By Nathan Brown
The official Muslim religious establishments in Arab countries give governments a major role in religious life, but these institutions are rarely mere regime mouthpieces and can be difficult to steer in a particular direction.
All Arab states have large, official Muslim religious establishments that give governments a major role in religious life. These establishments have developed differently, according to each state’s historical experience.
Through them, the state has a say over religious education, mosques, and religious broadcasting—turning official religious institutions into potent policy tools. However, the complexity of the religious landscape means they are rarely mere regime mouthpieces and it can be difficult to steer them in a particular direction.
Religious Institutions in the Arab World
- Official religious institutions in the Arab world, though generally loyal to their countries’ regimes, are vast bureaucracies whose size and complexity allow them some autonomy.
- Arab regimes hold sway over official religious structures. However, their ability to bend these religious institutions to suit their own purposes is mixed.
- The evolution of official religious establishments is rooted substantially in the process of modern state formation.
- Official religious institutions play multiple roles. These include involvement in endowments and charity, advice and scriptural interpretation, education, prayer, family law, and broadcasting.
- Increasingly, the authority of official religious voices has been challenged by unofficial actors. Some of these actors stand wholly outside official structures, but others may find shelter in more autonomous parts of official religious institutions, adding to the complexity of the religious landscape in many countries.
- International actors would like to see official religious representatives oppose violent extremism. However, religious officials have limited ideological tools to confront radical Islamists, and their priorities are different than those of actors from outside the region.
Regimes’ Relations With Religious Establishments
- By acting intrusively in religious affairs and seeking to increase their control, regimes risk making religious officials appear to be mere functionaries, undermining their credibility. They also risk pushing dissidents into underground organizations.
- By allowing official religious institutions some autonomy, regimes can enhance their monitoring ability and the integrity of religious officials. However, it also means they lose some control and indirectly create spaces for their critics to organize.
- Western states should know the size and complexity of religious institutions means they are not always effective at fighting extremism as Western actors may wish. The regimes controlling them often have broader agendas than just combating radical groups.
- For those seeking to defeat radical ideologies, aligning with authoritarian regimes and their religious establishments is attractive. However, by placing unrealistic expectations on what regimes and their establishments can and are willing to deliver, and by replicating an often self-defeating strategy of relying on authoritarian controls to combat nonconformist movements and ideas, this approach may offer only the illusion of a solution.
In summer 2016, readers of the Egyptian press were regaled with daily stories about a very public confrontation between the ministry of religious affairs and the leadership of Al-Azhar, the sprawling educational and research complex that is constitutionally recognized as Egypt’s main authority on Islamic affairs.
The ministry sought to have a single, ministry-written Friday sermon delivered in all mosques throughout Egypt. Al-Azhar harshly criticized the move and soon gained the upper hand in the battle between the two powerful institutions.
The Egyptian state appeared to be battling itself in full public view over who was responsible for determining what preachers say from the pulpit.
It was a bewildering incident, touching on a controversial subject. State religious institutions in the Arab world provoke strong but contradictory evaluations, not merely in the countries where they operate but also throughout the world.
Are they partners in the struggle to counter violent extremism, discredited regime mouthpieces, or incubators of radicalism?
All three of these descriptions contain a germ of truth. But above all, such institutions are sprawling bureaucracies that are hardly irrelevant to religious and political life, even as they are difficult to steer in any particular direction.
Their authority is often contested by individuals and organizations outside of the state, but these bureaucracies are present in many different realms. Generally loyal to existing regimes, they also show signs of autonomy. Normally hostile to radical forces, they are at best lumbering bulwarks against them.
Those who follow politics in the Arab world are accustomed to encountering religion. Matters of faith seem closely connected with many political controversies.
Religion, in turn, has served as a rallying point for opposition groups and social movements as well. But focusing only on religion as it relates to personal faith and political opposition means overlooking other ways that it is woven into matters of governance in Arab states. Ministries of education write religious textbooks, ministries of religious affairs administer mosques, state muftis offer interpretations of religious law, and courts of personal status guide husbands and wives as well as parents and children in how to conduct their interactions in an Islamic way.
Focusing only on religion as it relates to personal faith and political opposition means overlooking other ways that it is woven into matters of governance in Arab states.
Yet while states structure religion in many diverse fashions, official religious establishments, such as Al-Azhar, have encountered a two-sided challenge in recent years. Supporters of existing political orders view them as useful tools.
Arab regimes have sought to use the panoply of state religious institutions to cement their own rule. They have also come under international pressure to counter violent extremism through the religious institutions that they oversee. At the same time, official institutions are compelled by their religious publics to represent authentic voices of religious truth.
A host of unofficial actors have shattered the monopoly over religious authority that religious officials had grown accustomed to enjoying.
In this environment, official religious establishments have retained significant influence but are unlikely to be able to wield it in any coherent fashion, whether to serve their own agendas or those seeking to use them for their own ends.
Egypt and its religious institutions are particularly helpful in illustrating this reality, but other countries in the region also deserve consideration when examining the different patterns of behavior of their religious establishments.
To be continued …
Nathan Brown, Nonresident Senior Fellow – Middle East Program, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.