Politics and religion

The instrumentalisation of religion

Since time immemorial, religion has not only been used as an inspiration and a guide for life, but also as a way of furthering interests and achieving specific political ends. This instrumentalisation can be either intentional or unintentional. In this essay, Hakim Khatib looks at a number of countries where Islam has been instrumentalised in the recent past and examines the various different forms this instrumentalisation can take

Practicing politics within religious frameworks can increase a state's fragility. While employing religious references in political discourses can foster positive outcomes such as the avoidance of dangerous eruptions of violence under authoritarian regimes, it can also increase the space for political and religious elites to instrumentalise religion to their own ends. Such patterns of instrumentalisation are more common in the Middle East, especially regarding the dominant religion in the region, Islam, which is a decentralised religion.

The political instrumentalisation of Islam means that "Islam" serves as a means of pursuing a political aim or relating to Islam's function as a means to a political end. Just as Marxist theory views the state and social organisations as tools that are taken advantage of by the ruling class or by individuals to further their own interests, Islam seems to function as a tool that is exploited by powerful elites or individuals.

Religion has risen to distinctive prominence in a number of cases, of which I mention only three in this article.

Building a state ideology in Pakistan and Turkey

Firstly, there is the case of state ideology-building, as in the case of modern Pakistan since the partition of India in 1947 and in the case of the modern republic of Turkey in 1923.

At the time of partition, Pakistan was more linguistically, traditionally and socially heterogeneous. Functioning as an integration element, Islam, at least rhetorically, was mixed with nationalism in a series of compromises reached by modernist elites and religious factions in order to draw distinctions between Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India.

In Turkey, the state didn't serve Islam, but vice versa. After the collapse of the sultanate and the secularisation of the legal and educational systems, the Turkish government founded the so-called Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Isleri Bakanligi) in 1928, which meant that religion was officially administered by a state institution. The state monopoly on religion explicitly meant that all imam training, religious teachings and preaching had to be legalised through state channels alone. Until 1941, the central Presidency of Religious Affairs distributed the content of Friday sermons to all preachers across Turkey.

The Sulemaniye mosque, Istanbul (photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
"After the collapse of the sultanate and the secularisation of the legal and educational systems, the Turkish government founded the so-called Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Isleri Bakanligi) in 1928, which meant that religion was officially administered by a state institution," writes Hakim Khatib. Pictured here: the Sulemaniye mosque, Istanbul

Balance of power in Egypt and Syria

Secondly, there is the case of the balance of power and state crisis in dictatorial states, such as the one that has existed between the ruling political elite and Islamic institutions in Egypt since the 1920s. To varying degrees, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi and Abdul Fattah al-Sisi all formed alliances between the state and Al-Azhar, Egypt's leading mosque and university. This alliance resulted in the formation of the so-called "official Islam" of the state, which represents the state's position on religion and its various mechanisms.

Thirdly, there is the case of a state in a violent crisis. This is the situation we have been witnessing in Syria since 2011. Religion, specifically Islam, was used in mobilisation, contestation and elimination processes. In this case, and according to the involvement of religious factions in the political opposition, the manipulation of Islam is deemed to be useful to the state in terms of reacting to and outdoing its opponents. The regime portrayed the protests as sectarian and claimed that it was protecting minorities and represented the correct version of Islam.

Because the Syrian regime described all protests and subsequent armed resistance in sectarian terms and associated them with "extreme Islamist factions", some protestors in return portrayed all Alawites and other minorities as being responsible for the regime's atrocities and carried on protecting what they see as the right version of Islam.

Islam is politically instrumentalised in a number of different ways that tend to overlap. However, three different types of instrumentalisation are clearly identifiable:

The ruler–ulama relationship

Instrumentalisation of religion can occur in the form of an alliance between the ruler and the ulama. Such a relationship comes about when religious elites are coerced or lured by the despotic regime or ruler. Here, religious elites receive protection and privileges. In return, the rulers receive religious and moral support, which allows them to fortify and consolidate their position of power and increase their legitimacy and credibility.

Religious elites (using religious terms and references) can also function as a means of eliminating other religious and secular opponents of the ruler or of themselves. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, they help the ruling elite create cognitive structures that define their identity, the political process and the ruler's role in a reality that is constantly being built and rebuilt.

Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Cairo, 8 December 2012 (photo: Maya Alleruzzo/AP/dapd)
"To varying degrees, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi and Abdul Fattah al-Sisi all formed alliances between the state and Al-Azhar, Egypt's leading mosque and university," writes Hakim Khatib. In the case of Mohammed Morsi (pictured here), however, the alliance turned sour: Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, gave his backing to the overthrow of Mr Morsi in July 2013. This led to weeks of demonstrations by Morsi's student supporters outside the university

The ulama–followers relationship

The relationship between religious elites and their followers serves the mobilisation of the masses. Just as it can result in the exploitation of the very honest beliefs of the people, it can also have positive effects such as peace-building and the avoidance of dangerous situations or violence.

The independent use of religious references

All dimensions of power in a state can use religious references. This usually takes the form of using religious terms in communication with others. Rulers, religious figures, political parties and state networks, secular and non-secular factions, the public etc. can all use religious idioms to reference the prophet Muhammad and the Koran. This reference to tradition serves to underline the authenticity, legitimacy and credibility of one's actions and words.

This is the most complicated form of instrumentalisation and can be used both in the private and public spheres. It can raise the issue of the genuineness of someone's belief in using religion. It might seem to be political instrumentalisation of religion because the end goal is political or has a political impact, but in reality, it is a genuine belief. This kind of religious use is unlike the one where religion is intentionally instrumentalised. However, the end effect of both actions – both intentional and unintentional – are political or relate to political influence and contribute to the political outbidding game within a state.

Therefore, based on the end effect of such contestation processes, intentional (being aware of the fact they are instrumentalising Islam) and unintentional (being unaware of the fact they are instrumentalising Islam) instrumentalisation are both forms of the political instrumentalisation of Islam. The end effect is identical and both contribute to building cognitive structures of reality in which all political actors live and evolve.

Pushing religion into the political domain puts belief systems at stake. While religion is by nature dogmatic, politics is by nature compromising. On the one hand, when religion is heightened in the political domain, it can increase the dogmatic understanding of compromising political constructs. This could consequently lead to a political vicious cycle, which risks leading to a political stalemate. On the other, politics can destroy religion by compromising, making concessions and imposing more interpretations of religion on society.

Politics and religion constitute an antithetical paradigm. Nevertheless, they help political and religious elites in the Middle East to create and preserve structures and guarantee their survival.

Hakim Khatib

© Qantara.de 2015

Hakim Khatib is a political scientist and analyst who works as a lecturer for politics and culture of the Middle East, intercultural communication and journalism at Fulda and Darmstadt Universities of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg in Germany.

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