Across the Arab world today, regimes are increasingly intervening in Islamic institutions and establishments. Broadly defined, these include religious ministries, seminaries, universities, mosques, charities, awqaf (Islamic endowments, such as financial or property assets), Sufi zawaya (religious schools, lodges, or orders that play an important social role in their surrounding communities), youth organizations, media platforms, and other entities. Undertaken through appointments, purges, new laws, administrative reorganization, financial monitoring, and other means, these processes of control and co-option are hardly new: since their creation, many modern Arab states have either expanded or continued the bureaucratization of Islam that they inherited from European colonial rule and, before that, the Ottoman Empire.1 In some sense, then, the institutionalization of Islam has proceeded in parallel with the penetration of the Arab state into citizens’ everyday lives.
And yet, the process is hardly unidirectional. Pro-state Islamic figures and organizations often have more agency and leverage than is commonly assumed, stemming from their role as intermediaries with society. Depending on their popularity and social capital, they can sometimes negotiate a quid pro quo in exchange for keeping quiet about politics, such as retaining some authority to speak on personal and social matters (though regimes have often encroached on these issues as well). Yet religious figures who have fallen under government control also have to manage their moral authority, straddling the perception that they are serving as mouthpieces for the worldly agendas of politicians rather than focusing on matters like faith and piety.
Beyond this, the line between official and nonofficial Islam is often blurred and fluid. A range of actors with varying degrees of proximity to the state make pronouncements about Islam, ranging from trained, official clergy to judges and lawmakers to media personalities who have substantial followings but whose formal knowledge of Islamic legal matters is often shallow.2 In some instances, the state has created, paid, and sustained new social and political constituencies whose role is to lobby and campaign for so-called Islamic reforms via legal and administrative changes.
This current phase of state intervention in the Islamic sphere is significant in its scope, pace, and sophistication, reflecting in part the immense political, social, and economic challenges Arab regimes have faced in the years since the 2011 Arab Spring—which have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. In responding to the public health crisis and its economic fallout, many states’ Islamic establishments, through control of public messaging, mosques, and distribution of welfare and services, have been mobilized as tools to burnish a government’s legitimacy in front of anxious publics and sometimes deflect culpability through scapegoating.3
State led co-option and control of Islamic institutions also stems from domestic military threats from radicalized Islamists and, especially, pressure from Western allies and patrons to tackle these threats as part of a broader rubric of countering violent extremism. This latter driver has created a useful incentive for Arab governments allied with the United States to package their oversight and regulation of Islamic institutions and discourse as reforms.
These reforms, which in some cases are targeted toward nonviolent Muslim critics of the regime, amount to a sleight of hand. Based on the faulty assumption that a supposedly incorrect interpretation of Islam is a primary driver of radical violence, the adjustments create the appearance for Western audiences of progress on counter-extremism while ignoring the more proximate sources of militancy, like Arab regimes’ human rights violations, judicial and prison abuses, and corruption—all of which have in many instances worsened in Arab states. Put differently, for Arab rulers, the promotion of an allegedly moderate Islam through institutionalization and formalization means an Islam that presents no threat to their political survival rather than, as Western policymakers hope, an Islam that defangs violent radicalism.
At the other end of the spectrum and in contrast to the interventionist policies of strong Arab regimes, Islamic institutions in conflict-wracked Arab states have either fragmented or become prizes for competing political and military factions. In Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the path of Islamic ministries, schools, youth camps, endowments, and charities has followed the state collapse and territorial dissolution wrought by civil wars in these countries. In their respective zones of control, rump governments and opposition groups have set up parallel and rival religious bodies, which are sometimes more localized and autonomous because their political overseers lack sufficient resources to co-opt them. Islamic institutions in such conflict settings are often far more susceptible to foreign economic and ideological influences, both by regional powers waging war-by-proxy and also Western states.
Western aid agencies and governments have identified that religious figures in conflict and postconflict states can be partners in mediation and community-level development.4 As with practices of countering violent extremism, there are complications to Western outreach to Islamic actors and institutions in conflict settings: Islamic partners are often politicized and factionalized after years of war, and their claim to speak on behalf of fractured societies or act solely as ethical and organic interlocutors may not be as strong as they claim. On top of this, additional Western attention could inadvertently inflate their role, entrench identity-based divisions, and elevate the religious drivers of civil wars to the exclusion of socioeconomic and political factors.5 Finally, the effectiveness of such engagement has been difficult to track.
“US [countering violent extremism] initiatives often give cosmetic focus to Islamic institutions with nary a look at outcomes,” noted a longtime U.S. development expert with more than a decade of experience in Middle East and Central Asia. “And governance-focused donor programs invite ‘local religious leaders’ in for [a] conflict resolution workshop or two, disembodied from a deeper engagement with the underlying structural causes of grievance.”6
How Islamic Institutions and Arab States Interact
To date, the fluid and complex relationship between Islamic institutions and Arab governance has received far less scholarly and analytical attention than Islamist party politics and Islamist militancy and extremism.7 The compilation of papers in this volume, covering Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, aims to fill that gap. Drawing on two years of research, including fieldwork and interviews with Arab officials and Islamic figures, it sheds light on the processes that define relations between Islamic institutions and governmental entities, ranging from strong formal regimes in relatively stable Arab countries to informal, substate, and nonstate political actors in conflict or post-conflict Arab states. The goal is not to present a scorecard on the balance of power or on winners and losers. Nor are there definitive predictions or policy prescriptions. Instead, the papers offer detailed context for an oft-neglected aspect of Arab governance that has ramifications for several Western policy priorities—including countering extremism, promoting conflict resolution, and, more broadly, promoting the future political, economic, and social stability of Arab states.
As interlocutors between regimes and society, Islamic actors and institutions—and the broad spectrum of mechanisms through which Arab rulers engage with them, from dialogue and co-option to contention and outright coercion—are important windows into the structural inequalities of Arab states and the legitimacy deficit of Arab regimes. Regimes that are confident in their own political and social support have historically given more leeway to Islamic actors and institutions, even if to better monitor them, while insecure, paranoid rulers have constricted the maneuverability of their religious establishments, which sometimes drives dissent underground and toward violence. Understanding such bellwethers will become all the more critical as Arab regimes confront what Carnegie scholars have called “a decade of Arab decisions,” in which declining oil prices and diminishing global demand for oil will deprive many Arab rulers of time-tested means of buying off social dissent.8 This dawning era creates particular challenges for relations between Islamic institutions and regimes in the so-called rentier states, in which rulers have long deployed oil revenues to secure fealty from clerics and to manage sprawling religious bureaucracies.9
This collection’s opening paper deals with the most consequential of these rentier states in the Arab world—Saudi Arabia, which, by virtue of its vast wealth, claim to Islamic leadership, and powerful media and proselytization machinery, has exerted an outsized influence on religious matters far beyond its borders. The purportedly reformist agenda of the ambitious and authoritarian Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has received widespread media coverage. But Yasmine Farouk and Nathan J. Brown find that the Saudi monarchy’s much-hyped changes to religious structures amount to a remodeling rather than an abolition. To be sure, this surge of top-down policies toward clerics and Islamic institutions is significant and nearly unprecedented in the history of the modern Saudi state, yet a closer examination reveals them to be focused mostly on technical and procedural matters rather than on real doctrinal shifts. In addition, all of the changes are reversible. Even so, the long-term effects of this state-led religious intervention—on clerical loyalty and on popular perceptions of the monarchy’s Islamic legitimacy at home and abroad—remain uncertain.
Neighboring Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country and home to one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian catastrophes in decades, has long been a recipient of Saudi religious influence via the conservative Islamic current known as Salafism. Yet Yemeni clerics and seminaries have also had a significant impact outside of Yemen, often challenging Saudi Salafist doctrine in ways that are not always recognized. In the wake of Yemen’s civil war starting in 2014 and exacerbated by the 2015 Saudi and Emirati military interventions, Islamic institutions—especially schools, institutes, and camps affiliated with Salafists, Zaydi Shias, Sufis, and the Muslim Brotherhood—have become sites of military and political contestation and foreign influence. In mapping this factional struggle, Yemeni scholar Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen avoids attributing too much weight to identity- and sect-based drivers in the war. Still, she finds that religious education in this fragmented country is widely perceived by local and foreign actors to be an important tool for ideological mobilization, socialization, and recruitment. The violent civil war, in turn, is reshaping the character of both traditional and more contemporary Islamic schools and institutes in ways that will be felt for generations.
Beyond the Arabian Peninsula, Syria has also been devastated by a long-running civil war, territorial and political fragmentation, and proxy intervention by foreign powers. The sum total of these developments, as Thomas Pierret and Laila Alrefaai show in their paper, had profound consequences for the contentious relationship between religious institutions and political actors, especially in enclaves outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Here, they identify three modes of religious governance, each with a distinctly local character reflecting the dominant opposition faction but also foreign, and especially Turkish, patronage. Meanwhile, as the Syrian regime expands its grip over more than two-thirds of the country, it is securitizing and nationalizing Sunni Islamic institutions as a governing strategy. In many respects, this continues a trend of top-down intervention in religious affairs that Assad had begun on the eve of the 2011 uprising. And, despite an initial flourishing of bottom-up self-management, even Islamic institutions in opposition areas are increasingly subject to similar heavy-handed interference by local political actors who enjoy the advantage of military force. The authors conclude that friction resulting from this imbalance is likely to be the norm in both regime and non-regime areas for the foreseeable future.
Like Syria, Libya is a war-wracked Arab state that has witnessed territorial fragmentation, institutional dissolution, and foreign meddling since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Muammar Qadhafi. My paper examines how Libya’s awqaf have become a magnet for intense and often violent competition between Libya’s Islamist currents, especially so-called Madkhali Salafists; political factions; armed groups; local municipalities; and foreign powers, whose influence has often been exaggerated. Designated at various times as a ministry or an authority, the awqaf office’s supervision of vast property assets and its role in appointing mosque imams—and thus communicating to the public—has meant that Islamists and non-Islamists alike have long viewed it as an important source of economic power and status. In tracing the turbulent path of this institution post-2011, I account for the fraught legacy of Qadhafi’s rule, which saw the appropriation of awqaf real estate holdings as part of his collectivization policies, and, further back, the Italian colonial period, which was marked by similar instrumentalization. I conclude that after more than a decade of violent rivalry, politicization, and rapid turnover in awqaf leadership, public perceptions of the institution have been irrevocably altered, offering insights into Libya’s endemic afflictions of elite contestation, corruption, and center-local tensions.
Egypt has long been an intervener in Libya’s affairs, especially in the Islamist field, in part because of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s concerns about domestic and transnational challenges to his rule from the Muslim Brotherhood. As Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunne unpack in their paper, that fear has been one of the motives for Sisi’s expansive campaign to consolidate regime control over Egypt’s Islamic institutions, ranging from local mosques and prayer circles to the venerated Islamic scholarship center of al-Azhar. Applauded by some in the West as an exemplar of Islamic reform against violent extremism, this consolidation—undertaken with bureaucratic, legal, fiscal, and repressive tools—has had an ambiguous impact on the actual drivers for violence, given the government’s human rights abuses and worsening socioeconomic problems like unemployment and poverty. Moreover, these authors challenge the notion of omnipotent regime control over Islamic affairs: while many clerics and institutions have certainly fallen under presidential direction or been shuttered altogether, others, like al-Azhar, have been fiercely protective of their autonomy. The contest over Islamic authority is also more multisided than is commonly assumed: the Egyptian president is but one contender alongside the parliament and multiple rivals within Islamic institutions themselves. The chapter concludes that while religiosity remains an important facet of Egyptian public life, the net effect of the regime’s interventions and constriction of Islamic spaces is having a negative impact on societal trust in religious authorities, especially among Egyptian youth.
The final two papers in this collection shift to the Maghreb, addressing relations between Arab states and Sufi actors and institutions. As a historic and deeply embedded part of social, spiritual, and political life in the Maghreb, Sufism has often been viewed by outsiders in the West as a pacifist and moderate form of Islam and an ideological counterweight to militant Salafist jihadism. In their analyses of Algeria and Morocco, Anouar Boukhars and Intissar Fakir, respectively, explore how regimes in each country have been quick to exploit this perception, deploying Sufism as a resource for domestic governance and foreign policy toward the West and other countries in Africa. This utility is not wholly new: Sufis have long wielded influence in the Maghreb over temporal authorities, including colonial powers like the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, and Italy, presenting themselves as intermediaries and allies but also, at times, acting as military challengers.
Situating his inquiry against this historical backdrop, Boukhars finds that the Algerian regime has used economic, political, and media tools to elevate Sufism in Algerian public life, burnish its historical legacy among citizens, and co-opt it to fill a vacuum in the provision of welfare services and to counterbalance militant Salafism. In turn, Sufi institutions and figures engage in a careful calculus about the reputational trade-offs that accompany this patronage from and cooperation with the state. Echoing themes in other papers, Boukhars finds that Algeria’s movement of grassroots political mobilization, embodied in the pro-democracy Hirak movement, has presented dilemmas and choices for many Sufis, who are suffering, he argues, from their entanglement with unpopular political elites.
Regarding Morocco, Fakir examines how the ruling monarchy, which has long claimed religious and political legitimacy based on descent from the Prophet Muhammad, is undertaking similar processes of controlling, formalizing, and popularizing Sufism as a vehicle for state patronage. In many respects, this reverses a trend of Sufism’s declining social significance in Morocco and reflects, in part, the monarchy’s wish to be seen in the eyes of Western patrons as a center for the propagation of a moderate Islam, at home and across the African continent. For the latter, the promotion of Sufism acts as an important soft-power facilitator of the regime’s economic and political outreach to African states to the Sahelian south. As demonstrated in other papers, though, the balance sheet of this state-led intervention is mixed and often accompanied by legitimacy costs to Sufi institutions and actors.
When taken together, these papers reveal a complex picture of the dynamic interactions between Islamic institutions and Arab governments—one that is not solely religious in nature but rather is embedded in society, with far-reaching political and economic implications.
Research for these papers was made possible through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The authors collectively thank the foundation’s director of policy initiatives, Toby Volkman, for her sustained support and enthusiasm. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, important contextual research was carried out by James C. Gaither Junior Fellows Sandy Alkoutami and Jacqueline Stomski. Haley Clasen, Samuel Brase, and Ryan DeVries of Carnegie’s Communications team adroitly edited the compilation. Kerry Dugandzic and Madison Andrews provided vital programmatic support. Individual papers also benefited from careful peer review by outside scholars who are thanked by name in each paper. Finally, this research was enabled by the vital assistance of local scholars, officials, activists, and religious figures who agreed to be interviewed—either in the field or remotely. For security reasons, many cannot be named.
About the Author
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and Islamist politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
1 Nathan J. Brown, “Official Islam in the Arab World: The Contest for Religious Authority,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 11, 2017, https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/05/11/official-islam-in-arab-world-contest-for-religious-authority-pub-69929.
2 For a discussion of these dynamics, see Nathan J. Brown, Arguing Islam After the Revival of Arab Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
3 Frederic Wehrey et. al., “Islamic Authority and Arab States in a Time of Pandemic,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 16, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/16/islamic-authority-and-arab-states-in-time-of-pandemic-pub-81563.
4 For an example of this approach in the context of Yemen, see Andrew McDonnell, Henry Burbridge, and Dr. Yara Zgheib Salloum, “Addressing Jihadi-Salafism in Yemen: The Role of Religion and Community in the Midst of Civil War,” International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, August 2017, https://icrd.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/ICRD-Report-Addressing-Jihadi-Salafism-in-Yemen-Final-Copy.pdf.
5 For a good discussion and literature survey, see Johannes Koenraad de Jong, “The Use of a Religious Dimension in Conflict Resolution by NGOs, With Case Studies From Nigeria and Myanmar” (master’s thesis), Leiden University, 2018, https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/64644/Koenraad%20de%20Jong%20-%20Master%20thesis.pdf?sequence=1. The author writes, “Furthermore, making ‘religion’ the main focus of a conflict creates power relations in groups by giving religious leaders more power than they might have had before. It also creates and fortifies divisions by labeling and focusing on the differences between the groups.”
6 Author e-mail exchange with a U.S. development expert, October 14, 2019.
7 An exception is a collection of studies on religious authority in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, and Jordan undertaken by Rice University’s Baker Institute, with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, which includes unique public opinion survey data. For an overview of the project, see A. Kadir Yildirim, “The New Guardians of Religion: Islam and Authority in the Middle East,” March 2019, https://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/new-guardians-religion-islam-and-authority-middle-east. Relatedly, the Brookings Institution, in partnership with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, is running a project on the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power that examines how Islamic actors and institutions have been mobilized for Middle Eastern states’ foreign policy. See Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid, “Islam as Statecraft: How Governments Use Religion in Foreign Policy,” Brookings Institution, November 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/research/islam-as-statecraft-how-governments-use-religion-in-foreign-policy.
8 Marwan Muasher and Maha Yahya, “A Coming Decade of Arab Decisions,” in The Day After: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 9, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/09/09/coming-decade-of-arab-decisions-pub-82506.
9 Courtney Freer, “State Religious Authorities in Rentier Economies and the Management of Independent Islamism,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 41 (1), 2020, 42–61, https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2020.1714213.