Book of the MonthMIPA BlogSarah J. Feuer: “Regulating Islam: Religion and the State in Contemporary Morocco and Tunisia”

With Regulating Islam in Morocco and Tunisia, Sarah J. Feuer provides a critical analysis of religious regulation in Morocco and Tunisia and explicitly pinpoints policies on religious education as fundamental to understanding political structures and key events within the histories of each regime.
Avatar مدونة المعهد29/11/202371110 min


Book of the Month

Regulating Islam: Religion and the State in Contemporary Morocco and Tunisia

By Sarah J. Feuer (Cambridge University Press, 2018)


With Regulating Islam in Morocco and Tunisia, Sarah J. Feuer provides a critical analysis of religious regulation in Morocco and Tunisia and explicitly pinpoints policies on religious education as fundamental to understanding political structures and key events within the histories of each regime. She argues that the “nature and degree of state regulation of religion (or ‘religious regulation’) in the Arab world has been a by-product of authoritarian regimes’ strategies of political survival” (17). In doing so, she identifies three important factors in the regulation of religion and its educational policies within both countries: “legitimating ideology,” “political opposition,” and “institutional endowment” (17). The interaction between these factors is indicative of the government’s management of religious education. To undertake her argument, Feuer constructs a theoretical foundation, using John Stuart Mill’s method of difference and introduces the disparity between traditionalist and non-traditionalist regimes. Morocco, like Jordan and other kingdoms in the MENA region, adheres to a traditionalist model in tracing its lineage back to the Prophet. Religion remains a central factor into maintaining the legitimacy of the regime.  In contrast, in non-traditionalist regimes, like Tunisia, religion is not used to preserve the legitimacy of the ruler–it becomes a tool that is instrumentalized at certain moments in political decisions (18). With this theoretical basis, Feuer then provides empirical evidence of her theory on religious regulation through analyzing the political histories of Morocco and Tunisia.

In Chapter 1, Feuer outlines her theoretical approach, nuancing secularization theory through examining how the prevalence of religious observance in a society does not always correlate with the presence or absence of modernity. She examines the traditionalist versus non-traditionalist governments of Morocco and Tunisia and inspects how they became different political regimes with their decisions in managing political opposition. Feuer emphasizes how the decision in repressing or co-opting this opposition leads to new policies in religious regulation when considering the strength of the state’s institutional endowment. In connecting these factors, Feuer establishes a multi-faceted theoretical understanding of religious regulation in Arab Muslim countries and applies this theory to Moroccan and Tunisian political decisions  in the following chapters.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Feuer concentrates on the role of religious regulation in the policies of the Moroccan kingdom with a historical lens, examining how legitimation, opposition, and institutional endowment impacted the regime from the postcolonial independence to the Arab Uprisings in 2011 (46). In Chapter 3, Feuer introduces her concept of “identity bargaining” to explain how authoritarian regimes “confront opponents’ demands by trading concessions to some aspects of their constituents’ identities in exchange for lessened pressure to fulfill others” (49). With this conceptual basis, she examines the policies of Islamization against Arabization with the creation of Dar al-Hadith al-Hassaniyya to limit the power of the Qayrawiyyin University in Morocco. The control of a stronger religious bureaucracy enabled the Moroccan king to maintain his legitimacy as a ruler and ensure his survival as a political entity (105). In Chapters 4 and 5, she performs the same analysis for Tunisia. As a non-traditionalist regime, the relationship between the three key factors Feuer analyzes is established in a more complex manner. Feuer compares and contrasts the secularization and moralization policies Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali pushed as presidents, highlighting the shift towards religious identity in Ben Ali’s rule. In establishing this timeline, Feuer also contrasts the regulatory policies of the public university system against the religious education of the Zaytuna madrasa.

In Chapter 6, Feuer ends her book with concentrating on the role of religious regulation in the Arab Uprisings of 2011. In the case of Morocco, the protests did not dramatically alter the state, nor its regulation of religious educational institutions. The “ongoing traditionalism” of the monarchy kept Islamists isolated from the regime and only solidified the “trend towards increasing state control over institutions of religious learning” (181-182). In Tunisia, the revolution was more extensive and protracted, transforming the very foundation of political legitimacy and institutional structures that the non-traditionalist government was built upon. The Tunisian economy was devastated, and security threats from Tunisians who had been radicalized in Syria and Iraq induced instability and unrest in the country (187). The Islamist Ennhada party gained more seats in the parliament, and the state began to regulate mosques and religious institutions with the justification that extremist ideology was being taught.

Overall, Feuer provides a comprehensive analysis on the relationship between the state and religious regulation in Morocco and Tunisia. She supports her theoretical claims on the interaction between legitimating ideology, political opposition, and the state’s institutional endowment with her accounts and examination of the histories of each regime. Her research encompasses multiple factors and decenters the actions of individual leaders–she demonstrates how the decisions of the Moroccan monarchs and the elected leaders of the Tunisian government align with the overarching goals of the survival of the state. Perhaps the main questions readers will have upon finishing the book may be the application of her theoretical claims to other countries in the Arab Muslim world and those that lie beyond it. Feuer briefly mentions that she believes the dynamics she has studied can be present in “authoritarian settings where we find formal state establishment of religion,” but she does not give examples of countries beyond Morocco and Tunisia that may adhere to her model (199). Nonetheless, Feuer’s theoretical constructions and empirical evidence from Moroccan and Tunisian histories lay the foundation for a model that can be used to more carefully understand and grasp the nuances within the relationship between the state and formalized religion. Her model demonstrates how religious regulation ensures the survival of the regime, and perhaps with some qualifications, can be utilized to explain the pasts of some and suggest the futures for others.



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