history and the nature of social life in Egypt. Women and girls in the Nile Delta region have worked in all agricultural jobs alongside men and boys since time immemorial. There is not a single Pharaonic mural depicting a segregation of the genders. It is illogical and unacceptable that, in this day and age, we should prevent gender mixing in social life and workplaces under the pretext of protecting virtue.

"One must remember that the religious police in Saudi Arabia has an unfortunate record: In 2002, a fire broke out in a girl's school in Mecca, and religious police prevented firefighters and rescue workers from entering the building to extinguish the fire and rescue the trapped [pupils], merely because [the girls'] legal guardians were not present, and it was unacceptable for them to be exposed to strange men. This resulted in 15 girls dying and dozens of others being injured.

"The religious police also objected to efforts by King Faisal bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz to develop life in Saudi Arabia... Its members made every effort to stop female education, claiming it is a corrupting [influence] because [girls] would read books containing forbidden and abominable content. The religious police still objects to women drivers, claiming that women would leave their homes unattended and be exposed to temptation. The religious police fights the equal integration of women in social life. Today, a vast majority in Saudi Arabia is averse to the religious police and hates it, just as we in Egypt [hated Mubarak's] state security apparatus. The religious police [in Saudi Arabia] is a state within a state, with widespread negative influence, and is not held accountable by anyone."[26]

It should be mentioned that the establishment of the religious police is perceived in Egypt as the result of negative Saudi-Wahhabi influence on Islamist circles in the country. One expression of this was a cyber attack on the Facebook page of the religious police, during which hackers replaced its banner with an English banner saying: "For all Wahhabians, go back to Saudi Arabia. Egypt is the country of Al-Azhar" (see image below).


Banner planted by hackers on the religious police Facebook page[27]

*N. Shamni is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[2] www.masrawy.com, December 30, 2011.

[6] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), December 30, 2011.

[7] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), January 3, 2012.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 31, 2011.

[9] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), January 2, 2012.

[10] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), December 30, 2011.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 27, 2011.

[14] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 5, 2012.

[15] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 4, 2012.

[16] The Khawarij were a group that separated from the forces of Fourth Caliph 'Ali ibn Abi-Talib during the battle of Siffin in 657 BCE, and they are considered the first Muslim opposition within Islam. Hence, this term is used as a derogatory label for a secessionist group.

[17] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), January 11, 2012.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 31, 2011.

[19] Al-Dustour (Egypt), January 22, 2012.

[20] From the column of Hassanein Kuroum, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 5, 2012.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 9, 2012.

[22] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), December 31, 2011.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 3, 2012.

[24] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), January 1, 2012.

[25] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 3, 2012.

[26] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 31, 2011.

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