In the early stages of the Arab uprisings, one of the questions frequently posed in the analysis of the mass mobilizations revolved around the role that Islamists would play in post-authoritarian transitions. To that end, when the Critical Currents in Islam page launched in 2013, it featured a roundtable exploring Islamism as a political force that presented a popular challenge to authoritarian rule. As events unfolded and gains of revolutionary movements were rolled back, however, the conversation shifted to the fallout from a resurgent authoritarian wave and its impact on forces of political Islam moving forward.
In the interim, a phenomenon that came to demand more attention from observers was the construction of theological arguments and the enlisting of Islamic institutions in support of the authoritarian resurgence. This roundtable facilitates critical discussion on the state of this question ten years after the Arab uprisings. What is clear in the present dynamics of “state Islam” and “regime Islam” is a resurgence of autocracy which uses distinctly modernist arguments to justify itself and has co-opted state-dependent Islamic institutions and major scholars in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere in order to provide an “Islamic” justification for this autocratic backlash.
To facilitate informed discussion on this theme, the CCI page editors invited Nathan Brown, Walaa Quisay, David Warren, and Muhmmad Amasha, scholars whose work focuses on religion and authoritarianism, the politics of the ulama, and how Muslims respond to the political challenges of tradition and modernity, to address questions on topics ranging from scholarly independence and the complex interdependence between state institutions, domestic and international legitimacy and the thought and personalities of major figures like Abdullah bin Bayyah to the impact of Gulf States’ agreements to normalize relations with Israel at significant incentivization from the United States. Significant attention is also paid to the methodological commitments necessary for further analysis and research on Islam, the ulama, and the state.
The forging of new, at times coercive and at times mutually beneficial alliances, whoever the parties and whatever their motivation, highlights a common theme. As Brown notes, “the challenges posed by the modern state (and not merely the post-uprising environment) lurk either in the foreground or background.” In light of this reality, and in the face of an increasingly obvious trend where autocratic governments seek to turn the varied institutions of “official Islam” into what Quisay sees as a group of “epistemic communities they can hire and fire” and thus further entrench a reality where “the concerns of these groups are filtered through the political agenda of the state.” we hope this discussion aids steps in the right direction. French government policy, meanwhile, along with recent statements by Emmanuel Macron, demonstrates powerfully that government intervention and presentation of regulated and state-approved forms of Islam are not limited to the majority Muslim world.
The contributors’ initial responses were written independently. In the second round, each participant offered a rejoinder to the collected responses:
Initial Reflections by Muhammad Amasha
With valuable contributions in the decade-long academic literature explaining the ulama’s interventions in the “Arab Spring,” the following presents a methodological proposal to enrich our study of ulama and politics.
Toward Analytical Research
Descriptive accounts on the ulama and the “Arab Spring” provide a wide range of information answering the questions of “what” and “how:” what were some ulama’s political positions and how did they evolve, for example. These descriptive accounts become more valuable as they shed light on unseen reality or provide ethnographic “thick descriptions.” The more urgent and intellectually laborious question, however, is “why.” Addressing the “why” question (or developing theories) accomplishes four tasks. (1) It makes scholars abandon explanations taken for granted through systemic scrutinization. Moreover, (2) it makes embedded theories in descriptive accounts salient, revealing unacknowledged biases. (3) It also helps to address ethical and practical questions. To illustrate, only by knowing “why the ulama are co-opted” we can answer “how to increase their independence.” Finally, (4) it provides a guide for scholars while choosing the cases they study, rather than basing their choice on ad hoc or non-scholarly bases. Therefore, I propose to focus our efforts on theoretically-grounded empirical studies of ulama and politics in a way that can help us develop rigorous theories.
Toward Multi-Factor Analyses
I propose that our analyses should consider both cultural and structural, macro and micro, and nomothetic and ideographic explanations. What I mean by cultural explanations is ideas thought to have explanatory power for the ulama’s interventions. Examples of ideational factors in the literature are numerous: e.g., explaining some ulama’s support for the uprisings by delineating how their thought synthesized classical Islamic political thought and modern ideals of democracy and human rights. However, the ulama, like any human, have not been acting consistently with their ideals. Therefore, we should consider structural factors that constrain their interventions: e.g., their relations with states, the source of their income, and the channels open for disseminating their ideas.
When relevant, our accounts should also strive to include factors on all levels of analyses: macro (the global, regional, and/or national context), meso (the field where the ulama operate), and micro (the individual alim). Furthermore, any case study includes nomothetic components that can be generalized to other ulama, and ideographic components unique to the case. The former is essential to have theories explaining the ulama’s political interventions, and the latter is important to have in-depth explanations. I shall emphasize that the theories we should aim to develop are what is called mid-range and historically-specific, rather than claiming universality or denouncing any generalizability.
Toward Rigorous Multimethodology
With few exceptions, the literature exclusively uses intellectual history methodologies to attribute the ulama’s political position to intellectual precedence (traditional or modern). That included attributing the ulama’s different responses to the Egyptian 2013 coup to a “discrepancy in classical Sunni political theory,” “quietist Sunni political theology,” “Islamic modernism,” or “authoritarian nationalism.”
While the literature often bases its analysis on textual sources, the few works that included different data-collection methods, like field works, proved their significance. Despite the value of comparative studies, the literature that attempted to present comparisons did not draw on comparative methods nor provided systemic comparisons. My thesis contends that both intra-ulama comparisons (comparison between the positions of the same alim) and inter-ulama comparisons (comparison between different ulama) are valuable. Thus, scholars are to increase their methodological tools (qualitative, quantitative, comparative, etc.) to further develop the literature.
Moreover, the literature lacks discussions on methodology, leaving many questions on the process of data collection and analysis unanswered. The reader is not informed about the merit of the method used compared to others, the criteria for selecting studied texts, the evidence that makes these texts relevant to the ulama’s political positions, and the measures taken to ensure the findings’ validity and reliability. Therefore, I propose that scholars may spare some efforts to elaborate on methodological issues to ensure research quality.
The Normative and Empirical
A clear-cut separation between the normative and empirical is not viable. Empirical understanding is essential to provide normative evaluation, and normative ideals are indispensable while acting. However, an unconscious misuse of normativity might distort the empirical understanding. In other words, some scholars might focus their critical studies on one side of the competing ulama, while neglecting similar practices of other ulama believed to be normatively more ethical than others. Therefore, scholars should be reflexive about their biases and sincerely strive to depict the full picture as much as possible.
Clearly, the points above call for a serious synthesis between Islamic studies and social sciences. Our research agenda shall have an analytical orientation, with multi-factor analyses, rigorous multi-methodology, and a balanced normative-empirical approach. I hope that these points would be of any value to the literature.
Initial Reflections by Nathan Brown
In an earlier writing, I wrote of the relationship between “state Islam” (the religion as it is expressed in official structures and bureaucracies, from mosque oversight to official fatwas) and “regime Islam” (religious interpretations designed to buttress current policies, chosen ideologies—or even just the rulers themselves). Those who steer the state often seem to face a trade-off. They wish state Islam to be both credible and loyal, but the degree to which state Islam is induced to parrot regime Islam promotes loyalty at the expense of credibility. Allowing state Islam more autonomy maximizes its credibility but can create critical or reluctant pockets within the state apparatus itself. That trade-off is on open display in a number of countries right now, with rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for instance, quite clearly wrestling with portions of the state religious establishment in order to bring it more into line with regime Islam. They are realizing some short-term successes but the long-term outcomes are still unclear.
But this trade-off, while quite real, can seem a bit crude from the perspective of what I called “state Islam”—a far more complex set of institutions than the simple title suggests. In one sense, it is easy to identify: it consists of those institutions whose staff is on the state payroll but have some kind of religious task to perform. And while its leaders may differ among themselves and from country to country, they tend to evince a common mentality: that existing political systems and leaders are legitimate and are to be accepted as the “wali al-amr,” the guardian of the community—a term employed currently to elide among ruler, regime, and entire state apparatus in ways that are generally unacknowledged and often even unnoticed.
Yet there are three features of “state Islam” that make it a bit more complex than a potential plaything for rulers. First, it is quite various and far flung—it includes teachers of religious subjects in state schools, those who inspect wiring and plumbing in mosques, state religious broadcasters, preachers, some judges, overseers of charitable activities, and state muftis. In this sense, it is not so much a bureaucracy but a set of bureaucracies and functions, littered across and baked into the state apparatus.
Second, many parts of these structures are sometimes linked (generally informally) to social constituencies: Jordanian teachers union officials are often seen as close to Islamists, the Saudi religious police draw from specific locations and populations with the country; some parts of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Religious Affairs have been seen as close to the Brotherhood.
Third, while some pro-regime figures within the state apparatus do toe the rulers’ lines with alacrity, enthusiasm, and even ruthlessness (by weeding out the recalcitrant within their own ranks, as has happened in the Saudi Ministry of Education or the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs), most do not see their role quite this way. While conservative sensibilities (in the broadest sense of the term of not wishing radical change) often predominate, many of those I have met who preach, adjudicate disputes between spouses, staff fatwa hotlines, or teach children, seem more likely to me to see their task as facilitating social relations, helping citizens with vexing problems, encouraging ethical conduct in the face of contrary pressures—in a sense, they are advocates not for the current political order but instead those who accept the existing order as it is and work to advocate for religious values within the small realm where they have influence. What Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen discovered about State Muftis two decades ago seems to characterize many officials I have met throughout the far-flung network of state religious institutions:
State Muftis tend to see themselves as something more than—if not indeed opposite to—the instrument of the State. What they tend to stress is their role as spokesmen for the religious sector of society, as defenders of the Shari`a and its norms in a society moving towards secularization. They contend that it is they themselves who use the state as an instrument for their pious and devout religious policies.
Seen from this angle, there is a second trade-off besides the dilemma of rulers (who weigh loyalty and credibility): autonomy versus rigidity.
State religious institutions in this respect resemble judiciaries in much of the Arab world: its most independent-minded leaders wish to have full autonomy rather than respond to short-term regime needs, but granted this autonomy often leads to uniformity with their own ranks. The Saudi religious establishment a generation ago achieved a level of autonomy within its own realm; the current leadership of al-Azhar won a measure of autonomy in 2011 that it is desperately (and so far successfully, but perhaps not for much longer) seeking to protect. But for the faithful, that can bring a uniformity or top-heavy monitoring of religious teachings that undermine pluralism even with a religious tradition.
Initial Reflections by Walaa Quisay
Why is it so important for rulers to have the backing of the various councils and clerical establishments? and what motivates “independent” scholars to comply? How can a pro-autocracy position be considered Islamic? When rulers show such disdain for public interest can waiving one’s rights really be considered the moral thing to do?
I think it is important not to look at all the variables and instruments of state power in isolation of each other. Islam is one of the many instruments they use. I think it is important to point this out because when you start over-emphasising the importance of religion, you end up playing into their discursive game of ideas. It becomes one interpretation of the religious tradition versus the other. They would argue that the discursive battle lies between a moderate vision of Islam versus a more fundamentalist and inauthentic one.
What I am positing is that the state sees these religious councils, scholars, and clerical establishments—such as those in Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies—as some form of epistemic communities they can hire and fire. They can also hire different epistemic communities that have different epistemological commitments. A concrete example would be the United Arab Emirates working with neo-traditionalist and progressive religious groups. The concerns of these groups are filtered through the political agenda of the state. Not only do these religious groups have to adapt their epistemic criteria, but they must also provide religious justification for doing so. From the state’s perspective, this quite simply gives them religious sanctioning and legitimacy. It also allows them a greater control of the religious discourses in society and even dictate transnationally a sanctioned “moderate” and “orthodox” vision of Islam. Lastly and it allows for a sustained religious argument against political dissidents.
Scholars comply for a variety of reasons—depending on who we are talking about. In the case of neo-traditionalist shaykhs such as Hamza Yusuf or Bin Bayyah, the argument many of their followers make, is by having access to power allows for the vision of religious orthodoxy to be more accepted in society as opposed to Salafism or Islamism. In the eyes of many of their followers these shaykhs are the ones using the state to spread orthodox Islam (rather than the state using them). This is the same argument many of the followers of Habib Ali Jifri make to account for his close friendship with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. I am personally skeptical; the state cares very little about what kind of Islam exists as long as it provides sustained legitimacy for itself. As for the question of Islam and autocracy. There is a lot to unpack in this question. Instead of devolving into a discussion on quietism and autocracy, I want to answer from my own research which is less theological and more sociological. A pro-autocracy position is not one that is sustainable for most Muslims. Positions that scholars or shaykhs hold have proved to decrease their legitimacy amongst their followers—particularly nowadays.
What impact has globalization and regional and global power dynamics had on the relationship between Islam and the state? (From the Saudi abandonment of the Palestinians and politicization of the two holy mosques to the US-led efforts to normalize relations between the Gulf States and Israel).
What is quite interesting about this is within the new UAE axis you find a globalization of power interests and simultaneous growth of nationalism that is very much supported by religious authorities. It is not necessarily surprising since this may be one of the many functions of globalisation that secures only some power interests. On the ground level, we can detect an alliance forged by different states, religious groups, and power interests. In the peace forum led by Bin Bayyah held in the United Arab Emirates, for example, you see the presence of different power interests coming together: Zionist organisations, as well as individuals and organisations that work on counterterrorism and CVE, representation from authoritarian regimes and the religious right. The message of interfaith understanding and tolerance posits the nation state (and by extension the leaders of that state) as the only guarantor for it.
This is important on many fronts: the first being it is directed against a “religious other”—namely Islamists or whoever the state deems to be such. So it secures authoritative voice against whoever it deems an “enemy of the state.” It also posits the figure of authoritarian rulers as paramount—not just for tolerance and harmony but also religious orthodoxy in and of itself. We see this discourse coming from Bin Bayyah, Hamza Yusuf, and many Azhar representatives (such as the Grand Mufti of Egypt Shawki Allam) in the peace forum. There is also a greater push to privatize Muslim imaginary to really focus on immediate concerns of the nation as opposed to seeing themselves as part of a wider ummatic structure. Then you have global interests—such as the concern of religious rights group, Zionists, and counterterrorism organisations. This is where you see attempts at creating legitimacy for the United Arab Emirates’ efforts at “normalization” with the state of Israel—which is in reality more of an alliance than anything.
Initial Reflections by David Warren
Why Might Independent Ulamaʾ Cultivate Links With Authoritarian Regimes?
In 2018, the United Arab Emirates announced the establishment of a Fatwa Council (majlis al-imarat li-l-iftaʾ), headed by the Mauritanian Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah. In accepting this position, Bin Bayyah became the Emirates’ de facto Grand Mufti. What might have motivated this respected ‘alim, well-established in Jeddah since 1981, to make such a move?
In a statement reported by the Emirates News Agency, Bin Bayyah described his position as imperative to combat the “chaos of fatwas” (fawḍa al-fatawa) in the region, which he characterized as the “gateway to terrorism” (bawwabat al-irhab al-ula). ʿUlamaʾ such as Bin Bayyah use the trope of the Chaos of the Fatwa to express their anxiety over the proliferation of voices contesting their authority. By examining Bin Bayyah’s understanding of the Chaos of the Fatwa, both before and after the Arab Spring, we can contextualise his increasingly close-relationship with the United Arab Emirates.
In 2008, Bin Bayyah gave a lecture in Abu Dhabi titled “The Fatwa in the Age of Globalisation.” As leading members of the al-Nahyan ruling family listened in the audience, Bin Bayyah noted that globalisation (al-ʿawlama) posed an unprecedented challenge for the ʿulamaʾ. Though the fatwa still enjoyed prestige in some Islamic countries, he noted, the recent controversy around a Saudi fatwa permitting the killing of satellite TV moguls suggested many muftis were ill-prepared to meet globalization’s tests. However, it was the link between the fatwa and terrorism that had rendered the fatwa an issue of global concern. “It is said,” Bin Bayyah remarked, “that behind every act of terrorism, there is a fatwa.” His solution to this crisis was to propose that Arab governments establish centres specialising in fatwas and training muftis. In particular, he emphasised the need for distinguished muftis (al-muftin al-mutamayyizin) to form partnerships with states to train a new generation of scholars.
These remarks indicate Bin Bayyah has failed to appreciate the role of the state itself in fomenting the ʿulamaʾ’s crisis of authority and chaos of the fatwa. As postcolonial states nationalised Islamic institutions and incorporated the ʿulamaʾ into state-bureaucracies, their authority was compromised as local populaces viewed them with increasing suspicion. Indeed, after the 2011 revolution many Egyptian ʿulamaʾ saw an opportunity to exert al-Azhar’s independence from the state. By contrast, to Bin Bayyah the state appears as an ally who empowers the ʿulamaʾ, rather than an entity to be avoided. His solution to the crisis of authority and Chaos of the Fatwa, the result of increased state involvement in religious life, is increased state involvement in religious life.
After the Arab Spring, Bin Bayyah’s anxieties became all the more acute, and the Chaos of the Fatwa became an increasingly common theme in his discourse. Resultantly, the need for alliances between leading ʿulamaʾ and powerful states became all the more urgent. In his 2014 speech at the official opening of his UAE-backed Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS), Bin Bayyah emphasised the turmoil throughout the region. During such times, the burden on the ʿulamaʾ was “to resolve conflict and extinguish the flames of war.” At the time, he refrained from reflecting on the root causes of regional conflict, saying it was the equal fault of the region’s “democracies and dictatorships that have led Muslim society into darkness.” However, the one area where he did apportion blame was through decrying the prevalence of “misleading fatwas that legitimize bloodshed, […] competing religious claims, mutual accusations, and the blurring of truth and falsehood, [… which] have led scholars into a vacuum of uncertainty.” As we can observe, a key element of Bin Bayyah’s understanding of the Chaos of the Fatwa is his acceptance of the hegemonic discourse that Islam itself is a key driver of violence in the Arab World. However, this acceptance is not an act of submission on Bin Bayyah’s part, but rather an act of claim-making on behalf of the ʿulamaʾ. If the root cause of conflict are misleading fatwas, then fatwas issued by suitable, that is, state-backed muftis are the solution.
Bin Bayyah attributes regional conflict to the Chaos of the Fatwa, a long-running concern that has become a prominent feature of his discourse. His solution is alliances between leading ʿulamaʾ empowered by formidable states. Through his relationship with the United Arab Emirates, Bin Bayyah appears to have gotten his wish, and the United Arab Emirates has lavishly supported his projects. Alongside initiatives such as the Fatwa Council and FPPMS, the Abu Dhabi-based al-Muwatta Center includes among its initiatives the training of local ʿulamaʾ “to safeguard the spiritual security (al-amn al-ruḥi) of Emirati society.” As a respected ʿalim backed by a powerful state, it would seem that Bin Bayyah now has the tools he wanted to solve the Chaos of the Fatwa. Whether the outcome is what he hoped for remains to be seen.
Rejoinder by Muhammad Amasha
My colleagues’ insightful views have reminded me of some challenges scholars face while studying ulama and politics.
(1) Conceptual challenges:
Professor Brown’s distinction between “state Islam” and “regime Islam” turns our attention to the subtle issue of concepts. While many commentators would consider “state Islam” to be necessarily “regime Islam,” this distinction asserts, rightly, the complexity of the phenomenon. Scholars working on modern Islam face many conceptual dilemmas that need to be addressed satisfactorily. Having different connotations, concepts like “Islamism,” “political Islam,” or “Islamic movement” are becoming essentially contested. Such concepts are both ideologically charged and empirically ambiguous. Lacking convincing alternatives, most scholars tend to use these concepts for convenience, noting what they exactly do (not) mean. Therefore, innovative conceptualization is needed. While Taha Abdelrahman, as a philosopher, has been providing such conceptual innovations, I believe that empirically-based, linguistically informing, historically-specific, and relational conceptualizations are needed for social analysis. Appropriating self-designated concepts is an easy and safe way to deal with this dilemma, but things get murkier when such self-concepts are highly charged with normativity: all claim to represent “moderate,” “authentic,” and “true” Islam.
(2) Practical limitations:
Dr. Warren’s work on al-Qaradawi, I believe, is one of the best contributions to the literature on the ulama and the Arab uprisings. That is because it provides a complex account that engages the cultural/ideational and the structural factors, which seems to be the result of high familiarity with the subject after fieldwork and of a comparative sense that ensured considering al-Qaradawi’s diverse stances on various uprisings. One should admit, however, that such in-depth access to information is limited for reasons not at the hands of scholars. For example, fieldwork in certain countries might be of high risk, curtailing our chances to reach the required saturation. Consequently, most of us rely on the available, ulama-related sources- mostly their statements or speeches. To put it differently, what they wanted us to hear about them. We, therefore, tend to focus our analyses on how their ideas led them to act in a certain way, while there might be non-ideational factors at the background of such acts. Simply put, the text always needs the context- a task not without limitations.
(3) Power between state, ulama, and society:
Dr. Quisay alluded to how the ulama’s engagement with political authorities is being contested. The ulama cooperating with states and their supporters, in both camps, argue for the religious benefit resulting- making religion stronger in society. On the other hand, critics find such cooperation as co-option. The resolution of such an issue requires centralizing the concept of “power,” widely defined, in our analyses. The supporters mostly refer to the ulama’s increasing power vis-à-vis their earlier state, other “heretic” ulama, or ideological groups. However, the consequent power of the ulama and society vis-à-vis the state should also be central to the evaluation. Interestingly, Dr. Quisay’s research shows that the ulama’s power vis-à-vis society (even primary students) even seems to be deteriorating due to such cooperation.
Rejoinder by Nathan Brown
In reading through our contributions, I am struck by one common theme but also one aspect in which I am an outlier.
The common theme is the insistence that understanding state-sponsored Islam requires tools that go beyond those of older analyses of religious discourse. The need for social science techniques, either implicit or explicit, lies behind all of our contributions. Connected to this methodological shift is another commonality: the challenges posed by the modern state (and not merely the post-uprising environment) lurk either in the foreground or background.
But there is another theme where my contribution seems the odd one out.
There is an image in many writings on Islam and politics that has always held powerful sway, for understandable reasons: the image of a ruler (anxious to stay in power and motivated by other worldly concerns) and the `alim (properly motivated by fidelity to religious learning and training but subject to pressure and inducements by the ruler). The relationship between ruler and scholar appears to me to be central to how my colleagues approach the question of state-sponsored Islam. That image resonates historically; it is one that also comes naturally to us as scholars in an often-worrying political world.
But it is a perspective that elides over matters that draw my attention. Distinctions among state, regime, and ruler do not emerge as central in this image (they can even appear as interchangeable); state employees who are not members of the ulama fade into the background in the tussle between ruler and scholar.
I do not make this observation as a criticism: it is clear from even the brief contributions here that I have much to learn from my colleagues about ideas, debates, and leading figures. In such matters, I am their student.
So I look forward to fuller versions of their analyses, but I will likely continue on the different path that I have laid out: understanding state-sponsored Islam as including accountants working for state-licensed zakat committees; social workers occasionally attached to shari`a courts; curriculum specialists in ministries of education; civil-law trained judges applying codified versions of the religiously-based law; and even intelligence officers monitoring mosques. And Islam appears in this regard as a set of teachings, practices, and attitudes woven into a state apparatus that sprawls mindlessly every bit as much as it commands centrally. The state becomes not merely the ruler and the regime but broadens to form the landscape and set of power relationships on which religion is taught and practiced, always imperfectly and rarely coherently.
State religious officials do indeed grapple with co-optation, corruption, and conscience. But many also see their role not so much as serving (or holding accountable) a ruler but in using religious teachings as a guide for members of the society to act righteously, compassionately, and practically.
Rejoinder by Walaa Quisay
To add to David Warren’s comments, the initiatives spearheaded by Bin Bayyah’s, in his capacity as president of the peace forum, has two salient themes: affirming the authority of the ulama and the state. This is as true for interfaith initiatives as it is for more overtly political ones. The Marrakesh Declaration in 2016 is a perfect example of this whereby one of the main causes stated as the root cause for violence against religious minorities is the “weakened authority of legitimate governments.” This double affirmation of state and religious authority is mutually beneficial. From the vantage point of the scholars they can affirm a form of religious “orthodoxy” against a contending “other.” As for the state it provides religious legitimacy and a sanctioning of its policies. The way the United Arab Emirates is using religion—as a soft power tool—is also evolving. This article about Abdallah Bin Bayyah, recently published by UAE-based al-Ittihad, is a good example. Abdallah Bin Bayyah was speaking at a conference on religious renewal in Sudan, one day after the country was removed from the terror list and on the day it announced normalizing relations with Israel. He first congratulates the country for being removed off the terror list, in his capacity as the president of the Peace Forum and the president of the UAE Fatwa council. He then states that the United Arab Emirates extends its support “as a leading force in the promoting peace and stability over the world.” The way the state media frames Bin Bayyah’s engagement in the conference shows that it clearly sees his role as an extension of it. His religious discourse is therefore deployed as a part of the overall political discourse and strategy of the United Arab Emirates.
Rejoinder by David Warren
I am grateful to my colleagues for these insightful remarks. If we move now to reflect on the United Arab Emirates’ interest in sponsoring Bin Bayyah and other ulama, it is helpful to draw on Nathan Brown’s point that the dynamics of the ruler-ulama relationship involve more than a simple trade-off between loyalty and providing legitimacy on the one hand versus maintaining credibility and independence on the other.
In the case of the UAE, a key benefit these ulama organisations provide comes from their value for convincing foreign powers to maintain their interests in the country’s security. Despite the significance of Bin Bayyah’s articulate “regime Islam,” to use Brown’s parlance, his value internationally likely outweighs his value domestically. After all, the Emirates has an extensive security apparatus that moves swiftly to extinguish local dissent and maintains lavish rentier payments to its citizens. Consequently, the ruling family’s need for a regime Islam to buttress its legitimacy domestically is likely somewhat limited. Moreover, as Walaa Quisay has noted here, and Muhammad Amasha has pointed out elsewhere, the Emirates has sponsored a diverse array of ulama and Muslim thinkers, ranging from Bin Bayyah to Muhammad Shahrur (d.2019).
Thus, the greater benefit that Bin Bayyah and FPPMS provide for the United Arab Emirates is at the level of state-branding, an important element of foreign security policy for the Sunni Gulf monarchies. Since the Gulf states are dependent upon outside powers to preserve their security, they must brand themselves in order maintain those powers’ interest in their independence. Since the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine, that outside power has been the United States, though the establishment of a Turkish base in Qatar, closer regional links with China, and normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain hint at a coming shift in the status quo.
For the Emirates, this state-branding has not only involved developing itself into a global centre for commerce, transportation, and finance, it has also included building a particular brand of Islamic reform. This brand intersects with the US State Department’s long-running “efforts to reshape and transform ‘Islam from within’” as part of its post-September 11 policy. This point helps us further appreciate the significance of Bin Bayyah and FPPMS’s acceptance of the hegemonic discourse that “misleading fatwas” and “competing religious claims” are the root cause of regional violence and anti-US feeling. For Bin Bayyah, the solutions to such problems lie in alleviating the Chaos of the Fatwa, interfaith dialogue, and a particular form of religious freedom in place of deeper reflection on, for example, the Emirates’ and/or the United States’ destabilizing roles in the region. This helpful obfuscation strengthens the country’s state-brand as a centre of Islamic reform in American eyes, which in turn helps maintain US interest in the al-Nahyan’s security in the face of both external and internal challenges. The fact that the Emirates has been praised by the US Ambassadors-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from both the Obama and Trump administrations (David Saperstein and Sam Brownback respectively) is testament to Bin Bayyah and the FPPMS’s success in this regard.
For further reading:
Comparing the Religion-State Divide in the Arab World: Constitutions
The Modernist Roots of Islamic Autocracy: Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the UAE-Israel Peace Deal
On the Theology of Obedience: An Analysis of Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s Political Thought
Arguing Islam after the Rebirth of Arab Politics
The UAE-sponsored “Islams”: Mapping the Terrain
 I elaborate further on this seemingly counter-intuitive dynamic in my forthcoming book, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis.
 Abdullah Bin Bayyah, “Framework Speech for the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies,” In Pursuit of Peace, ed. Krista Bremer, trans. Tarek El Gawhary (Abu Dhabi: FPPMS, 2014) pp.6-7.
 I elaborate further on this point in my forthcoming book, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over Islamic Authority, the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis.