State Islam and Regime Islam in the Arab World

By Nathan J. Brown
Submitted to Session P4761 (Islam and the State in Egypt: An Institution-Centered Approach, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arab States;
19th-21st Centuries;
Those who follow politics in the Arab world are accustomed to encountering religion. Matters of faith seem closely connected with many political controversies; religion has also served as a rallying point for opposition groups and social movements. But focusing only on religion as personal faith and political opposition leads us to overlook the way that religion 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; courts of personal status guide husband and wife and parent and child in how to conduct their interactions the Islamic way.

Yet if states structure religion in many diverse ways, official religious establishments have come under a two-sided challenge in recent years. From one side, existing regimes have sought to use the panoply of state religious institutions to cement their rule; they have also come under international pressure to “counter violent extremism” through the religious institutions they oversee.

These pressures can weigh heavily on state religious establishments. But from the other side, a host of unofficial actors have shattered the monopoly over religious authority that religious officials grew accustomed to enjoy. The credibility of official religious actors depends in part on their ability to compete for influence among religious members of the public.

In this environment, official religious establishments retain significant influence, but they are unlikely to be able to wield it in any coherent fashion either to serve their own agendas or those who would seek to use them. This paper will give special focus to Egypt and its religious institutions, but other cases in the Arab world will also receive sustained attention in a consideration of regional patterns.

Based on surveys of legal and institutional arrangements and interviews with state officials concerned with religion, this paper will take a broad regional view on the relationship between various parts of Arab states concerned with Islam and existing regimes. It will show how leaders of religious institutions are anxious to augment their authority, protect their budgets, receive appropriate deference, protect timeless truths, guide the faithful, prevent perceived moral corruption, and jockey against each other. Regimes that wish to steer them to support short term policy goals or combat opposition have a panoply of tools but find that most efforts to use them in a concerned way are clumsy and uncertain.