Nathan J. Brown, George Washington University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

When Islamist social and political movements arose in the middle of the twentieth century, they seemed at first to pose a strong challenge to the official religious establishment. Their leaders were often autodidacts in religious matters, some denouncing religious scholars as obscurantist and the religious establishment as coopted by the regime. Religious leaders often returned the favor by denouncing the learning and the agenda of Islamist leaders and sometimes intellectuals associated with them.

Such at least is the story for Egypt (where the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Azhar leadership often showed signs of tension) and sometimes in Iran (where individuals like Ali Shariati or groups like the Mujahidin e-Khalq in the 1970s criticized the Shi`i hierarchy for its involvement with the regime of the Shah). This dichotomy is part of the standard way scholars think about Islamist movements – as lay-led groups operating potentially in political opposition to and outside of the state and its sprawling religious apparatus.

The story still contains some truth up to today. It is not unusual to find religious officials (or even more often independent scholars) who look upon Islamist movements as politically driven, interested in posturing more than real learning.

And it is not hard to find figures in the religious establishments who seem very close to existing regimes. Indeed, it is hard to miss the way that religion is woven into states in the Middle East. Ministries of education write religious textbooks; ministries of religious affairs administer mosques; state muftis offer interpretations of religious law; courts of personal status guide husband and wife, parent and child in Islamic conduct. Regimes regularly deploy religious symbols and language to serve their own policy and policing purposes.

It is thus easy to think of a contest for religious authority between regimes commanding a state sector and Islamists operating in opposition. But in this essay, I wish to suggest that this picture is a bit too clear; we need much more fuzziness around the edges. The state religious sector is large but not completely controlled by the regime. Indeed, Islamists are sometimes well ensconced within parts of the state religious establishment. Not only must we be alert to the various places Islamists operate; we must also sometimes distinguish between state Islam and regime Islam.

This does not mean that we need to discard our aging portrait of state establishments and rulers on one side and Islamist movements in opposition on the other. This model has been useful for certain times and places and  in this post-2013 environment, it is perhaps even more relevant now than ever in some countries. But it should not blind us to the fuzziness and subtleties of the religion-state complex.

Points of Entry

The ubiquity of the state in the religious realm means that those who have religious interests, pursue religious activities, and show religious inclinations often do so on state terrain. This can create points of entry for more independent movements within the ranks of the official religious establishment. Kuwait’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has traditionally been seen as friendly to the country’s Muslim Brotherhood; Jordan’s teachers (especially but not exclusively those specializing in Arabic or religion) have been similarly seen as Islamist dominated. In Saudi Arabia, many of the most strident voices have found perches within the country’s universities and religious establishment, protected to a limited extent by the loyalty of those institutions’ leaders to the ruling family. In conversations with many in Egypt’s al-Ahzar I have been struck by how politically divided the institution seems since 2013. One Azhari told me that when he was offered an official position it set off a debate among his friends about whether he would be dishonoring “martyrs” (those killed in the ruthless suppression of demonstrations in August 2013) by accepting. While he himself seemed loyal to the regime, the social pressure was sufficient to make him reluctant to accept the post.

Indeed, when I reflect on the Islamist movements I studied in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Kuwait, I am struck by how often they seemed to straddle the state-society divide, with Islamists often frequenting state controlled spaces – like mosques, universities, and courts. To be sure, many in state religious bureaucracies oppose Islamists – decrying them as more political than religious in motivation – and many more uninterested in the activities of Islamist groups altogether. State sponsored religious institutions are not tools of Islamists, but neither are they wholly hostile terrain.

Regime Islam and Opposition Islamism

But Islamist movements generally stand in opposition to existing regimes. The few that have gone into government but remain the exception rather than the rule. When the roots of that opposition are examined, however, it sometimes seems to be less about doctrine than about politics. And whether the existing regime is fundamentally sound, in need of deep reform, or fundamentally illegitimate is the most important question.

The Saudi approach to Islam has been very supportive of the ruling family and the religious establishment a pillar of the regime. But it also shares some unmistakable doctrinal overlap with some of the more radical Sunni groups in the region, and the charge that it has incubated radicalism within its own ranks has a strong foundation.

One could listen to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a populist pro-Muslim Brotherhood firebrand in Qatar, and mistake him for a religious leader associated with the post-coup order in Egypt when both talk the exact same way about wasatiyya (centrism). Both similarly hold forth about fiqh al-awwaliyyat (the jurisprudence of priorities, suggesting that the extreme literalism of Salafi approaches gets tied up in minutiae and misses the underlying ethical sensibilities of Islamic law). But when Qaradawi and the same Egyptian official enter the political realm, their insulting language is more appropriate for expressing road rage than ideological support. Qaradawi has also been supportive of some suicide bombings and has supported the Muslim Brotherhood –the first position getting him barred from certain countries and the latter making the the Egyptian ambassador to the United States lump him in the same category as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State by. A product of – and doctrinally close to – al-Azhar, Qaradawi’s status as a lightning rod comes largely from his politics and his sometimes fiery off-the-cuff remarks during media appearances much less than his voluminous scholarly writings.

Even differences among Islamists often boil down to political inclinations – ones that can be expressed in doctrinal terms, to be sure, but essentially rest on differing evaluations of existing regimes. In October 2014, I spoke with Muhammad Abu Faris, identified as a firebrand in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and indeed one who spent some time in prison after visiting the funeral tent for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Abu Faris could be extremely strident in his denunciations of the regime but when I queried him, he offered nothing but prayer, patience, and political work as a solution. Salafi jihadism and far more quietist versions of salafism have nearly opposite political goals but are doctrinally not all that far apart, differing primarily in their views of one’s duties toward a legitimate ruler.

Regimes and the Unwieldiness of State Religion

So why do regimes allow Islamist opposition within the state? This is a reasonable question, but posing it this way reveals the functionalism underlying much political analysis of authoritarianism that leads us to search for a regime motive or purpose explaining all political arrangements and outcomes. We seem to fall very quickly into the assumption that the ruler must have arranged things the way they are for strategic, regime-maintenance purposes.

But while the state is widely present in the religious sphere, that very fact makes its presence unwieldy and difficult for the regime to control with precision. Rulers and top policy makers around them wield tremendous power, but state’s reach in the religious realm is so wide and deep that it is not always easy for them to completely control. To what extent do existing regimes attempt to use the official religious structure to accomplish their security or policy objectives? Can rulers bend the religious parts of the state apparatus to suit their purposes? Regional regimes significantly influence official structures, but they are mixed at best in their effects. By attempting to use the state’s religious presence to pursue these goals, regimes have a series of not only imposing but also quite clumsy tools.[1]

First, regimes have administrative oversight of state religious structures along with fiscal and personnel control. Top religious officials (such as minsters of religious affairs, senior religious court judges, state muftis, and top educational officials) are often directly appointed by a country’s chief executive (president or king) or senior structure (cabinet). Budgeting and hiring run through high officials, enabling political and security vetting of religious personnel. But these levers of control are difficult to use with precision. By folding so many religious institutions within the state apparatus, they are subject to control but they also become constituencies and power centers in their own right. And they are not always coordinated, as different parts of the religious establishment find themselves making rival claims.

A second tool available to regimes is to police lower-level officials, using the religious bureaucracy and the security apparatus to dictate the content of sermons or regulate what is said in the classroom. To carry out such surveillance comprehensively, however, is both difficult and highly intrusive. Control is incomplete and reactive, as can be seen in recent struggles in Egypt. The constant proclamations of Egyptian ministers of new monitoring initiatives suggest that they have never been able to exercise the control they promise. Preachers and religious officials in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Kuwait report that they experience state guidance as crude and less than fully effective. High officials shape the content of what is said, to be sure, but not in a way that generally requires preachers to be mechanical mouthpieces and when central control is more detailed it can generate resentment. A religious official sympathetic with the post-2013 regime in Egypt complained to me, “We definitely have to root out radical preachers. But we do not need an intelligence officer in every mosque.” Generally, imams report that official concern tends to be episodic. It can be very bureaucratic – Egyptian imams reported to me that the sternest and most specific language they receive about sermons is the time limit, and indeed, some have been disciplined for verbosity. In 2016, an Egyptian imam confided that there was virtually no training or continuing education given to preachers once they were placed in a position.

Finally, regimes can use state control of the religious apparatus to propagate ideological messages. School curricula, dictated by Ministries of Education, are generally written in ways that are likely to be politically pleasing to rulers. But while religious curricula in the Arab world have drawn international criticism, the efficiency of their messages is rarely probed. Saudi Arabian textbooks hew close to a Wahhabi interpretation in a manner that marks sharp divisions not merely between Muslims and non-Muslims but even takes a strict and demanding line on what is held to be correct Muslim practice and belief. But most other states curricula teach a far more generic view of religion, one that teaches basics of beliefs, history, and practice while blending religion, nationalism, and good manners. In conversations with graduates of various school systems in the Arab world, I have heard as many comments about how students do not take the subject of religion seriously as I have about the content of instruction.

A return to the past?

In the post 2013 period, some of these distinctions might be losing their fuzziness. The cruelty of the current political environment in many countries involves not only the specter or reality of violence but also the brutal security mindedness of certain regimes and the decline in apparent viability of a reformist political option in many societies. I have Egypt most in mind, of course (in some ways the current dynamics are moving the country in the direction of Syria and Iraq in the 1980s, so it is hardly fully new) but in other countries (such as Jordan) there are less dramatic moves in a similar direction. Clumsy as their tools may be, some regimes seem even more determined than ever to purge state ranks of Islamists and sympathizers. Those within the religious establishments are often torn in this onslaught, with the upper ranks supportive of the regime but lower ranks more divided. Islamists have been knocked off the electoral paths in some countries; in others they have clung to it despite clear regime attempts to marginalize them (Kuwait and Jordan), swinging into deeper opposition. In this sense, the bitterness, violence, and division of Syria is an extreme version of what many countries in the region have been experiencing in less severe form.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


[1] This section is a summary of my forthcoming paper from the Carnegie Endowment on religious establishments in the Arab world.

Regime Islam, State Islam, and Political Islam: The Past and Future Contest