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Middle East regimes are using ‘moderate’ Islam to stay in power

- March 1, 2017
A day before Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Amman, Jordan, in May 2014, Jordanian workers finish installing a poster depicting King Abdullah II with the pope. (Amel Pain/EPA)

Muslim clerics from around the world gathered in Morocco in January 2016 to draft the Marrakesh Declaration on religious tolerance. A reaction to the Islamic State’s highly public brutalization of religious minorities, the document harked back to the prophet Muhammad’s constitution of Medina, which enshrined the rights of non-Muslims in the first Muslim community in 622 CE.

While sponsors presented the declaration as an official form of moderate Islam to counter extremism, other domestic and international political goals also drove it. My interviews with government officials and religious leaders in the Middle East shed light on the murky politics surrounding regimes’ strategic use of “moderate” Islam.

There is no real agreement on the meaning of moderate Islam, of course. Muslim-majority governments that wish to be labeled moderate generally need to comply with the agenda of the United States. Therefore, the definition changes with U.S. policy goals. Willingness to negotiate peace treaties with Israel earned Egypt the unofficial designation of moderate in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. According to the “inclusion-moderation hypothesis,” Islamist groups that participate in the democratic process typically merit the label of moderate. However, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and particularly since the rise of the Islamic State, moderation has more specifically corresponded to the rejection of violence.

This definition has drawn criticism from non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Some argue that religion offers no solution to violent extremism, which is actually rooted in youthful desires for excitement and significance rather than religious belief. On the other end of the spectrum, Islamophobes assert that moderate Islam is futile because the religion cannot be moderated. Many Muslims criticize the concept for implying that the faith is in need of moderation at all and for implicitly linking Islam with violence.

Its ambiguity has made “moderate Islam” a useful banner for conservative Arab regimes to pursue their agendas at home and abroad. By buying into assumptions that moderate Islam offers solutions to violence, governments can avoid responsibility for the repercussions of their own policies. By buying into the notion that religion is to blame for extremism, political elites can justify increased crackdowns on Islamist groups, which often represent one of the few outlets for political opposition.

The United Arab Emirates illustrates this moderation rhetoric. In addition to co-sponsoring the Marrakesh Declaration, the UAE established the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in 2014 and appointed a minister of tolerance in 2016. Simultaneously, the UAE has vigorously decried the Muslim Brotherhood, labeling it a terrorist organization in 2014, a move the United States may soon emulate. When a regime like the UAE claims to represent moderate Islam and paints any alternative expression of Islam as extremist, the United States is more likely to ignore human rights violations against “terrorists” and continue offering military and financial partnership.

While many countries in the Middle East have appropriated moderate Islam, Morocco has perhaps the most developed strategy. In 2015, King Mohammed VI of Morocco opened an international Imam Training Center to educate religious leaders from around the globe in Moroccan Islam. The king has also launched an initiative to train female religious leaders, or mourchidates, and established the League of Moroccan Religious Scholars. Moroccan religious and educational institutions emphasize religious moderation as part of the Moroccan way of life, engendered by its heritage of religious toleration and its role as a geographic conduit between Europe and Africa. Other countries appear to agree: Mali, the Ivory Coast, France and others have sent students to study Moroccan Islam.

This discourse on moderation expanded in the wake of terrorist attacks that shook Morocco in 2003 and in 2011. Yet efforts to counter violent extremism have failed to address underlying sources of religious manipulation or economic and political frustration. More than 1,000 Moroccans have been identified as fighting for the Islamic State.

While it attracts substantial attention, violent extremism remains a path chosen by a tiny fraction of the population. Individual acts of violence pose a less significant threat to the regime than did the Arab Spring protests of 2011, to which the king responded with largely meaningless constitutional reforms. Morocco has sought to publicize its promotion of moderate Islam abroad in part to distract from the lack of political reform at home. For an international audience more concerned with security than democracy, a PR campaign dedicated to promoting moderate Islam is an effective way to enhance the Moroccan government’s soft power.

Jordan has similarly sought to portray itself as a champion of moderate Islam and religious toleration. It sponsored the Common Word initiative to emphasize similarities between Christianity and Islam and lobbied for World Interfaith Harmony Week. Jordanian textbooks, sermons and statements by the Ministry of Religious Affairs assert that Islam is a moderate religion, citing verse 2:143 of the Koran, “Thus We have made you a middle [centrist] nation,” a passage often noted by proponents of moderate Islam. The religious narrative in Jordan emphasizes that Islam is itself moderate, so any use of religious discourse for violence is inherently un-Islamic.

Jordan has also experienced violent extremism, with a major bombing in 2005. An estimated 2,500 Jordanians have joined the Islamic State, and the December 2016 attack on tourists highlighted the kingdom’s vulnerability to the group. When I asked him to explain acts of violence allegedly committed in the name of Islam, Jordan’s former minister of religious affairs, Hayel Dawud, replied, “Those who kill, or burn, or bring war to the world, this is not Islam.”

Yet when I interviewed less senior members of Jordan’s religious and educational establishments, many expressed frustration with the government’s promotion of moderate Islam. From their perspective, Islam is already a religion of centrism, making efforts to encourage moderation unnecessary. Many see the focus on moderate Islam as simply an attempt to appease powerful allies like the United States.

From the Jordanian regime’s perspective, appeasing powerful allies has long been the most effective strategy to ensure the kingdom’s survival. Facing war just over its border in both Syria and Iraq, and burdened with millions of refugees, the Jordanian regime relies on continued goodwill from Western governments who see it as moderate.

Promoting a vague moderate Islam — through international declarations, religious training centers or interfaith initiatives — has not proven an effective antidote to violent extremism. And as long as moderate Islam remains a state-led project, it is unlikely to be seen as credible by citizens. Yet for many governments, focusing on moderation offers real benefits for regime survival: the opportunity to target political opposition, enhance international standing and ensure foreign support. Statements made during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearings indicate U.S. sponsorship of “moderate Muslim partners” is likely to continue.

Annelle Sheline is a PhD candidate in political science at the George Washington University.