Friday, Day of Assembly, becomes day of demanding justice

Fridays have evolve to take on extra significance outside the traditional religious importance, with Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Oman and the Palestinians territories all set to witness renewed demonstrations as people across the region seek to assert themselves in different ways.

WASHINGTON // Governments around the region will today hunker down for yet another day of potential protests and clashes as Fridays evolve to take on extra significance in the region outside the traditional religious importance.

Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Oman and the Palestinians territories are all set to witness renewed demonstrations as people across the region seek to assert themselves in different ways. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will renew its presence on the streets to pressure the provisional ruling military council to purge remnants of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president.

In Syria, demonstrators will brave a security clampdown to protest political detentions and emergency rule, while in Yemen protestors are demanding the immediate resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president. Omanis remain frustrated with the slow pace of promised reforms, and will join Palestinians, who for years have held regular Friday demonstrations against the Israeli occupation and the separation barrier Israel is building up and down the occupied West Bank.

While this may seem a far cry from what has traditionally been seen primarily as the day of the most important weekly Muslim prayer, it is in some ways also a reassertion of the core value of Friday, Youm al Jumu'ah in Arabic, or Day of Assembly.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, said: "There has been a traditional misconception that the prayer is just a rest day, where people go to the mosque, they don't pay attention and the message is not concrete or productive."

But Fridays in the region have now come to be seen as a "socially mobilising force" and not only as a day for spiritual nurture, Mr Awad said, bringing it back to a purer conception of what the Day of Assembly was meant to be.

The Friday prayer is mentioned in one verse in the Quran in which believers are urged to pray and rest, though only for the duration of the prayer, at noon, before which markets could function.

But the verse is in two parts, the second of which urges congregants to "disperse through the land and seek the Bounty of God, and celebrate the praises of God; that ye may prosper". This is an exhortation Mr Awad suggested implies that believers are asked to pursue an "active life", including the pursuit of social justice.

"The young people and the reformers [demonstrating around the region] have taken the meaning of Friday prayer to its rightful understanding and application."

There are also more practical causes for the special role Fridays have come to play. It is a day where most people are off work and are therefore free to focus on other affairs. In countries where organised political opposition has either been outlawed or co-opted, congregations outside mosques provide a rare opportunity for large numbers of people to meet and exchange ideas.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza's secular al Azhar University, said: "The people opposing regimes across the region have made good use of Fridays." Partly this is simply opportunity he said. "The mosque on Fridays is a place where you find people in their hundreds. And with people off work, after prayer they gather around mosques and in public squares. It is therefore also a place where people can regroup, organise and march to ask for their rights and dignity."

In certain instances, the time afforded a day off is critical. The second intifada, an explosion of popular anger after years of Israeli settlement expansion that contradicted the stated aims of the Oslo peace process as Palestinians saw it, may have been sparked on a Thursday by the visit to the Aqsa Mosque compound by the former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and a huge Israeli security contingency in a stated bid to assert Jewish sovereignty over the site. But it was the next day, September 29, 2000, after Friday prayers in Jerusalem, that the riots took proper hold.

In a similar vein, the Egyptian revolution, as most people have come to see it now, may be traced back to an origin on January 25, a Tuesday. But it would not have gained unstoppable momentum had it not been for the "Day of Rage" that following Friday, nor the "Day of Departure" a week later.

"Historically, Friday has served to remind members of the faith and the community to be upright, generous and mindful of God," Mr Awad said. "I believe that demanding social justice, equality and democracy falls within that context."

Published: April 8, 2011 04:00 AM


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