Middle East Notes and Comment: Traditional Remedies
March 14, 2014
In the decade after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government promoted democracy as an antidote to al Qaeda’s violent ideology. Whether or not U.S. democracy promotion had much to do with it, the revolts and revolutions of 2011 recast Arab politics. To many U.S. allies, the principal product of casting aside dictatorships was not more democratic governance, but instead weakened security structures. As they see it, the new environment provided public space for violent extremist ideology to spread and reignited a debate over how to fight it. This time around, U.S. voices will be much less relevant to the debate.
Rather than promoting Western values, which can imply separating religion and state, governments in the region are doing the opposite. They see controlling religious space, both physical and ideological, as the key to combating extremism. Their strategies are not about creating “moderate Islam,” as some Americans have advocated, but strengthening an interpretation of Islam that accepts state authority. In North Africa, defining a “traditional” or “national” Islam is at the core of this effort. The outcome of this struggle and whether governments can create viable religious alternatives to extremist narratives will shape the next generation of Islamic values across the region.
Local North African Islamic traditions have competed with Gulf-inspired salafi teaching for decades. Scholars and students studied in the Gulf and returned with new ideas; satellite television programs brought foreign preachers into households; and Gulf charities supported salafi mosques and organizations across the region. Puritanical salafi interpretations are part of a rebellion against traditions and practices that have existed in North Africa since the eighth century.
Morocco has responded to Gulf-inspired salafi teachings with a comprehensive strategy to try to strengthen its brand of Islamic values and interpretation based on the Maliki madhhab, one of Sunni Islam’s four schools of jurisprudence. Maliki Islam has historically coexisted with local cultures, and its adherents have rejected takfirism, the practice of declaring someone an unbeliever, which extremists often use to justify violence. Morocco requires all mosques to register with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and it put all religious workers on the government payroll. It has also reformed training for preachers and religious educators, and it launched religious television and radio stations to compete with satellite programming.
Some in Tunisia seek to follow a path similar to Morocco’s in building a state religious network that can compete with extremists. Following the revolution, violent extremist preachers spread in Tunisia’s mosques, creating a chaotic environment with no government oversight. This coincided with a surge in religiously-inspired violence that threatened Tunisia’s fragile political transition. Many Tunisian religious and political leaders responded to this growing threat by calling for rebuilding what some describe as “traditional Tunisian Islam” or “Tunisian Islamic values.” Tunisia has a long history as a center of Islamic learning in North Africa, also rooted in the Maliki school. Yet, while diverse actors from across the political spectrum use the same language to describe their unique tradition, they vehemently disagree over the meaning of that tradition and the role Islam should play in public life.
Tunisia also faces a number of other hurdles. For one, it is trying to revitalize state religious institutions after a half century of neglect. Moreover, competition between the Islamist Ennahda party (which led efforts to centralize religious authority when it headed the government), secular political forces, salafists, and sufis means that no single actor can determine religious policy and what messages are propagated. In contrast, Morocco’s national identity is intertwined with a king who plays an overt central religious role as commander of the faithful. While some religious forces in Morocco, such as the Justice and Charity movement, reject the king’s religious role, he nonetheless has the tools and resources to promote a unified Islamic interpretation through state-funded mosques, schools, foundations, and research institutions.
Promoting local Islamic traditions is both a bureaucratic and an ideological battle. Governments are generally more effective in the bureaucratic component, which is about controlling religious space including mosques, religious schools, religious endowments, charities, and imam training programs. The majority of mosques in Morocco and Algeria, for example, are registered with the government, and mosque workers are state employees. State control of religious institutions makes a unified policy possible. While unlicensed prayer meetings exist and in some cases are tolerated, this is at the indulgence of the state.
Ideology is a weaker link. The credibility of state institutions has eroded in part because they are less appealing to younger audiences. Since strengthening state religion requires depoliticizing religion, state-employed preachers are unwilling to address the challenges of daily life which are inherently political: poor governance, economic exclusion, and corruption. By steering to safe topics, state clerics undermine their credibility with young people, who are then more susceptible to violent extremist messages. While some religious leaders and scholars understand the need to improve their outreach to younger audiences, their ideas of tolerance of and respect for authority are out of step with the rebellious spirit of the Arab uprisings.
This ideological struggle poses deep challenges for U.S. policymakers because there is no obvious U.S. role in this debate. Yet, a deeper understanding of the forces at play is crucial. Governments in the region seek to deradicalize their populations by making them more religious, not less. These messages may not always sound tolerant to American ears. Yet governments in the region are not looking to please the United States in this debate. They are betting that more controlled religious messaging can ultimately produce populations that are less rebellious. It is a gamble whose outcome will help determine the religious values of the next generation in the region.