Monday, June 27, 2016

Quotable: Sarah Feuer on Morocco, Tunisia, and engagement with “State Islam”

Sunday, June 26th 2016

Washington Institute
In a study published in June, 2016, by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “State Islam in the Battle Against Extremism,” Soref Fellow Sarah Feuer examined the official establishments that govern Islam in Morocco and Tunisia – and by implication, other countries.  She argued that these can be important actors in confronting violent extremism.  Her article reviewed (1) the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Countries, (2) “State Islam,” and (3) recommendations for U.S. policymakers.  Public Diplomacy would surely be engaged.  Here are some wave tops:

The Marrakesh Declaration

  • In late January 2016, several hundred Muslim religious scholars gathered in Marrakesh to discuss the deteriorating treatment of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.

  • . . . the resulting “Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities” affirmed that “cooperation among all religious groups...must go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilized manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance.”

  • [It] called upon Muslim religious scholars to “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’” compatible with Islamic principles embodied in the Medina Pact and modern international norms enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and related documents.

“State Islam”

  • Even if we acknowledge the anecdotal evidence that the credibility of state Islam has been dented, affiliated institutions matter to large numbers of citizens throughout Muslim-majority states. Available polling data reveals high levels of support for these institutions and a widespread conviction that the state should play an assertive role in the religious realm.

  • . . . majorities of millennials in Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE believe the state should regulate Friday sermons, public religious lectures, and religious TV shows; and strong majorities (e.g., 89% in Morocco and 90% in Egypt) believe the state should “ensure that religious discourse is not used to promote violence, incitement and hatred.”

  • In the ongoing quest for antidotes to the extremist ideas of groups like IS and al-Qaeda, to what extent can institutions of state Islam offer plausible, sustainable alternatives? Where do the constraints on such alternatives lie? Where are the most promising opportunities?

  • Because this paper principally concerns the battle of ideas . . . it focuses on policies implicating institutions that disseminate religious education and frame public religious discourse in these countries, namely: mosques, schools, and institutes of higher Islamic learning.

  • Two positive developments are noteworthy.

  • First, state Islam has sought to demonstrate compatibility between adherents’ religious identities as Muslims and their national identities as citizens. The backdrop of failing states and transnational extremist movements sweeping the region makes these efforts to reinforce the nation-state all the more necessary and laudable.

  • Second, institutions of state Islam have sought to demonstrate compatibility between religious principles and notions of pluralism, tolerance, and minority rights (albeit with important caveats)—notions that groups like IS and al-Qaeda have sought to portray as foreign to Islam.

  • Alongside such positive developments, however, two additional trends deserve mention.

  • First, although scholars affiliated with institutions of state Islam have rejected many violent interpretations of religious scripture touted and implemented by groups like IS, they have not yet offered a robust alternative to the interpretive enterprise IS and its peers have adopted.

  • Statements and teachings coming out of institutions like Tunisia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Morocco’s High Council of Ulama have tended to depict IS’s interpretations of religious scripture as “false,” “wrong,” contrary to “true Islam,” or damaging to “moderate Islam” without advancing more forceful or sophisticated explanations thereof.

  • In many cases, state-linked religious scholars have concluded that the way to cleanse religious discourse of extremist strains is to homogenize that discourse. Laudable as the end goal may be, the drive to unify the teachings of state-linked religious institutions can sometimes lead to the very intolerance these institutions are ostensibly condemning.

  • For example, state Islam’s commendable condemnation of terrorism and Sunni extremism—reflected in statements lambasting groups like IS and even the occasional public critique of Wahhabism—is often matched by an equally harsh rhetorical treatment of Shiism.

  • The anti-Shiite sentiment occasionally flowing through the discourse of state Islam reflects and reinforces a sectarianism plaguing the region, and it undermines accompanying rhetoric on the need to respect the rights of minorities and uphold religious liberty in Muslim-majority states. In this vein, it was telling that the recent Marrakesh summit on protecting minorities left off the agenda any consideration of minority sects within Islam.


  • . . . policymakers looking to develop relationships with local partners should include state-sponsored religious institutions, and scholars affiliated with state-linked religious associations, among those potential partners.

  • The principal framework for U.S. engagement with religious leaders abroad is the . . . “U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement,” which calls for “more robust engagement with religious and faith communities, as part of a broader effort to reach out to a diverse set of civil society actors” in the pursuit of three overarching policy goals:   (1) to “promote sustainable development and more effective humanitarian assistance”; (2) to “advance pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom”; and (3) to “prevent, mitigate, and resolve violent conflict and contribute to local and regional stability and security.”

  • The language of the strategy implies that religious leaders and institutions abroad constitute “civil society actors”—that is, that they remain autonomous from the states in which they operate. However, as explained above, most religious institutions in Arab and Muslim-majority states bear some connection to state authority, and some of these institutions are already pursuing policy goals that overlap with the policy goals outlined in the U.S. strategy, so to ignore them as potential partners would be a mistake.

  • In many cases, the regional entities promoting “respect for human rights of members of minority and marginalized groups, pluralism, tolerance, and sensitivity to and respect for the beliefs and traditions of others” are state-linked religious institutions.

  • Second, policymakers devising and dispensing educational assistance should include institutions of religious education when considering potential beneficiaries. To varying degrees, states in the region have concluded that religious institutions—and especially institutions of religious instruction—must be at the forefront of efforts to fight extremist religious ideas.

  • . . . policymakers should encourage organizers of and participants in initiatives like the Marrakesh Declaration to follow up such public statements with implementation of specific policies through state-linked religious institutions in the countries concerned. In itself, a public pronouncement by several hundred religious scholars is rhetorically powerful, but often little follows in the way of concrete policy initiatives.

  • Government officials working in the U.S. State Department’s new Global Engagement Center (GEC) and the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA), among other bureaus, could signal strong support for state Islam’s efforts to counter extremism by organizing peer-to-peer gatherings of Muslim religious scholars in the Arab world and the United States.

  • . . . the purpose would be to encourage smaller-scale, targeted, and deeper exchanges aimed at developing robust intellectual responses to extremist ideologies and, where possible, devising reforms implicating religious instruction at the local level in the countries represented.

  • . . . the U.S. government should consider bolstering American diplomats’ engagement with religious institutions and actors in Morocco. Policymakers can draw on existing resources in offices like the GEC or S/RGA to facilitate greater coordination between U.S. and Moroccan officials looking to strengthen local-level reformist initiatives. Alternatively, the State Department could consider creating a new position or office within the U.S. embassy in Rabat dedicated to developing partnerships with religious institutions and scholars in Morocco.

  • . . . U.S.-based NGOs like the International Institute of Islamic Thought are already partnering with Moroccan counterparts to assess and reform curricula in the atiq schools. Lending support to such initiatives, even if quietly, would not run afoul of U.S. laws, since associations . . . and the curricular reforms in the atiq schools include topics that are not overtly religious.

  • . . . U.S. policymakers should think creatively about ways to promote private-sector assistance to religious institutions in Morocco . . . [that need] technical expertise to develop online tools aimed at disseminating materials to young Moroccans and countering extremists’ efforts to monopolize religious discourse on the Internet.

  • For U.S. policymakers keen to see the Tunisian experiment succeed, continued economic and security assistance will be crucial. But government officials should also consider lending assistance that more directly strengthens the state institutions responsible for imparting religious instruction. Roughly 85 percent of the country’s imams lack any formal religious training, and as a result the state has begun sending aspiring imams to Morocco’s international imam-training school.

  • One way to help Tunisia build its human capital in the religious realm would be to support larger cohorts of students wishing to study in Moroccan—or American—seminaries that have demonstrated a commitment to rejecting extremist religious teachings. Likewise, the U.S. government could provide forums for U.S.-based Muslim scholars to consult with their counterparts in Tunisia on ways to reform the latter’s religious institutions.

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