Branding Islam - State Production of “Moderate” Religious Discourse in the MENA Region

Research question: What are the effects of state efforts to encourage a specific interpretation of Islam? 

Argument: In almost all countries in the MENA region, Islam is the official religion. The state regulates religious actors and institutions, produces religious curricula in public education, establishes the parameters of permitted media discourse, and constrains religious activists. In the context of wide-spread fears about Islamic extremism, many Arab regimes claim to use their control of religious discourse to encourage “moderate Islam,” thereby securing international support for their continued rule. 

Scholars Nasr (2001), Asad (2009), Cesari (2014), and others argue to “bring the state back in” to the study of Islam and politics. I build on their work, and on scholars of state- and nation-building to analyze how ruling regimes use institutions of cognition – schools, mosques, the media  to promote a national identity infused with religion.

Implications: By analyzing both the ways in which states try to promote their preferred interpretation of Islam, as well as the extent to which citizens find such efforts convincing, the research offers insights into the potential for blowback as a result of state efforts to permit only its preferred interpretation of Islam.

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, Jordan, and Oman.

Acknowledgements: I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Boren Fellowship, the Project on Middle East Political Science, and the Foreign Language and Area Studies program.