Egypt and Tunisia, both of which are exemplary cases of strong state religious institutions and countries of first-tier importance to the EU, have over the past few years been witnessing a new wave of violent radicalization. Egyptian and Tunisian youths have been engaged in political violence, either with local groups or abroad, as in the case of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). This challenge has highlighted the role of state religious institutions in both countries in facing this current wave of violent radicalization, even though it is not only and not primarily in mosques that radicalization happens. Nevertheless, mosques can play an important role in refuting the religious foundations of these radical groups. In both countries, official religious institutions have been tasked with the mission of countering these radical groups’ ‘deviant’ ideas, such as excommunication and jihad, by preaching ‘moderate’ Islam, as it is defined by these political regimes themselves.
Although ideas can play an important role in any strategy to prevent violent radicalization, this ideational element by itself is not enough. Regardless of how moderate these ideas are, they need legitimate religious voices to transmit them. In order for religious institutions to play a positive role in preventing violent radicalization, they should start by consolidating their status as legitimate religious actors independent of political authorities and then compete with their ideas in a plural religious sphere, rather than impose them on Muslims as ‘the true Islam.’ While the European Union could encourage the political regimes in both countries to ensure the independence of these religious institutions, it should engage cautiously with state religious institutions so as to not unintentionally harm their legitimacy in the religious sphere.
State religious institutions in both Egypt and Tunisia could play an important role in refuting the discourse of religious extremism that calls for violence, but the foremost problem of these institutions lies not in their religious discourse but in their religious legitimacy. Young people who are disaffected by the political and economic conditions in the countries and who wish to join jihadist organizations consider official religious institutions merely mouthpieces of the ruling regime. In order for official religious institutions to play an effective role in confronting the rhetoric of violence in the name of religion propagated by terrorist organizations, they must first start by consolidating their religious legitimacy, and only then adapt their religious discourse. Strengthening their religious legitimacy requires two main measures: for the official religious establishment to maintain its independence from the political system; and for the political system to not monopolize the religious sphere.
Thus, while official religious institutions are part of the state’s institutions, they should maintain a distance from all political forces, including the ruling regime, in order to ensure their independence and regain their legitimacy within the religious sphere. The European role in this process can only be limited. However, the channel between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, is useful in this regard because it increases Al-Azhar’s independence through international exposure. Moreover, the official religious ‘moderate’ discourse should not be imposed on society as the ‘correct image of Islam’ because there is none. Instead, each party must represent its religious ideas in a religious environment characterized by pluralism and freedom.
There is a political penchant in the EU and its member states to help social actors in neighbouring countries who have a direct and real impact on their societies, thus expanding the civil society sector. Some European leaders also welcome the calls for the reform of religious discourse issued by several MENA governments and rush to support them without realizing the problematic (and instrumental in radicalization) dependence that exists between state religious institutions and governments. In 2019, the EU launched its Global Exchange on Religion in Society, while its member states have established offices with special representatives on freedom of religion and belief. This increased diplomatic interest in religion should not translate into direct attempts at financially aiding or influencing religious actors in the MENA, be they state or non-state actors, regardless of intentions, so as not to further diminish their legitimacy. ‘Foreign interference’ is commonly used by MENA regimes to discredit local civil society. However, increased contact by European religious civil society actors – associations, local churches, congregations – with their state and non-state religious counterparts in the MENA is highly beneficial in diminishing the xenophobic aspect of hardline religious dogma. The EU project – Global Exchange on Religion in Society – could be used as a facilitator of such communication and contact.
‘State Religious Institutions in the MENA: Can They Prevent Violent Radicalization?’ – Policy Paper by Patrycja Sasnal and Georges Fahmi – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.