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Research Report


Geneive Abdo
Nathan Brown
Copyright Date: Sep. 1, 2016
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 25
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-2)
    Madeleine K. Albright and Stephen J. Hadley

    The Middle East is seeing a century-old political order unravel, an unprecedented struggle for power within and between states, and the rise of extremist elements that have already exacted a devastating human and economic toll that the world cannot continue to bear. That is why we, in partnership with the Atlantic Council, have undertaken a bipartisan effort to advance the public discussion in the direction of a global strategy for addressing these and other, longer-term challenges confronting the region.

    To that end, we convened in February 2015 a Middle East Strategy Task Force to examine the underlying issues of state...

  2. (pp. 4-5)

    The issues we discuss in this report span the entire Islamic world, but we focus on the Middle East simply because that is where they have become particularly acute—though much of what we write could be applied easily to struggles in other regions. And we place issues confronting the policy community in a broader context of the shifting nature of authority.

    Muslims remain united in their sacred texts, but the ways they interpret those texts—and who is accepted as authoritative—have become questions of utmost importance and increasing contention. The absence of a supreme earthly arbiter of religious...

  3. (pp. 6-6)

    The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims understand and practice their religion in ways that eschew violence. Few have respect for the barbarism of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, this does not mean that state-sponsored institutions speak for the world’s Muslims. Ministers of religious affairs, state muftis, and chief judges of religious courts exercise tremendous institutional authority, but that does not always translate into moral authority. Authoritarian rulers in the Middle East have used state-sponsored institutions as the primary method to control religious interpretation in mosques at Friday sermons, school textbooks, official media, religious...

  4. (pp. 7-10)

    The long-standing crisis of religious authority, particularly among the Sunni Muslim majority, is a central reason why Middle Eastern states have generally lacked control over the way Islam is interpreted and practiced by their Muslim citizens, even though some states have tried to regulate religious preaching and practice. Such regulation is pervasive: mosques are often licensed, as are their preachers and the contents of sermons; religious endowments are often regulated and frequently nationalized; religious education is often mandatory (with a state-designed curriculum and set of textbooks); state-owned media propagate official voices; and legislation codifies those areas of Islamic law (often...

  5. (pp. 11-11)

    A confluence of inter-related factors has led to unprecedented instability and violence throughout much of the region, all relating back to the weakening of political and religious authority. These include state collapse in some cases or outright failure in others, both leading to a lack of security. With existing regimes faltering and even some states collapsing, an opportunity opened for violent extremist groups that had earlier seemed marginal or contained, including those now proclaiming fealty to ISIS and al-Qaeda, to fill the resulting vacuum and come to the fore. In such an environment, such groups appear well-placed to articulate political,...

  6. (pp. 12-13)

    Recent estimates put the world’s Muslim population at around 1.6 billion, with Shia Muslims representing 10 to 13 percent of that figure.⁴ The overwhelming majority of Shia, perhaps as many as 80 percent, are concentrated in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India, and Iraq. Iran and, to a less certain degree Iraq and Azerbaijan, are the only modern states in which Shia political power predominates, whereas in Bahrain they are a politically subordinate majority. As with many other minority groups, the Shia have safeguarded their traditions, practices, and identity, which they believe have been at risk from encroachment by the...

  7. (pp. 14-17)

    To date, governments in the Middle East, threatened by the onslaught of extremism, have tried to clamp down, but few have succeeded. Regimes that have highly developed security sectors have placed them in the lead of the response. That has generally led to poor results. Technology has made controlling the messenger and the message nearly impossible. Governments have adopted a variety of measures—some new, but most borrowed from the past—to try to address the threat of terrorism and religious extremism—including: requiring government ministry approval for clerics to speak in mosques; permitting only state-sanctioned imams to issue fatwas,...

  8. (pp. 18-19)

    If religious extremism is to be curtailed, states have an important role to play. States in the region have a responsibility to prevent the export of religious and sectarian violence. States also have every right to protect their citizens from the scourge of terrorism—in fact, it is their sovereign duty—but they should do so in ways that strengthen the rule of law, and by extension their own legitimacy, rather than undermining it. Short-term measures, such as clamping down on opposition forces, policing religious space, and persuading senior religious officials to endorse official policy, often backfire in the long...