Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, states imposed official state interpretations of Islamic morality on their citizens, religious practice was targeted by state authorities, and religious sites were desecrated. In Israel and Palestine, an unprecedented ruling by an Israeli court surrounding Jewish prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque Compound/Temple Mount threatened to upend the fragile status quo at the flashpoint site. In Yemen, different factions desecrated religious buildings, while pro-Houthi authorities forced shop owners to participate in celebrations marking the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on 18 October. In Iran, authorities closed down a clothing store for selling ‘unconventional’ clothing, and a group of people beat a man after he accosted a woman for wearing her veil too loosely. In Egypt, a rapper was banned from the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate following backlash at the modification of a popular religious invocation at his concert. In Iraq, religious leaders issued statements both encouraging their followers to vote in federal elections on 10 October and discouraging them from voting for certain candidates.
Last week in Israel and Palestine, the Jerusalem Magistrate Court issued an unprecedented ruling, allowing ‘silent’ Jewish prayer at Al Aqsa Mosque complex/Temple Mount, overturning long-standing agreements and the status quo at the flashpoint site. Since Israel took control of the Old City and East Jerusalem in 1967, unofficial understandings between Palestinians and Israelis have dictated that Jewish worshipers are allowed to visit but not pray at the site (Haaretz, 8 October 2021). Israel maintains overall security at the site, but the Muslim Waqf administers religious activities there, and police have for decades enforced the Jewish prayer ban as a public security measure (Times of Israel, 8 October 2021). The decision prompted condemnation from Hamas, before the Jerusalem District Court reversed the ruling a day later. The reversal followed appeals by Jerusalem police and reported pressure from the US government to maintain the status quo out of fear of violent escalation (The New Arab, 13 October 2021). The issue of Jewish prayer at the Al Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount will likely continue to be a point of contention at the flashpoint site, with recent reports indicating that Israeli police have been discreetly allowing Jewish prayers at the site for the past couple of months (Times of Israel, 17 July 2021). While this decision would have codified these actions, it is pertinent to note that Jewish prayers have been taking place under the watch of Israeli police and the Islamic Waqf, which administers the site.
In Yemen, there were reports that both pro-Hadi and pro-Houthi authorities desecrated religious buildings last week. Pro-Houthi forces also imposed the observance of their interpretation of Islam on Yemenis in areas under their control. In Bayhan city, pro-Houthi forces stormed and looted a Quranic center attached to the Dirbis Mosque. Meanwhile, unidentified forces believed to be affiliated to Al Islah Party demolished the ancient Balfakih Mosque in Dammun under the pretext of expanding the mosque. Additionally, Houthi field committees forced shop owners across Houthi-controlled areas to raise religious banners, decorate their shops in green, and pay sums of money on the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on 18 October. Lastly, pro-Houthi forces arrested the imam of Sardoud Al Ahdouf Mosque and five other worshipers in Al Husha because they refused to chant the Sarkhah — the Houthi slogan.
In Iran and Egypt, several events were reported in which people were harrassed for not abiding by the state’s official interpretation of Islamic morality. In Iran, police forces forcibly closed down a clothing store in Kourosh Mall in Tehran for selling ‘unconventional’ clothes, in a reference to clothing perceived to be Western or un-Islamic. A group of bystanders beat up a man in a government office in Tehran last week after he threatened a woman for wearing the mandatory veil (hijab) too loosely. The man reportedly accosted the woman under the pretext of applying the Muslim principle of ‘enjoining good and forbidding evil,’ by which Muslims are encouraged to impose standards of Islamic morality on others. The Iranian regime officially espouses ‘enjoining good and forbidding evil,’ and incidents in which civilians try to apply it on others have led to violence in the recent past. In Egypt, the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate suspended rapper Marwan Pablo in Cairo for “assaulting religious values during his concert” (Raseef22, 2 October 2021). This suspension came after another rapper introduced Pablo on stage with religious invocation (mawlay), replacing God’s name with that of the rapper.
In Iraq, several prominent religious authorities issued various statements last week concerning voting during federal elections on 10 October. Dozens of Sunni clerics from the government Sunni Endowments Office called on people to participate in the elections. Similarly, both the Baba Sheikh — the highest religious authority in Yazidism — and Ali Al Sistani — the country’s most prominent Grand Ayatollah — called on Iraqis to participate in the elections. Meanwhile, the Sunni Grand Mufti of Iraq prohibited followers from voting for candidates who do not support a general amnesty act for prisoners or who agree to amend Article 57 of the Personal Status Law. The current parliament recently postponed discussions of a general amnesty act for prisoners convicted of “terrorism” by Iraqi courts based on insufficient evidence, many of whom are disproportionately Sunni Arabs, to the next parliamentary cycle (Rudaw, 4 September 2021). Article 57 guarantees custody rights for mothers until their children are at least 15 years old. Conservative Shiite parliamentarians have recently attempted to amend the article by adding a clause automatically depriving mothers of their custody rights if they remarry, causing controversy in Iraq (BBC News, 7 July 2021).
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