The PhD candidate associated with the project began in January 2023, researching female religious guides in Morocco and Turkey. She will submit her PhD at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo and will do fieldwork in Tunisia, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. The other reserachers at the project have carried out the largest parts of their fieldwork in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, and are about to send their first scientific articles for peer review. In January-July 2023, the project also had an associated master student, who wrote her thesis on how Egyptian state media portrays terrorism. During the visit of a project associate at NUPI in Oslo in February 2023, the project organised several open seminars (at the University of Oslo and at Nupi) and closed workshops. The project also organised monthly, open webinars, as well as a large scientific double panel (and workshops) at the annual meeting of The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) in Exeter in July 2023. Since the project leader published a book with Cambridge University Press on a topic related to the project, several book launches have also been organised on related topics, in Norway, France and Lebanon.
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.