Religious leadership takes on new roles in post-Arab Spring, Islamic State Middle East

Religious leaders of all faiths in the Middle East underwent a dramatic shift after the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, taking on greater public roles that extended beyond their communities and dealt with matters of security and governance, while also losing clout among their followers. That is the conclusion of most of the articles in a special issue of the journal Sociology of Islam (6:2) devoted to religious authority in the contemporary Middle East. In the introduction to the articles, Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University writes that after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, sectarianism among most religious groups in the region became more predominant, especially in the case of conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. He points out that, the greater the state’s power and capacity and the less united the religious hierarchy have been, the more likely the state’s attempt to incorporate religious institutions within itself. Yet because of the more hostile environments within which leaders find themselves, “religious leadership has only become more centralized, and its role and significance more critical to the overall health of the community, especially among minority religious groups such as the Zaydis, Yazidis, Baha’is, Maronites, Chaldians, and others.”

In another article, Albert de Jong writes that while the role of religious leaders as dispensers of elite knowledge and guardians of traditions had already been in decline with the growth of higher education among the laity, the waves of unrest that have recently swept over the Middle East have sped up this process. These disturbances, “in conjunction with large-scale displacement [of religious minorities], which has weakened the crucially important ties most of these communities maintained with their physical surroundings—with their rivers, tombs of holy people, and similar loci of religion—make the future of these communities highly uncertain.” Another article on religious minorities suggests that the leadership of the Yezidis, a mystical group active in Iraq, has better withstood the forces of modernity than have native Christian groups, although the toll of attacks and displacement by the Islamic State makes their future precarious. A similarly dire forecast is made in regard to the future of the leadership of Syria’s ‘Alawis, an esoteric quasi-Islamic sect that has been seen as a pillar of the Asad regime, although these leaders (shaykhs) have traditionally not been politically active. Leon Goldsmith of Sultan Qaboos University notes that the cooptation of the ‘Alawi religious leadership by the Asad regime has been an “instrument of regime maintenance since 1982.” This has divided the religious leadership between the traditional and the regime-appointed leaders. The standards of shaykhs have deteriorated as regime loyalists have been appointed to leadership positions, and they have lost respect and independent status in their communities. Goldsmith concludes that the “growing corruption and opportunism creeping into the ‘Alawi religious class at the expense of traditional shaykhs bodes poorly for the future of religious leadership as a positive agent for political transformation and stability in Syria.”

Mark Sedgwick of Aarhus University looks at the authority of Sufi shaykhs and orders in the Middle East and finds that the lack of establishment status in this mystical branch of Islam has actually put it in a position of new influence. He notes that there is a paradoxical inverse relationship between the influence of a Sufi shaykh and the size of his or her order: powerful shaykhs tend to run small orders, while larger orders may be so disorganized that leaders have weak influence (as seen in the 2011 uprising in Egypt when a Sufi shaykh promised to deliver hundreds of thousands of protestors but only a handful of followers showed up). Sufi shaykhs have in general lost much of their former social influence with the growth of stricter forms of Salafi Islam and the growth of state power, but that also means that the former is being seen as a popular alternative to the latter case of political Islam. The growing trend of “Traditional Islam” (using “tradition” in the esoteric sense of the term) is one sign that Sufi Islam will carry its own kind of social and political influence in the region, Sedgwick concludes.

The articles on Sunni and Shi’a religious leadership are generally more upbeat than those dealing with religious minorities. In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani has become renowned in Shi’a Islam for modeling a form of religious leadership that has proven to be highly adaptable in the face of the challenges of globalization, as he wields authority not only among followers but on a political level. Meanwhile, Tamara Sonn of Georgetown University argues that Sunni religious leadership and authority among Arabs is not lacking or failing, even if it changes and diversifies. Such “political Islam” has shown it can survive clashing views among its leaders. “The most popular of those voices, as demonstrated by their survival despite repression and, in some cases, electoral successes, include both traditionally trained scholars and a new breed of authorities with less formal religious training. But they share terms of reference in their discourse, including insistence that Muslim communities, at the very least, have the right to be governed by laws of their own choosing.”

(Sociology of Islam,