Summary of the Study
“Religious policies in North Africa/Near East:
Are they an Instrument for Modernization?”
(„Staatliche Religionspolitik in Nordafrika/Nahost.
Ein Instrument für modernisierende Reformen?“)
German text; edited by Sigrid Faath, GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, Hamburg, September 2007, 290 pages
This study of the religious policies of selected North African and Near Eastern states is one part of the research project “Strategies for Promoting the Long-term Stabilization of Euro-Mediterranean Partner States in North Africa and the Near East”, which is composed of several mutually independent part-projects. By focusing on governments’ religious policies, this study seeks to highlight a research subject which, owing to its emotional and mobilizing power, makes a key contribution to the maintenance of stability: In truth, religion can aid the promotion of both peace and conflict. In other words, as it can be used to prevent conflict on the one hand or to encourage involvement in conflict and to incite the escalation of violence and conflict on the other, one can assume that the way religious messages are interpreted and then are spread by the state and supported by the majority of a given society has a substantial impact on future social and political interaction.
The project “Mena Stabilization” assumes that stability can only be achieved if state and society are willing and able to adjust to changed and, constantly changing, national, regional and international circumstances. In authoritarian states whose majorities are anchored in patriarchal and largely hierarchal traditions the ability and capacity of governmental institutions to conceive and implement necessary adjustments and thus shake up the status quo, are important pre-requisites for the maintenance of statehood and stability.
Selected case studies have been employed to examine whether, in which way, and how successfully the governmental actors in North Africa and the Near East have been able to adapt religious affairs to support the modernization of government and society and help to defuse conflicts.
The key subject of the research has been the state, whose decision- makers are able to use their executive resolutions to influence religion and society. When analyzing governmental policies, specific attention was paid to measures designed to promote reconciliation and tolerance including interreligious tolerance.
Case Studies of Individual Countries
For the individual case studies countries that pursue different religious policy approaches were selected: three states, Tunisia (since 1956; and then more intensively since 1987), Libya (since 1969) and Morocco (since 2004) have been pursuing a pronounced program of modernization in their religious policies. The Egyptian and Algerian governments have been clinging to the status quo and have not implemented significant reforms, even if in Algeria in 2006 and 2007 a change in thinking has become apparent. In both of these states religious policies are characterized by the respect they show to the Islamist movement. In Saudi Arabia the problems and difficulties caused by discrepancies between the political influence over religious content and the aims of influential religious teachers are very apparent. In Syria a secular, nationalist leadership of a multi-religious state has been pursuing policies of religious inclusion. Even though the Syrian leadership is taken from a religious minority, it is open to and has a cooperative attitude towards the other religious communities so long as these do not wish to influence the political orientation and decision-making process of the country as the Muslim Brotherhood has wanted to do.
Governments’ Religious Policies as a Reaction to “Extremist Violence”
As they did in the 1980s and 1990s, governments are reacting to the acute conflict with violent Islamist groups by deploying repression and state surveillance; some governments, however, have made use of controlled policies of inclusion. The continuing influence exerted by armed groups of adolescents and young adults and their exploitation of religion to legitimate violence is the cause of some concern. As a result governments no longer exclude religion when they are considering how to combat “extremism”.
In order to maintain domestic order and security, governments in the countries being researched now give priority to religious interpretations that explicitly condemn violence and promote tolerance, even if their actions still lag behind their intentions. No attempt is being made to reinterpret statements in the Koran favoring violence but there is obvious indirect dissatisfaction with a status quo that makes it easy for self-professed religious interpreters to back up their calls for violent action by using texts from the Koran. Political intervention in religious affairs by the governments of Morocco, Algeria and even fundamentalist Saudi Arabia reflect these states’ need to exert their power over religion and its contents.
The anti-modernist tendency of Islamist groups, which attempt to counter “the opening of the cultural, social and political system to alternatives” (as part of a process of modernization), is met by a similarly absolutist political concept of religious thinking, which is also presented as the only authoritative one. There are differences, however, between the more secular states (including Morocco) and Saudi Arabia because Saudi-Arabia has a strong basis for its religious legitimacy, and the ruling family, Al Saud, is dependent on its alliance with the religious teachers of the Wahhabiya to maintain its position of power. The religious interpretations propagated by what are primarily secular states are “milder”, flexible and malleable; the rigidity that characterizes the fundamentalist system in Saudi Arabia, and its ethical and moral and religious authoritative writings to regulate individual behavior and social order cannot be found in quite the same form in any other North African and Near Eastern country. Nevertheless, even in Saudi Arabia, the royal family has articulated the need to implement religious policies primarily designed to curb extremist tendencies.
Governments’ Religious Policies and their Islamist “Rivals”
The conflict with Islamists within society and their competitive attitudes to religion have had two effects on the behavior of governments:
Firstly, governments increasingly make religious references and employ religious symbolism. They represent a kind of public recognition by the countries’ leaders of their Islamic identity or of Islam as the official religion and are supposed to confirm the state’s legitimate claim to monopoly over religion and religious interpretation.
Secondly, governments in all the countries define the “need” for religious policies, including the orientation of religious content.
This last aspect needs to be emphasized because the spectrum of political measures is multiplying and the voices of those that see Islam as a factor in the promotion of extremism and demand political intervention (e.g. by means of governmental guidelines on religious interpretation) is increasing.
The Aims of Religious Policies
Religious policies in the states studied concentrate on the improved control of the religious sector and the religious content. In the Maghreb states appropriate intervention was either expanded (Tunisia, Libya) or introduced (since 2003 in Morocco and Algeria) after 9/11 2001. In the Near East, Saudi Arabia has become active in making religious policy since 2002/03, for example, by expanding repressive measures to diminish the influence of violent Wahhabi opposition groups. The Syrian leadership since 2006, on the other hand, has increasingly interfered in religious affairs to curb the influence of violent Syrian groups affiliated to al-Qaida. The analyses of individual countries confirm that governmental intervention pursues two interests:
it seeks to combat the influence of Islamist groups and people propagating violence and
specifically to safeguard or regain the state’s control over religious affairs in order to strengthen the government’s own position and ensure the continuation of the existing order and its power structures.
Tunisia and Morocco are targeting their religious policies to changing religious thinking and are thus doing much more than just implementing the security and power policy interests of their leaderships. Interventions by the governments in matters strongly characterized by religious values and behavioral strictures such as family law, the legal status of women or secular and religious education confirm this tendency towards a qualitatively new approach. This approach is being motivated by the ideal of de-politicizing religion, limiting faith to private, non-political spheres and establishing the dominance of moderate religious positions.
The religious policies of the Algerian government are relatively indecisive in their scope in comparison to Tunisia and Morocco; the tendency in 2007 is moving towards strengthening control. The Libyan leadership has also reinforced controls and since 2006 has once again pursued a violent discourse similar to that of the 1990s. It has threatened those that use religious arguments to justify violent attacks on the state and society. Religious policies in Egypt and other Near Eastern states concentrate exclusively on expanding state control and reclaiming control over religious interpretation (especially in Saudi Arabia).
“Limits” to Governments’ Religious Policies
The effective expansion of control over religious affairs is dependent on the states’ “rivals” in religious matters and their influence within the population. The following conclusions can be drawn from the findings of the case studies:
Firstly: the implementation of state control over religious affairs and the consolidation of a government’s right to determine religious content are more likely to succeed
in countries with a weak Islamist movement that only has marginal influence on society. These pre-requisites are true of Tunisia, Libya and Syria, where as the result of repression Islamists have lost their organizational structures and ability to act.
in countries in which political and religious power are united in one person, even if an influential Islamist movement exists. In this respect Morocco has profited from the dual legitimacy of the head of state although an active socially influential Islamist movement exists.
Secondly: state control over religious affairs and the consolidation of power over common religious content is unlikely to succeed,
if a government seeks legitimacy through religion and is dependent on religious representatives for its temporal power. This is the case in Saudi Arabia.
in countries in which a socially influential Islamist movement (including violent groups) exists and the majority of the people is religiously conservative in nature. This is true of Algeria and Egypt.
These different starting points explain why although all the countries researched here have attempted to control and subjugate religious affairs using religious guidelines implementation has been radically different from country to country and why the religious content has been adjusted to varying degrees to conform with the political objectives of the countries’ leaders. The tendency to promote the modernization of society by supporting a liberal interpretation of religion (Tunisia; Morocco; and partially Libya), stands alongside the exclusive tendency to concentrate on fighting extremism (violent Islamism) in Saudi Arabia and Syria. Between these two poles can be found those countries whose decision-makers themselves partly adopt ambivalent and contradictory positions and who have to limit modification of religious content because of the strong religious and Islamist character of their societies (Algeria; Egypt; and Jordan).
External conditions make it more difficult for governments to exert control over religious affairs. In particular, the following influential factors need to be mentioned:
The US American, “Western” intervention in Near Eastern developments. The perception that this “Western” influence is directed against “Islam”, the Muslim countries and their populations has been specifically encouraged by the Near Eastern media (e.g. Jazira TV).
Access to modern media (especially Sat-TV) and the ease with which cross-border communication can be carried out are further factors undermining the efforts of the countries’ leaders to control and immunize their populations against extreme religious content because the use of “rival material” is almost impossible to prevent. Maghreb states in order to influence religious orientation and the norms determining society have chosen to target the Koran schools and school curricula (Tunisia, Morocco; introduced in Algeria) and gender equality (advanced in Tunisia; introduced in Morocco).
“Self-prescribed limits” to governmental intervention have further restricted the action radius of governments. These “self-prescribed limits” vary from country to country depending on the influence the religious conservatives and Islamists have on politics and society; they are, however, effective in all the countries. Two aspects that have a substantial impact on these “demarcations” or “the compliance with taboos” are of particular importance:
The fear that the collective (“umma”) will be cleaved apart and lead to a resulting chaos (“fitna”). This fear is being stoked by religious debate and is an integral component of the holistic religious concept.
A consequence of this fear of cleavage is fear of drastic change and a clinging to the “concept of unity”, which in turn has resulted in a rejection of pluralistic concepts. They are accompanied by an intolerance of everything that threatens this unity and the fear of any break with religious traditions, interpretations, and behavior which might be considered “un-Islamic” or “apostasy”.
The collective compulsion to conform to traditional rules within society, i.e. the subjugation to religiously determined behavioral norms and religious constraints as a form of “collective obligation”/“collective diktat” continues to have an effect on religious policies. Even secular and more modern leaderships, for example, Tunisia, have not dared to touch the core issues found in religious thought. As a result, such reinterpretations of religious ideas have been excluded from those governmental interventions thought to be necessary to change the perception of the younger generation: thus, there has been no clarification of the relationship between religion and politics; the removal of the difference between “believers” (Muslims) and “Unbelievers” (non-Muslims); a clear rejection of the justification for the punishment of supposedly “un-Islamic” behavior; open discussion about the ambivalence of Islam concerning violence and banning apostasy.
Religious Policies and Long-term Stability
The orientation of religious policies that determine the measures designed to combat extremism is very different from country to country. In Tunisia and Morocco and, to a certain extent, in Libya and Syria, the governments tend towards a more liberal understanding of religion saying that it needs to adapt to today’s society and political needs. Algeria and Egypt both express their allegiance to a more conservative and traditional concept of religion. In Saudi Arabia the framework of the fundamentalist Wahhabiya has not been abandoned. These respective “national” trends will probably continue in the mid-term.
Religious policy intervention by the state has only had a modernizing quality in Tunisia and Morocco (since 2004/05); i.e. they are embedded in a comprehensive government plan for modernization which seeks to adapt their economies and societies to the demands of globalization and make them internationally compatible. None of the measures that have been implemented in the countries researched are sufficient to reduce the influence of Islamist thinking in the long term. In the medium term no measures are to be expected in any of the countries that will cause a change to the majority’s religious perceptions and values in such a way that religion, religiousness, non-religiousness, atheism and religious traditions will be dealt with more rationally. In order to achieve this, changes would have to be made to religious material in order to separate faith and dogma and prevent a religious community – even the (Muslim) majority – from declaring that its set of rules is binding for the behavior of the collective and that other alternatives (whether religious or not) do not deserve the same respect. In the long term, stability cannot be achieved if there is no attempt to adapt to the modern world and taboos are not broken.
Of the countries studied here, Tunisia is in the best position to take this step, which would act as a catalyst for the modernization of society and religious thinking. The intensified debates concerning religious identity that have taken place in North Africa and the Near East since 9/11 2001 hardly make this step any easier.