How states can wield ‘official Islam’ to limit radical extremism

Source: The Washington Post

 November 3

Worshipers arrive for Friday prayers at al-Azhar mosque in Cairo on Dec. 28, 2012. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

In a recent interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made headlines with a striking claim that he will try to return his country to “moderate Islam” as part of his broader reform efforts. Though it is unclear what, if any, tangible changes this will produce, his remarks are part of a growing trend among leaders in the Arab world to use elements of the state-sponsored religious establishment, or “official Islam,” to counter extremist ideologies.

Some countries have been far more successful than others at harnessing the power of official Islam to challenge popular Islamist movements and limit radical ideologies. In a new article, we examine how regimes have used official religious institutions in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia after the 2011 uprisings shook the region. We find that success depends on two key factors: the nature of the country’s inherited religious institutions and the country’s regime type.

Each of these four countries has sought to build official Islam in recent years, but their specific strategies differ in important ways.

Expanding official Islam in Morocco

Ruled by a monarchy, Morocco inherited strong religious institutions, enabling the country to expand its reach into the religious space after 2011. The king derives legitimacy, in part, because he is believed to be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and “Commander of the Faithful.” However, unlike Jordan, which is also ruled by a monarchy, Morocco inherited a major religious institution. Located in Fez, al-Karaouine is a historic center of Islamic scholarship in northwest Africa and the world’s oldest center of higher learning, dating to 859.

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