Background and Scope of the Project

The Arab uprisings and their aftermath have prompted scholars to re-examine the role played by various state institutions and different social actors across the Middle East, and recent scholarship has produced new insight on the post-2011 role and impact of the media, youth, civil society, and the armed forces amongst other stakeholders. Largely absent from the discussion, however, have been the region’s religious leaders and the role they have played, within their own communities and also in engagement with broader social and political forces, in the post Arab uprisings Middle East. This new CIRS research initiative investigates the dynamics, position of, and role played by spiritual leaders of different religious communities in the Middle East during and after the Arab uprisings. The research project includes examinations of the leaders of the multiple religions and faiths present in the Middle East, which include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá’ism, Druze, Yazidism, Alevism, and Zoroastrianism. The project explores a variety of topics such as religious leadership; traditional authority; sovereignty; state conceptions and management of religions, faiths, and sacred sites; women religious leaders; training and religious qualifications; political economy of the religious establishment; and religious-political movements, sources of power, and resistance.

To their followers, religious leaders in the Middle East have been sources of advice and guidance, financial support, spiritual enrichment, and community leadership. The relationship between the religious leaders and their followers set the foundations for multiple points of contact and networks linking the two groups. Through such networks, religious leaders influence beliefs and practices among their followers; mobilize supporters and advocate various social, economic, and political causes; and, when needed, can potentially provide protection. The nature and functions of the relationship between the religious leadership and their respective communities forms the main focus of this research initiative. Who are the leaders of the various religious groups and communities found in the Middle East? What modes of communication or forms of nexus do these leaders form with their flock? How do they maintain their legitimacy? What relationships do they forge with the state and other formal and informal centers of power? And what, if any, transnational linkages do they maintain with co-religionists abroad?

The research initiative also examines the changing nature of religious leadership in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. What, for example, are the consequences of the emergence of multiple centers of religious authority among Sunni Muslims? Does the emergence of Daesh and similar extremist groups bespeak of more fundamental fissures within the leadership of the Sunni community in the Middle East and in other Muslim-majority societies? More broadly, have the 2011 uprisings deepened, or alternatively challenged, the legitimacy of religious leaders in their communities, strengthened their roles as protectors among non-Muslim groups, and influenced their access to or control over economic and financial resources?

Addressing these and other similar questions will go some way toward filling gaps in the burgeoning literature on state-religion dynamics in the Middle East. The dramatic political and social changes underway in the region since 2011 have only magnified the significance of leaders of religious communities and their relationships with both the state and with society at large. This research initiative addresses an increasingly important but largely understudied topic in Middle Eastern studies. 

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS