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“Whether as a conduit for government policy or the headquarters for insurgencies, mosques have always played an important political role in political events,” writes David E. Miller in the Jerusalem Post. “But the Arab Spring is playing havoc with the simple rules that once prevailed and complicating the jobs of government mosque-minders.”

Government mosque-minders?

Yes, it turns out that in a number of Arab countries, the government closely monitors the sermons given in its mosques.

The Kuwaiti daily al-Watan reports that Kuwait’s mosque 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 al-Watan. “The Endowments Ministry receives its orders from the Foreign Ministry.”

In Saudi Arabia, writes Miller in his Jerusalem Post column “The Media Line,”  

Saudi Arabia is set to train mosque imams and preachers to resist extremist ideologies in a new government-run program.

The program, which begins this week and will include 20 simultaneous sessions in the capital city of Riyadh and its surrounding provinces, is run by the kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

The title of the opening session is “The Friday sermon and its importance in implementing moderation and intellectual security.”

“We are bringing in the most senior scholars in Saudi Arabia to give this training,” Ahmad Fouad of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs told The Media Line. “Twenty lectures will be delivered in and around Riyadh.”

Over the past eight years the Ministry for Islamic Affairs has been implementing educational programs for mosque personnel, including preachers, imams and muezzins (those who sing the call to prayer), stressing “the importance of citizenship and intellectual security,” the Arab daily a-Sharq al-Awsat reported.

In what may seem to Americans an unbelievable government intrusion into the freedom to practice one’s faith, in several countries, the preacher, or khatib, is often a government appointee – subject to censorship or pushed to self-censorship.

In the United States, the very idea of the government keeping an eye on what is being said in U.S. mosques, synagogues or churches would spark denunciations, demonstrations in the streets and Congressional hearings.  

However, it’s commonplace in the Middle East. Furthermore, Miller writes that 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. He goes onto say:

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.

There, Syrian mosque speakers denounced the U.S. ambassador’s visit without government permission, criticizing what they called “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 Muslim scriptures warn against making mistakes during such critical times. Some ignore these warnings, he was reported to have said.

In Saudi Arabia, “Preachers follow the government line,” Abdullah Jaber, a Saudi political cartoonist, told Miller. “I don’t remember Arab revolutions ever mentioned in Friday sermons.”

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