Ulema state alliance poses direct threat to democracy. In September 2021, Turkey House was inaugurated in New York with a high-level state ceremony that included the presence of President Tayyip Erdogan. The ceremony began with a prayer recited by Turkey’s top Islamic cleric: the chairman of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which controls 80,000 mosques. The growing political importance of this cleric in Turkey symbolizes the growing partnership between Islamic scholars/clerics (ulema) and the Erdogan regime. Writes Ahmet T. Kuru
Turkey was known for nearly a century as the most assertively secularist state with a Muslim-majority society. Even so, in recent years the ulema-state alliance has been strengthened. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Taliban, an ulema-led organization, has regained power. Under the Taliban regime, the ulema are not simply an ally of the state; they are “the state”, controlling the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
There are 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world. Turkey is the country with the longest experience of a secular state, and Afghanistan is now the country with the longest theocratic experience (along with Iran). In many other Muslim-majority countries, ulema-state alliances vary, but their common feature is that they all complicate democratization and development efforts.
Neither Islam nor Western colonialism
Of the 50 Muslim-majority countries, only seven are electoral democracies. Muslim countries also have lower levels of development, reflected in socio-economic criteria such as GNI per capita, life expectancy, years of schooling and literacy rates compared to the world average. Overall, many Muslim countries suffer from a vicious cycle of authoritarianism and underdevelopment.
The contemporary challenges facing Muslim countries are all the more disconcerting given the socio-economic and scientific progress of their early history. Especially between the 8th and 11th centuries, the Muslim world was home to many of the world’s greatest cities and leading philosophers. It was far more developed than Western Europe at the time.
What explains the gap between the early historical brilliance of the Muslim world and the contemporary crises? Two explanations are often given: Islam and Western colonialism. Both are futile.
Blaming Islam for being a barrier to progress does not explain the scientific and socio-economic achievements of early Muslims. For four centuries, Muslim societies had dynamic intellectual and economic classes that established a philosophical and commercial Golden Age. Muslim polymaths made pioneering academic contributions in mathematics, optics and medicine. It was Muslims who taught Western Europeans certain financial instruments and how to make paper.
The explanation based on Western colonialism is also problematic. The scientific and economic stagnation of the Muslim world had already begun long before widespread Western colonization began in the 18th century. Moreover, several postcolonial non-Muslim countries in Asia and Latin America have achieved development or democratization, indicating that progress is possible despite a colonial past.
The ulema-state alliance
By contrast, the main reason for the problems of authoritarianism and underdevelopment in most Muslim societies has been what I call in my 2019 book ‘The Ulema-State Alliance’.
Between the eighth and eleventh centuries – when Muslims belonging to various theological schools cooperated with Christians, Jews and others in the emergence of a Golden Age – there was a degree of separation between the ulema and the state. The vast majority of ulema worked privately in commerce. This historical reality refutes the modern cliché that Islam inherently rejects the separation of religion and state.
By the mid-11th century, however, the ulema-state alliance began to emerge. This alliance gradually marginalized independent thinkers and entrepreneurs, leading to centuries of intellectual and economic stagnation in the Muslim world.
During the 19th century, reformist rulers weakened their alliance with the ulema, and by the early 20th century, almost all Muslim state-builders were secular. However, these reformist and secular rulers had one problem in common: they were too state-centric. Instead of fostering the emergence of dynamic intellectual and economic classes, they expanded the role of the military and civilian bureaucrats over politics and economics.
The failed policies of the secularists helped the rise of the ulema and Islamists from the 1970s onwards. For half a century, several major Muslim countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, have experienced Islamization as a social, political and legislative project, which has also revived ulema-state alliances.
Oil as a driver of ulema-state alliances
Moreover, after the 1973 oil crisis, several countries, especially in the Gulf, began to use oil revenues to fund these alliances domestically and Islamist programs abroad.
Modern ulema-state alliances have passed blasphemy and apostasy laws that criminalize the expression of dissenting religious and political views. The economic policies of these alliances are also restrictive and ineffective where, for example, confiscation of private property is a way for states to control the economy and punish opposition.
In the face of this persistent structural challenge, what can be done to reshape the future?
In a recently published report, I argue that dismantling ulema-state alliances and restructuring economies are crucial if Muslim countries are to achieve democracy and development.
Reform is necessary and inevitable
At the discursive level, instead of blaming Islam or Western colonialism alone, Muslim societies should challenge secular anti-intellectualism and state control of the economy. Only through critical self-reflection can Muslim societies really address their political and socio-economic problems: does the Qur’an not say that “God does not change the condition of a people unless He changes their inner self” (13:11)?
At the institutional level, Muslim societies need open, meritocratic and competitive systems in which political, religious, intellectual and economic classes can function autonomously. This reform requires institutionalizing the separation of religion and state. Islam is not inherently opposed to this. In early Islamic history there was a certain level of separation between religious and political authorities.
Reform must also include the extension of freedom of thought, through the abolition of apostasy and blasphemy laws, and greater protection of private property, preventing the state from seizing it.
There is a strong economic incentive for reform. Oil revenues, which have financed alliances between ulema and states, are drying up with the depletion of reserves and the widespread adoption of alternative energy technologies. Many Muslim countries will need economic transformation and innovation to thrive in the post-oil era.
A reinterpretation of history is important to facilitate reform. The structural barriers that have hindered progress in the Muslim world, in particular the ulema-state alliance, have deep historical roots. However, there are also paradigmatic experiences in Islamic history that can inspire future reforms in state-religion relations and in the economy.
Ahmet T. Kuru is Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University and author of Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison. His latest report is entitled “The Ulema-State Alliance: A Barrier to Democracy and Development in the Muslim World”.
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