In the 19th century, the religious practices of Muslims, especially religious pilgrimages, were often denounced by European officials as facilitating the spread of contagious disease. In the 21st century can religious officials be part of the solution? They might be able to play such a role in Egypt and are now taking some serious but still uncertain and uneven steps in that direction.
The new coronavirus pandemic is putting state institutions in many countries under severe strain as they seek to ensure compliance with unprecedented public health measures. Sudden impositions on daily life are likely to be successful to the extent that those imposing them are seen as credible. Even states with heavy coercive apparatuses will have to hope for a great deal of public compliance to make measures work. While Egyptian state institutions are imposing when it comes to regime security, it is far less clear that they have the credibility to secure anything more than enforced cooperation. They are far more effective at arresting those accused of spreading false information than in having the information they provide accepted.
Indeed, senior Egyptian officials have two reflexes that actually undermine credibility: they offer vague reassurances that everything is under control, thereby obscuring a threat rather than managing it; and they prioritize regime security by continuing to hold enormous numbers of prisoners in circumstances destined to allow for the spread of contagion. They have dialed back some on the first but only slightly on the second. In a society characterized by close-knit social networks that exchange information in ways official institutions can strive to steer but not suppress, is there any credible alternative left?
Official religious institutions are a possible crutch for heavy-handed states to lean on. They tend to be more trusted parts of the state apparatus, with the grand imam of Al-Azhar or the grand mufti of Egypt presenting themselves—and being perceived by many—as servants of God and the public interest in general. In a sense, their credibility is enhanced by their lack of coercive power and even a measure of autonomy from the regime. They can preach, hector, advise, and guide, but are not able to impose very much.
Local religious figures, imams of mosques for instance, are on the state payroll, but are often perceived not as civil servants but as figures who can resolve personal problems, mediate disputes, and provide practical guidance. While lacking the full religious authority of a body like the Council of Senior Scholars, which sits at the apex of Al-Azhar, local figures offer accessibility and a willingness to engage in religion at the retail level.
To be sure, state religious structures are not completely free of regime control. Mosques are patrolled and monitored, sermons are delivered under official guidance, and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which is responsible for managing mosques throughout the country, is part of the executive branch and is currently headed by a figure who does not seem overly concerned about appearing too close to the regime. It can discipline preachers, close mosques outside of prayer time, and take other administrative measures to impose its will. And perhaps for that reason the ministry may have more political authority but less moral authority in Egyptian society.
What all these religious institutions share is an almost paternalistic sense of social responsibility. They are beholden not only to the word of God but also to the interests and needs of the community. So indeed, as early as mid-February Al-Azhar began stepping into the breach when its university held a conference on preventive measures, educating attendees (largely Al-Azhar community members) on the nature of the coronavirus and how to avoid catching it, as well as on treatment methods in the event of illness.
In the first three weeks of March, the messaging became steadier and other religious institutions joined in, each with their particular inflection. The Ministry of Religious Endowments tended to emphasize the duty to obey political authority. On March 20, for instance, the unified sermon the ministry provided to Egypt’s preachers focused on ways in which plague and illness could be lifted (cleanliness and religiosity) and the importance of obeying the state.
On the same day, the minister himself toed the regime’s political line when he said that spreading rumors about the virus is a “betrayal of religion and the nation.” Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta, a state body responsible for delivering opinions on Islamic law, tended to emphasize obeying scientific and medical rather than political authority, but still tied this to religion by claiming that “adhering to preventive measures from the coronavirus is a religious obligation.”
While such messaging seemingly underscored the seriousness of the threat to public health, the institutions’ actual behavior indicated something different as they moved only gingerly on the issue of public gatherings for religious purposes. By mid-March differences among state institutions broke briefly into the open over suspending congregational prayer. All religious authorities agreed that congregational prayers were no longer obligatory and that gatherings around religious rites should be discouraged.
However, Al-Azhar had moved earlier and more forcefully before being reined in. Its Council of Senior Scholars proclaimed on March 15 that public authorities could cancel congregational prayers if necessary, giving officials a license they had not asked for. Al-Azhar’s credibility was such that even the president of Pakistan turned to the institution for support in suspending Friday prayers. But the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib, was initially forced to reverse a decision to close Friday prayers at the Al-Azhar mosque while Egyptian religious institutions devised a more coordinated response. The Ministry of Religious Endowments attempted a much more modest series of palliative measures, with the minister proclaiming that mosques would remain open and that only bathrooms, taps, and ablution areas would be closed.
By March 21, all religious institutions (including the Coptic Church) finally agreed over a common line to adopt. This included barring communal prayers and rites and shutting down religious festivals (especially the popular Sayyida Zeinab festival getting underway). The Ministry of Religious Endowments even altered the call to prayer so that it invited worshippers to pray at home.
While it has now effectively communicated the seriousness of the situation and taken clear measures against public gatherings, the religious establishment has remained slow and uncoordinated in moving beyond general religious assurances to specific instructions. To be fair, Al-Azhar has made some limited forays in that direction, tweeting infographics on matters such as how to properly wear a mask and how to protect against the virus in workplaces.
However, a wholesale and coordinated state effort that deploys the networks managed by state religious institutions to go beyond general messages and exhortation has not occurred. One way of reaching every neighborhood and village in the country could involve coordination between the Ministries of Religious Affairs and Health to distribute guidance on handwashing through local preachers or using virtual prayers or mosques in a systematic manner to disseminate information. Such approaches would combine religion with public health instruction. Yet this necessitates a degree of coordination among state institutions, which has rarely been a hallmark of governance in Egypt.