Palestinian Authority reins in radical imams

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By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 16, 2010

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.


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