The Strategic Use of Official Religious Discourse

Chair: Nathan Brown 

Committee:  Marc Lynch, Harris Mylonas, Henry Hale, Peter Mandaville

Research question: What explains variation in the credibility of religious messaging produced by the state?

In the Middle East and North Africa, state Islam is often assumed to lack credibility. As a result, scholars interested in these societies’ religious views tend to focus on the activities and ideologies of Islamist groups, seeing them as a more accurate reflection of public religious sentiment.

Existing scholarship often overlooks the ways in which state institutions shape the religious arena. In the contemporary Middle East, the state exerts control over institutions of religious education, oversees the training of would-be religious actors, and regulates religious spaces. Moreover, in certain contexts state-sponsored religious messaging is seen as credible, and in other contexts it is not.

Deriving insights from theories of nation-building and frame theory, I propose an explanation for variation in the credibility of state Islam.

Implications: If state Islam possesses credibility, state-led efforts to counter violent extremism will likely achieve greater success. If state Islam lacks credibility, such efforts are likely to fail, or may unintentionally contribute to further intolerance.

Fieldwork: In 2015 I spent four months in Jordan and two months in Oman, conducting over 150 interviews with government officials, Islamists, and young people. In 2016 I conducted three months of follow-up fieldwork in Morocco. I have spent a total of four years in the Middle East, primarily in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Oman.

Acknowledgements: I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Boren Fellowship, the Project on Middle East Political Science, the Foreign Language and Area Studies program, the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom, the Baker Institute for Public Policy, and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance.

Academic Writing

“Constructing an Islamic Nation: National Mosque Building as a Form of Nation-building,” Nationalities Papers, 47, no. 1 (2019): 104-120.

“Ibadism and the Tradition of Tolerance in Oman.” Abdulrahman Al Salimi, Reinhard Eisener (eds.) Oman, Ibadism and Modernity: Studies on Ibadism and Oman, vol 12. Hildesheim: Olms Weidmann, 2018.

Review of “Zakir Hussain. Saudi Arabia in a Multi-Polar World: Changing Dynamics. New York: Routledge Publishers, 2016.” Journal of International and Global Studies. 8, no. 2 (2017): 18-19.

Commentary & Policy Memos

“What is Moderate Islam, and Why are Middle Eastern Governments Promoting it?” [Interview] Policy Matters Podcast. November 21, 2018.

“‘Fake News’ Tool for Authoritarian Regimes to Silence Citizens.” The Globe Post. October 23, 2018.

“Mohammed bin Salman’s Plan to Moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia.” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. November 9, 2017.

With Nathan Brown and Dörthe Engelcke. “Official Islam in the Arab World: The Contest for Religious Authority.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. May 11, 2017.

“Middle East Regimes are Using ‘Moderate’ Islam to Stay in Power.” The Washington Post – Monkey Cage. March 1, 2017.

“Calling Yemen a Proxy War is an Oversimplification,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, June 12, 2015.

“The First International Yemeni Film and Arts Festival,” MERIP, March 21, 2014.

“Egyptian Revolution in the American Media,” Midan Masr, September 2, 2012.

“Who Will be Egypt’s Next President?” The Huffington Post. May 24, 2012.

“Nearly a Third of Egyptian Children Malnourished – Report,” IRIN. November 5, 2009