The Arab Autocrat’s New Religious Playbook

Middle Eastern leaders are promoting interfaith initiatives to disguise harsh policies at home and abroad.

By , research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
A man wearing a traditional white Arab headdress stands inside a synagogue.
A man wearing a traditional white Arab headdress stands inside a synagogue.
A member of the media visits the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue during a tour of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 21. RYAN LIM/AFP via Getty Images

On March 1, the Abrahamic Family House opened to the public on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Hailed as a beacon of tolerance and modernity in the Middle East, the interfaith complex hosts the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, St. Francis Church, and Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue.

On March 1, the Abrahamic Family House opened to the public on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Hailed as a beacon of tolerance and modernity in the Middle East, the interfaith complex hosts the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, St. Francis Church, and Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue.

The complex, part of a UAE government effort marketed as a way to foster interreligious harmony in a region that is regularly depicted as lacking such a quality, began development in 2019, following a visit by Pope Francis to the UAE during which he, along with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed the “Document on Human Fraternity” with the hope of fostering interreligious unity.

Such government-directed initiatives—marketed as a mechanism to advance peace, tolerance, and moderation—have become increasingly common throughout the Middle East over the past decade, with countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and many others launching various international initiatives focused on interfaith dialogue, countering extremist religious practices and interpretations and promoting so-called “moderate Islam.”

However, despite outwardly projecting an image of tolerance and moderation, many of these same governments simultaneously employ religion to buttress their authoritarian rule, legitimize repression, limit their citizens’ freedoms, and justify aggressive policies abroad. For example, the UAE is not only fiercely repressive at home but is also one of the Middle East’s most interventionist states, pursuing policies that have prolonged the region’s civil wars, created humanitarian crises, crushed democratic aspirations, and fueled the underlying grievances that lead to unrest.

Increasingly, many Middle Eastern governments are wielding religion as a tool of soft power alongside other efforts—including sportswashing, greenwashing, and other PR campaigns—designed to absolve themselves of their culpability in human rights abuses and destabilization of the Middle East while maintaining the support of their Western benefactors.

A considerable proportion of academic and policy analyses examining the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East tends to focus overwhelmingly on how Islam drives political outcomes in the region. Less attention is devoted to how politics often drives religious outcomes. The government-sponsored project of so-called moderate Islam is an example of politically driven religious messaging.

There are two key elements to this government-sponsored moderate Islam.

First is the promotion of a politically quietist and statist conceptualization Islam that stresses absolute obedience to established authority. Governments depict obedience to the ruler of the state as a religious obligation. These governments embrace an interpretation of Islam that is subservient to the state, incapable of challenging the regime’s legitimacy or policies, while also delegitimizing alternative sources of religious or political authority.

Critical to such a strategy is the portrayal of all forms of Islamism—whether mainstream or more radical—and all forms of political opposition as manifestations of “extremism” and “radicalism” in order to eliminate all independent or dissenting religious and political voices capable of challenging state authority.

Aiding these efforts are strategically constructed anti-terrorism laws that have proliferated throughout the Middle East in two main waves: one following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the other following the 2011 Arab uprisings. The language of such legislation was always designed in a vague manner in order to be capable of targeting almost any challenge to the status quo. This kind of legislation has been used to target all forms of dissent in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and elsewhere.

By painting challenges to the status quo as extreme and casting such opposition as a manifestation of religious radicalism, these governments are simultaneously able to deflect attention from how their authoritarian policies are often the underlying catalysts for regional instability and repress anyone they deem as a threat to their own rule under the guise of countering so-called extremist behavior. Such framing allows these governments to monopolize discussions surrounding Islam, reform, and politics in the Middle East.

Second, in the efforts to brand themselves as moderate, these regimes have also adopted the strategic usage of interfaith tolerance. In particular, outreach by these states to various Christian and Jewish communities, organizations, and figures has proved particularly effective. By framing their actions as in-line with Western initiatives designed to protect religious freedom and encourage interfaith relations, these governments have received regular praise from political leaders and religious groups in the United States. This has allowed them to project an image of tolerance while also currying favor with influential actors in certain key countries.

Engagement with other faith communities and leaders abroad not only advances the image of these governments as tolerant and progressive actors, but also presents an opportunity for these states to project themselves internationally as the sole legitimate representatives of the global Muslim community. The curation of such an image is designed to present these actors as stabilizing forces throughout the Middle East despite their repressive policies at home and aggressive foreign policies that contribute to the underlying sources of regional instability.

The government-sponsored project of moderate Islam is primarily a product of the post-9/11 era. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the West proceeded to construct arbitrary categories of what the scholar Mahmoud Mamdani referred to as “good” and “bad” Muslims. The Islam that autocratic regimes in the Middle East practice and promote is presented to the West as “good” and “moderate,” and is designed to depict these governments as the best—perhaps only—partners capable of working with the West to combat “bad” and “extreme” Islam.

As the United States began pouring money and weapons into the pockets of these governments under the notion of supporting counterterrorism, these regimes were able to harness these resources and utilize them in the widespread repression of any who challenged the status quo. These patterns were accelerated by the 2011 Arab uprisings as ruling elites jockeyed to delegitimize and repress opposition to their rule while maintaining Western support. Presenting themselves as upholders of stability, these autocratic governments have been able to deflect attention away from how their policies and the nature of their rule have contributed to the underlying sources of regional instability.

The project of moderate Islam is directed primarily toward the West, particularly the United States, which remains the security guarantor for many of the governments spearheading these projects. Successfully selling this image on a global scale is a critical component to other complementary soft-power initiatives and efforts to legitimize the domestic and international policies of these autocratic actors.

Two states in particular lead the enterprise that is moderate Islam: Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hailed by many as a long-awaited reformer, made headlines upon his vow to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam. Domestically, the crown prince has made several changes, including attempts to distance official Saudi Arabian history from ultra-conservative Wahhabism; allowing women to drivelive alone without male permission, and travel without a male guardian; limiting the religious police’s powers; permitting public entertainment venues such as cinemas and concerts; and arresting religious clerics and scholars labeled as extremists by the regime. State religious figures and institutions continue to praise Mohammed bin Salman as a “modernizer” and “renewer,” and the Council of Senior Scholars, the preeminent religious body in Saudi Arabia, regularly endorses his controversial domestic and foreign policies.

Internationally, the crown prince has overseen the projection of moderate Islam to Western audiences. Institutions such as the Saudi-based Muslim World League, led by Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa and representing a virtual extension of the Saudi state, have spearheaded such efforts, particularly outreach to Jewish and evangelical Christian communities. In November 2018, Saudi Arabia hosted a delegation of evangelical Christian leaders from the United States, who were received by Mohammed bin Salman and Issa. A similar delegation visited the kingdom again in September 2019. In January 2020, al-Issa led a delegation of Islamic scholars in an unprecedented visit to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, accompanied by representatives of the American Jewish Committee. A year later, Pope Francis received Issa at the Vatican.

Likewise, the UAE under the leadership of Mohamed bin Zayed has projected an image of the Emirates as a beacon of tolerance, modernity, and stability in the Middle East. The UAE embassy in the United States stresses that “values of inclusion, mutual respect and religious freedom have been ingrained in the UAE’s DNA since before the country’s founding in 1971.” It notes the Emirates “has a forward-looking vision for the Middle East region—a path that promotes moderate Islam, empowers women, teaches inclusion, encourages innovation and welcomes global engagement.”

After the Arab uprisings, the UAE created a series of new institutions to cement this image domestically and promote it abroad, such as the Muslim Council of Elders, the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, and the UAE Fatwa Council; and in 2016, it established an official minister of tolerance position, currently held by Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak al-Nahayan. The year 2019 was proclaimed the “Year of Tolerance” in the Emirates, further advancing this image of the UAE as a source of stability and prosperity in the Middle East.

Internationally, the number of interfaith initiatives spearheaded by the UAE or involving institutions based in the Emirates is considerable. Programs such as the UAE’s Alliance of Virtue seek to “bring together religious leaders of good-will for the benefit of humanity”; the alliance’s steering committee is composed of leading Muslim, Christian, and Jewish individuals from around the world. The newly formed Jewish Council of the Emirates serves as the representative body of Jews within the UAE and, in 2019, New York University Chaplain Yehuda Sarna was named the country’s first chief rabbi.

More than any of the other interfaith efforts the UAE has pursued, the crowning jewel remains the Abraham Accords. The accords were marketed as a way forward for the Israel-Palestine conflict and a broader framework for Middle Eastern peace. When the Abraham Accords were announced, signatories emphasized how this historic declaration would be a tool for “maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence.” The UAE described the accords as “catalyst for wider change in the Middle East” and a mechanism to “promote regional security, prosperity, and peace for years to come.”

Yet, despite these initiatives, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the most autocratic governments in the world. Both countries are engaged in widespread human rights abuses at home and support a wide array of autocratic actors throughout the region engaged in similar abuses.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the vanguards of the authoritarian resurgence taking place across the Middle East. At home, they are fiercely repressive, forcibly silencing any form of dissent or opposition to the policies pursued by the government. Both states are witnessing a strengthening and intensification of personalistic rule whereby Mohammed bin Salman and Mohamed bin Zayed have sought to eliminate institutional constraints and amass an unprecedented amount of power.

Abroad, these two leaders spearheaded an ongoing military offensive in Yemen that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, continue to pour financial and military resources into supporting allied authoritarian actors engaged in gross abuses, and are engaged in sophisticated campaigns of transnational repression and surveillance targeting activists and dissidents around the world. Additionally, they have played critical roles in supporting China’s repression of its domestic Muslim communities, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to engage in illegal activities within the United States.

Despite many of the interfaith initiatives being marketed as a way to promote moderation, tolerance, and peace, they have increasingly paved the way for expanded cooperation and collaboration on strategic issues. For example, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have increasingly coordinated their lobbying efforts in Washington to advance mutually-shared objectives in the Middle East and across the globe, namely the preservation of the prevailing illiberal status quo and regional balance of power.

The Abraham Accords in particular did not represent a breakthrough for peace in the Middle East, but rather the solidification of a top-down, imposed regional order designed to advance the interests of political elites. Instead of a mechanism to promote peace, interfaith initiatives for Middle East actors are often steeped in shared political objectives between actors with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Interfaith initiatives and the promotion of religious moderation and tolerance are themselves not problematic and should be encouraged. The problem is autocratic regimes are using the government-sponsored project of moderate Islam as a mechanism to whitewash their repressive, aggressive domestic and foreign policies while projecting a false image to their Western benefactors. The initiatives pursued by these regimes are inherently political, designed to support the domestic and geopolitical objectives of these autocratic governments instead of actually countering specific religious interpretations or practices.

Jon Hoffman is research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Twitter: @Hoffman8Jon

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