Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt: Dismantling the Islam State?

More than the Turkish government’s assault on the trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the trigger for protestors’ outrage this month was arguably the Prime Minister Erdoğan’s plan to build a 1,500-person mosque in Taksim Square. Unlike recent disputes over mosques near Ground Zero or across from the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, protestors in Istanbul do not question Muslims’ right to build houses of worship. The Turkish taxpayers who demand these mosques be scrapped are articulating a desire for freedom from state religion.

The Taksim mosque is just one of six hundred that the Turkish state will build this year, including another in Istanbul the size of a sports arena that will boast the world’s tallest minarets. Prime Minister Erdoğan maintains that he doesn’t need the permission of protestors or the opposition party, and he is technically correct. A local court ruled that the neighborhood lacks sufficient prayer space and the relevant ministries approved the design, so there’s nothing to discuss.

But this is a discussion that Erdoğan himself used to welcome while in opposition, and it could be the start of a larger conversation that citizens in Turkey and North Africa have evaded since Islamist parties broke into government in recent years. What will become of “official Islam” in the emerging political order?

Today’s governing Islamist parties in Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt did not engineer the state sponsorship of Islam. They inherited a sprawling complex of institutions and services from their military-backed predecessors. Over the past sixty years, the civilian control of religion was used to reinforce national identity and counter the influence of brotherhoods, missionaries, and political groups that were considered seditious. This often meant the ideological forebears of today’s governing Islamist parties. Around one-third of Turkey’s 82,000 mosques, for example, were built since the 1980s. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has overseen only the last few thousand.

Similar to an established national church, an “Islam State” in Turkey and across most of North Africa aims to structure all formal aspects of citizens’ spirituality. A large caste of public servants runs the mosques, prayers, sermons, life cycle services, religious education, theology faculties and religious interpretation by councils of sheikhs. With the departure of secularist military strongmen from the region, therefore, one might assume the dismantling of this oppressive and expensive apparatus to be imminent. But the opposite has occurred.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s first appointee to the religious affairs presidency proposed winding down the state’s direct involvement in citizens’ religious life, but that idea was quickly shelved. Instead, the government quadrupled Islamic Affairs spending to $2.3 billion – more than 1% of the national budget. Forty percent of all newly created civil service posts have been in the religious bureaucracy, whose 121,000 employees now make up around 6% of all Turkish state employees.

Similarly, both Islamist and non-Islamist governments across North Africa have enhanced and reinforced the Islam State over the past decade – before and after the Arab spring. The new Tunisian government seamlessly took control of the institutions vacated by the old regime in 2011 and recruited hundreds more religion teachers, imams and theology professors. This year the conservative Islamic Affairs minister has arrested unlicensed preachers, denounced religious fatwas from abroad, and claims to have brought nearly all of the country’s 5,000 mosques back under state control after the chaotic years of transition.

Why are Islamists whole-heartedly embracing an apparatus they found so repugnant just a few years ago? Governing has given them a new perspective: they now have their own revolution to defend. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya today’s ruling parties now pose as the guarantors against radical Salafists – some of whom have declared outright war on even the most conservative elements in the new regimes.

This entanglement with official religion also fits the case of Islamists in power-sharing arrangements, such as in Morocco, where Islamic Affairs remains one of the King’s “sovereign ministries.” Its 52,000 employees have the fastest growing budget in government, a sum now equal to that of the royal household itself. The budget for training Moroccan imams was increased ten-fold in the last three years. Neighboring Algeria’s fear of Salafist encroachment has led the religious affairs ministry there to hire thousands of new employees annually and to try and keep political parties out of mosques.

Some of this ideological turf war is necessary for national security. Salafists and Al-Qaeda linked extremists have carried out physical attacks and acts of terrorism in all of these countries within the past year. But the religious monopoly that post-Spring governments jealously guard also forces non-violent religious movements outside of institutional life and weakens the state’s own legitimacy. The result is that some of today’s most influential brotherhoods exert power in a domain completely separate from the rule of law. Because they do not register as either religious organizations or political parties, they remain unaccountable to democratic institutions.

If the Islam State keeps growing without reforming its statutes to become more inclusive, then it will miss out on these and other important social and political realities. Such an unhealthy dynamic will be familiar to those who have finally made it into power after decades underground. They know that propping up the majority religion’s state monopoly while barely tolerating peaceable minorities is unsustainable and unfair. Or at least these same governments have all argued this to be the case for Muslims in Western Europe.

If the new regimes cannot manage a better synthesis of publicly supported religion, then burgeoning social changes will likely make it clear, sooner or later, that they don’t deserve to keep these powers. On the other hand, liberals and secularists should proceed cautiously and preach reform of the Islam State, not disestablishment. Dismantling it with no transitional plan would unleash anarchy in a field that has been regulated for centuries.

There have been some glimpses of reform: Turkey and Morocco have made overtures to women, linguistic and religious minorities. Earlier this year in Egypt and Libya, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood parties accepted the appointment of well-known “moderate” leaders for key roles in the Islamic affairs apparatus. But so far, not enough has been done to convince anyone that an equitable outcome of religious pluralism lies ahead.

Mosque disputes have become part of 21st century political repertoire, but some incidents are more meaningful than others. The Turkish government – and the North African countries who follow their example – can’t claim Islamophobia when it’s fellow Muslims doing the protesting.