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Preachers, Speak for the State!

I learned that when it comes from the heart it reaches the heart. When it comes from the tongue, it doesn’t reach the ears.” (Jordanian preacher)

The Jordanian political regime relies in part on Islam for its legitimation. It is thus important for the regime to make sure that religion is interpreted the way it wants and not in a way that would hurt its legitimacy. In Jordan, political decision-makers realized the centrality of mosques as a place where potentially politically threatening messages could be shared with large crowds of mosque-goers. They therefore progressively imposed rules on what could be said or not.

To enhance its grasp on the religious messages shared in mosques, the regime first made sure to hire or give a specific authorization to anyone who wishes to speak in a Jordanian mosque. Then, once it controlled who could speak in the country’s mosques, the regime – through the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs – imposed limitations on what those licensed people could say. In other words: it restricted the contents of the religious message.

The Rule

Nowadays, the licensed preachers receive a weekly document from the Ministry of Awqaf which specifies the topic of the Friday sermon. This new rule is called the “unified sermon”. The document also contains main sub-topics that the preachers must absolutely cover during their sermon. It also encloses a list of suras (“chapters” of the Quran) and hadiths (report of deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to help him address each sub-topic. It ends with a summary of the important ideas that must be shared during the sermon.

This document is prepared cautiously by a special council in the Ministry of Awqaf, which chooses the topics and decides how they should be tackled and shared with mosques-goers on Fridays. Members of this committee explain that the unified sermon is designed to help preachers who possess insufficient skills to preach in a convincing way. They present this new rule as a way to compensate for the lack of skilled staff in Jordanian mosques. Most importantly, they insist on the fact that the preachers remain free to preach as they wish within the framework of the law. Still, the unified sermon provides an additional basis for the regime to intervene in the Jordanian mosques and its selective application favours some preachers and harms others.

Its Selective Application

Under previous legislation (related to counter-terrorism, the protection of the state, etc.), it was possible for the regime to ban a preacher based on his speech in a mosque. Under the new legislation, a preacher can also be arrested because he speaks about another topic than the one imposed or because he addresses it in a way that differs from the one desired by the state. What transpires from interviews with several Jordanian preachers is that the rule is loosely applied in some cases and very strictly in others. The red line pertains to political speeches. As soon as preachers touch upon political issues during their sermon, they receive warnings and/or are banned from Jordanian mosques.

Looking closer at the orientation of the preachers, it is interesting to see that different groups are not affected the same way by this rule. The link between politics and religion becomes clear again as the rule is used to warn or ban preachers belonging to groups that tend to get involved in politics while ‘apolitical’ preachers can freely ignore the unified sermon without being bothered by the regime. Ash‘ari-Sufi preachers, who tend to remain out of state politics, see the unified sermon in the same way as the regime does: a way to compensate the lack of skills of some preachers. (They do not consider themselves examples of those underqualified preachers!)

Such preachers have a stronger tendency to deviate from the rule and they are rarely punished for their free interpretation of the unified sermon. Some Salafis and Muslim Brothers, who tend to have a discourse that has stronger impact on state politics, cannot take the risk of preaching outside of the imposed framework, as proven by the many banned preachers among them.

…and Its Side-Effects

Beyond the problems of the enhanced and selective control on religious personnel, this new rule has the effect of making preachers look like “puppets” of the state in the eyes of large parts of the population. This brings us back to the introduction: how can the preachers participate in the legitimation of the regime if they are seen as controlled by the latter? Imposing such strict restrictions on religious discourse imperils the potential of preachers to legitimate the regime because they lose their credibility.

Astrid Bourlond is a PhD-candidate in Islamic and Arabic Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University, specialised in state religious policies in Jordan. Image: Preacher in Jordanian mosque (copyright: Astrid Bourlond).