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Branding Islam: The Strategic Use of Official Religious Discourse Open Access

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What explains variation in the resonance of religious messaging produced by the state, or official religious discourse? In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region), official religious discourse is often assumed to lack credibility, due to the authoritarian character of many Middle Eastern states. As a result, scholars interested in these societies’ religious views tend to focus on the activities and ideologies of Islamist groups, seeing them as a more accurate reflection of public religious sentiment. However, such perspectives overlook the ways in which state institutions shape the religious arena. Islam has interacted with state structures since its earliest expression and throughout its history. In the contemporary Middle East, the state exerts control over institutions of religious education, oversees the training of would-be religious actors, and regulates religious spaces. I add to existing scholarship by proposing an explanation for variation in the credibility, or resonance, of official religious discourse.My research combines two areas of scholarship to explain this observed variation, nation-building and framing theory. Scholars of nation-building have long studied the processes through which political elites inculcate a shared sense of identity; however, such work has less frequently focused on Islam as a key component of national identity. Framing theory has typically been used to study social movements, specifically how articulating a call to action in a specific way can encourage bottom-up participation; I use framing theory to evaluate top-down dynamics, considering how different forms of state discourse can produce different levels of resonance.Drawing on data collected during nine months of fieldwork in three Arab monarchies, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, I examine how political elites sought to disseminate a specific form of religious discourse using the nation-building toolkit, and the extent to which contemporary religious discourse corresponds to that established during the foundational period. Sermons, textbooks, and archival materials provide the content of official religious discourse, while interviews offer insights into the extent to which official Islam resonates with key populations, including religious bureaucrats, educators, students, and diplomats. I assert that the form of official religious discourse established during the nation-building process has path dependent effects on subsequent efforts to use state control of religious discourse. I focus in particular on political elites’ choice to articulate official Islam in either national or universal terms. I find that, despite the general assumption that religion transcends geographic boundaries, framing official Islam as grounded in locally specific heritage is more likely to evoke resonance than framing official Islam in universalistic terms. In addition, if a form of religious discourse is seen as subject to foreign influence, it is more likely to be rejected. These findings have implications for political elites seeking to influence their populations’ religious identity, especially for the purpose of combatting extremism and building support for the regime. Foreign actors that wish to discourage intolerance should avoid contributing to the perception of foreign meddling. Influencing religious messaging requires a generational timescale, and is ill-suited to the short-term game of politics.

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