Photo: NTB Scanpix
Research Project

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

2021 - 2025 (Ongoing)

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 significantly shrinks and reduces the role of the religious scholars.

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: Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt 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 passive, either considering the Ulama as civil servants with no agency, or analysing them through the prism of radicalism. We seek to rectify this imbalance in the literature and will analyse the Ulama as strategic political actors.

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. We instead suggest a perspective analysing state regulations of Islam as a part of state-building. 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 and conduct a small survey of the attitudes of normal believers in Tunisia and Morocco. Our topic, Muslim clerics’ responses to state regulation, is 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.

Funding program

This project is funded by the Research Council of Norway (RCN) under the programme FRIPRO Young Research Talents