EL BIREH, WEST BANK – Each week, Mahmoud Habbash, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of religious affairs, sends an e-mail to mosques across the West Bank. It contains what amounts to a script for the Friday sermon that every imam is required to deliver.
The practice, part of a broader crackdown on Muslim preachers considered too radical, shows the extreme steps the Palestinian Authority is taking to weaken Hamas, its Islamist rival, as it seeks to cement power and meet Israel’s preconditions for peace talks.
The Palestinian policy drew little notice when it was launched last year. But it has been enforced with particular vigor in recent months and, analysts say, has been a factor in Hamas’s declining strength in the West Bank.
Proponents say the tight control is necessary to curb fiery rhetoric, preserve Palestinian unity and promote a moderate form of Islam. But critics say the heavy-handed policy violates freedom of expression, alienates segments of Palestinian society and is a harbinger of the kind of police state the Palestinian Authority could become once statehood is achieved.
As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas debates whether to continue negotiations with Israel or declare statehood unilaterally, he is also waging an internal battle for legitimacy against Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization. Hamas won the last parliamentary elections in 2006, seized control of the Gaza Strip in a coup a year later and set up its own government there.
The firm grip on mosques is the latest element in a long effort to curb the strength of Hamas that has included widespread arrests and bans on Hamas media and gatherings. On Tuesday, when 70,000 people gathered in Gaza to mark the 23rd anniversary of the founding of Hamas, there were no rallies in the West Bank to mark the occasion.
The United States has pushed the Palestinian Authority to put an end to the vitriolic sermons that the United States and Israel say undercut peace efforts. But it has been careful not to overtly praise the latest effort. While seen as helpful to U.S. goals, the crackdown also reveals an authoritarian streak in a Palestinian leadership routinely hailed by American officials for its governance.
Such central government control of clerics is not uncommon in the Arab world. But it is disappointing to those who had expected greater tolerance from the Palestinian Authority, which rules parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As part of its clampdown, the ministry has banned Hamas-affiliated imams from preaching. Those who are authorized to preach are paid by the Palestinian Authority.
“The Palestinian Authority’s plan is to combat Islam and the religious trend within it,” said Sheikh Hamid Bitawi, a well-known Islamic religious authority in Nablus who delivered sermons for four decades before the Palestinian Authority banned him three months ago.
Bitawi estimates that dozens of other imams have been prevented from preaching since the crackdown started, leading to a preacher shortage at many mosques. “I’m sure the popularity of Fatah [Abbas’s party] and the Palestinian Authority is going down,” Bitawi said. “They will be punished for their behavior.”
‘In our national interest’
The mosque policy was orchestrated by Habbash, who, after his appointment as minister of religious affairs in May 2009, placed all of the West Bank’s 1,800 mosques under his supervision. Before that, imams were sometimes accused of delivering sermons that were hostile not only to Israel and to Jews, but to Abbas.
“We’re convinced this is in our national interest,” Habbash said in an interview at the newly renovated ministry office in El Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’s power in the West Bank. “What we have seen is when mosques are under the control of other parties, it causes division within our people,” Habbash said, adding that hundreds of mosques had been controlled by Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
After taking control of the mosques, Habbash ordered the mandatory sermons. An imam can add to the sermon, Habbash said, “but of course he has to report on this.”
On a recent Friday, the mandated sermon topic was the prophet Muhammad’s 7th-century flight to Medina. If compulsory Koran passages are not delivered, security services report the offending imam to Habbash, who reviews weekly reports on mosque activity.
Habbash also forces imams to rotate from mosque to mosque to prevent what he calls “ideological thought control.”
In addition, the Palestinian Authority is training a new generation of imams at its government-funded Islamic college in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah. On a recent school day, students in one classroom of the soon-to-be-expanded single-story building were being taught how to distinguish Muhammad’s true teachings from those falsely attributed to him.
‘Need to liberate Islam’
Nasser Abed El-Al, who prays daily at the mosque in Qalqilyah, hasn’t liked the changes. “They’re choosing imams that speak the way they do,” said Abed El-Al, who runs a kebab restaurant. “This regime is not popular with the people here.”
An October poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that just 30 percent of Palestinians say people in the West Bank can criticize the Palestinian Authority without fear, compared with 56 percent three years ago.
The mosque crackdown comes as Israel and watchdog groups step up monitoring of statements in Palestinian government-run media and educational materials that dispute Israel’s right to exist or demonize Jews. For their part, Palestinian leaders routinely complain about statements by Israeli political or religious figures that are hostile to Arabs, which they say undercut peace efforts.
Habbash insists his goal is to advance Palestinian unity, not to appease the United States or Israel. So far, the Palestinian Authority has focused most of its attention on the mosques and responded quickly when it sees a problem.
After an imam urged Muslims to kill Jews in a sermon broadcast on a Palestinian government-run television station earlier this year, U.S. officials complained. Habbash apologized, said the imam had been a last-minute substitute, and ordered the next Friday’s sermon at all mosques to be about tolerance among followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
Habbash, 47, taught Islamic law and wrote a newspaper column before being forced to flee the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Today, he is one of the government ministers closest to Abbas. His policy also makes him one of the most endangered: While most ministers travel with two bodyguards, he has six.
“My main message is, we need to liberate Islam from this madness, from this extremism and wrong understanding of Islam,” he said. “Islam does not incite to hate.”
Khalil Shikaki, chief pollster at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said the overall crackdown on Hamas, including the mosque policy, has clearly weakened Hamas in the West Bank. “They have no media – no newspapers or magazines” in the West Bank, he said. “No doubt they have lost the mosques as a key platform.”
The crackdown up close
Worshipers at the Great Mosque in Doura, near the city of Hebron, saw the crackdown up close one Friday in August. Witnesses said hundreds of Palestinian police forces prevented Sheikh Nayef Rajoub, the mosque’s imam for 29 years, from delivering a sermon.
Rajoub was among the several dozen Hamas-affiliated politicians who were elected to parliament in 2006 and arrested by Israel a few months later, after Hamas militants captured Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier.
When Rajoub was released from an Israeli jail this summer after 50 months of imprisonment, the authority banned him from preaching.
“What happened to me was part of a general policy of the Palestinian Authority to prevent the representatives of the Palestinian people from speaking directly to their audience,” Rajoub said in an interview at his office last month.
He was rearrested by Israel in early December for “being a senior Hamas activist who endangers the security of the area,” according to the military, and sentenced to six months of administrative detention.
“This is a mouth-muzzling policy on the part of the Palestinian Authority,” Rajoub said in the interview, before his most recent arrest. “This policy is aimed at curbing freedom of expression.”