How states can wield ‘official Islam’ to limit radical extremism

Worshipers arrive for Friday prayers at al-Azhar mosque in Cairo on Dec. 28, 2012. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

In a recent interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made headlines with a striking claim that he will try to return his country to “moderate Islam” as part of his broader reform efforts. Though it is unclear what, if any, tangible changes this will produce, his remarks are part of a growing trend among leaders in the Arab world to use elements of the state-sponsored religious establishment, or “official Islam,” to counter extremist ideologies.

Some countries have been far more successful than others at harnessing the power of official Islam to challenge popular Islamist movements and limit radical ideologies. In a new article, we examine how regimes have used official religious institutions in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia after the 2011 uprisings shook the region. We find that success depends on two key factors: the nature of the country’s inherited religious institutions and the country’s regime type.

Each of these four countries has sought to build official Islam in recent years, but their specific strategies differ in important ways.

Expanding official Islam in Morocco

Ruled by a monarchy, Morocco inherited strong religious institutions, enabling the country to expand its reach into the religious space after 2011. The king derives legitimacy, in part, because he is believed to be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and “Commander of the Faithful.” However, unlike Jordan, which is also ruled by a monarchy, Morocco inherited a major religious institution. Located in Fez, al-Karaouine is a historic center of Islamic scholarship in northwest Africa and the world’s oldest center of higher learning, dating to 859.

In the wake of the 2011 uprisings, King Mohammed VI announced a qualification program to train imams and scholars in proper doctrinal interpretations and began a significant project of refurbishing the country’s mosques. In 2012, the minister for endowments and religious affairs declared that any religious edicts, or fatwas, issued by authorities other than the Moroccan Supreme Ulema Council were invalid. Additionally, Morocco sought to expand the reach of official Islam by training imams from countries in the region, including Tunisia, Mali and Nigeria, in ways to counter radical ideologies. In 2015, the king inaugurated a $20 million facility to give this program a permanent home.

In short, the state fully embraced official Islam and rapidly sought to expand it as a means to control the religious space.

Activating official Islam in Jordan

Jordan is also ruled by a monarchy, but unlike Morocco, there was no comparable historical Islamic institution. As a result, it has sought to activate official Islam. In Jordan, the king’s legitimacy is based, at least in part, on the royal line’s descent from the prophet Muhammad rather than a secularly based constitution. Because there was no alternative power base for official Islam, the state could shape official Islam as it saw fit.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Jordan began to devote significant resources to building a state-controlled religious bureaucracy. In recent years, the kingdom has been able to activate the network of official Islam that it had gradually built over decades. To increase its reach, the government has offered financial incentives, including a stipend, paid travel to Mecca and religious workshops. It has also continued to pursue the goals laid out in the “Amman Message” and the interfaith tolerance of “A Common Word” initiative. At the same time, the government has begun to more tightly restrict the religious and political content of all sermons across the kingdom.

Developing official Islam in Tunisia

Tunisia, a republic, has faced significant challenges controlling the religious space. Habib Bourguiba, the country’s founding president, did not use religion as a key basis of legitimacy for the new regime. Fearing a rival power base, he sought to limit the influence of traditional centers of religious powers.

By the 2011 revolution, these policies had succeeded, with no strong religious institutions in Tunisia. Facing increasing challenges from religious actors after 2011, the new government immediately sought to develop official Islam. First, the government reopened the Zaytuna mosque, the historic center of learning in the capital, as an educational center. Second, the government signed an agreement for Morocco to train Tunisian imams and to promote reforms of religious institutions and organizations in Tunisia. In effect, Tunisian leaders sought to import some of Morocco’s historical legitimacy in an effort to rebuild their country’s own official Islam.

Co-opting official Islam in Egypt

Finally, Egypt, a republic with strong inherited religious institutions, sought to co-opt official Islam. Beginning in the 1960s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the historical center of Sunni Islamic learning, al-Azhar, and its vast endowments. After the revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces granted al-Azhar a bit more independence, and al-Azhar opposed the 2012-2013 presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Continuing this model, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has worked to nationalize religion and personalize official Islam. Upon seizing power in 2013, Sissi appeared with the grand imam of al-Azhar at his side. Sissi has also taken a direct role in calling for a “religious revolution” to counter extremism while speaking from al-Azhar itself. In effect, he has tried to use the legitimacy of al-Azhar without granting it any degree of independence that could, in turn, be used to threaten the state itself.

Each of these four states has taken significant steps to increase the influence of official Islam after 2011. Although each recognizes the clear value of official Islam to control the religious space, their ability to do so depends on regime type and history with official Islam. Whether these costly investments will pay dividends is yet to be seen. As the Islamic State militant group is defeated and its fighters return to their home countries across the Arab world and beyond, these governments are hoping a stronger official Islam gives them a better chance to counter radical Islam.

Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer (@arabbarometer), a senior research specialist at Princeton University and a research fellow at the University of Michigan.
Lawrence Rubin (@lprubin73) is an associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of “Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics” (Stanford University Press, 2014).

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