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Reactions to state regulation of Islam in times of Daesh (STATEISLAM)

Alternative title: Reaksjoner på statens regulering av Islam under Daesh (STATEISLAM)

Awarded: NOK 8.0 mill.

In recent years, in response to the rise of ISIS, governments in the Middle East have begun to control the religious spheres in their countries more tightly. In Egypt, for example, President Abdulfattah al-Sisi issues a weekly Friday sermon written by government officials that is mandatory to read out. This project analyses the responses of the Ulama — the Muslim clergy — to such new controlling measures. We examine and compare four countries in the Middle East: Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Specifically, we look at how the Ulama balance efforts by the state to control them, on the one hand, and their congregation’s expectations, on the other. Our working hypothesis is that the Ulama might lose their legitimacy with their followers if they blindly accept state intervention in their religious activities. Most of the literature on Islamic scholars has focused on Islamist groups. Existing studies present the Muslim clergy as civil servants with no agency, or analyse them through the prism of radicalism. We seek to rectify this imbalance in the literature and analyse the Ulama as strategic political actors. Project participants will do fieldwork in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This includes interviews with the Ulama and observers of the religious sphere, in addition to participatory observation in mosques and religious celebrations. Moreover, we will analyse transcripts and recordings of Friday sermons. Muslim clerics’ responses to state regulation are important because the efficacy of reforms implemented in the name of Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) hinges on religious acceptance. Islamic clerics could be discredited by zealous youths as government puppets if they go too far in endorsing the reforms. This may leave the field open to more radical actors. The attitudes of clerics in periods of high volatility have considerable influence on the future of state-religious relations, and the political legitimacy of Middle Eastern states.

How do religious institutions balance political attempts at nationalization of Islam, efforts by the state to control them, and their legitimacy before their followers? What factors determine the responses of the Ulama — the Muslim clergy — both to political pressures and to their congregation’s expectations? Our project explores the renegotiation of state-religious relations with a focus on Sunni Islam in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia since 2014. We do so by examining Muslim clerics’ responses to state regulation of religious practice, through use of semi-structured field interviews and participatory observation informed by our extensive background research. Existing studies present the Muslim clergy as civil servants with no agency, or focus on Islamist groups. Our project, STATEISLAM, aims to shift the study of Islam and politics away from the prism of radicalism that has dominated the literature since 1979, and towards a perspective on Islam and state-building. Our project will examine the agency of Muslim clerics, both male and female, as brokers and implementers of the state religious polices. Our methodological and conceptual approaches take into account clerical interests and strategies, and also the changing expectations of the congregation. We categorize the attitudes of religious clerics to state regulation of Islam, ranging from compliance, to collaborative autonomy, to passive and active resistance. We ask which factors explain the variations in these attitudes. We will gather thick descriptions of how the Ulama discuss their own strategies, by means of interviews, participatory observation, and compare mechanisms at the macro-, state-, congregational-, and individual levels. The attitudes of clerics to sensitive issues in moments of high volatility has considerable influence on the efficiency of state religious policies, and it will shape the future of state-religious relations and the political legitimacy of Middle Eastern states.

Funding scheme:

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam