H. A. Hellyer & Peter Mandaville on Tradition, Traditionalism, and Muslim Politics – Special Guest Episode

In this episode of Maydan Podcast, CGIS Director Peter Mandaville speaks with H.A. Hellyer, a scholar and analyst unique in his experience in studying religious establishments worldwide and the halls of policy-making in the West. Hellyer and Mandaville talk about a number of themes spurred by the wave of changes taking place not only in the Middle East but also in Southeast Asia that has impacted the relationship between policy elites and the ulama- scholarly classes, as well as intra-scholarly relationships. They discuss the meaning of authority and normativity, the movements of scholarly networks, as well as on the ground developments stemming from changes in the Syrian landscape, the tumultuous politics of the region, and Western ‘myopia’ about these developments.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, FRSA, is a fellow at Cambridge University, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A prominent public intellectual of English and mixed Arab heritage raised on three continents, he has been clarifying the geopolitics of the Middle East, the West, and Southeast Asia to publics and governments globally for more than two decades. In 2020, he was elected to be a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of Arts in recognition of his scholarship and analysis in international relations, security, and belief.




[TRANSCRIPT] H. A. Hellyer & Peter Mandaville on Tradition, Traditionalism, and Muslim Politics – Special Guest Episode

Peter Mandaville 00:09    

Greetings and welcome to this edition of the Maydan Podcast. My name is Peter Mandeville and I am the director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. I am delighted that we are joined today by an old friend and teacher, Dr. Hesham Hellyer. Dr. Hellyer has numerous affiliations. He is a fellow at Cambridge university. He’s also a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is someone that I have had the pleasure to know and to learn from for well over a decade now so it’s always a delight to have the opportunity to listen to and learn from him. So, Dr. Hellyer, welcome to the Maydan Podcast.


H.A. Hellyer 01:01    

Peter, thank you very much. That was a very kind introduction and a very hospitable welcome. May I say the feeling is entirely mutual?  

Peter Mandaville 01:11    

Our basic theme today, the broad terrain that we want to cover in this conversation is to explore the question of how traditionalist ‘ulema are positioning themselves today in response to a variety of social and political developments in regions such as the Middle east and Southeast Asia. However, I wanted to start by getting a little bit of clarity and clarification on terms and categories. The discussion of Muslims and Islam is a domain that tends to suffer from an impulse towards taxonomy. You always have to define what someone is. Are they salafi, sufi, iqwani, deobandi, this, that? Here we are with this very broad term and quite generic sounding of traditionalist ‘ulema. I wanted to ask you first, who are the traditionalist ‘ulema and what distinguishes them from other types of religious scholars?

H.A. Hellyer 02:14    

Peter, that’s a great place for us to start. I do think that when it comes to definitions and categories, people do differ a lot. What I’ve noticed over my career in policy circles, but also in academia, less so in academia, more so in policy, is that the lack of clarity on these different categories and taxonomies brings about huge confusion, a lot of arguments where they aren’t actually necessary, but also a lot of misleading policy descriptions as well. I think that’s very important and, historically speaking, if we’re taking ourselves out of the contemporary moment for a second, historically speaking, you have three, I would argue, extant Muslim groups and then they’re broken down. The first would be the Sunnis, they describe themselves as ahl al-sunna juma’, the people of the sunna or the prophetic model or the prophetic way and the group, i.e., the largest group, the majority, of Muslims. They’re probably around 80 to 90% of Muslims worldwide. Then there is the Shi’a, meaning party, and the full name of it would be Shi’at ali, the party of Ali, and their narrative is that they are the correct and rightful inheritors of that mantle, i.e., of following the son-in-law of the Prophet, Ali ibn Abi Talib. The last group are the Ibadis, which are much smaller than the Shi’a, the Shi’a are probably anything from 10% upwards of Muslims worldwide. The Ibadi are very, very small and they exist basically in a tiny part of Tunisia, as well as being the majority in Oman and pockets of places elsewhere and then they’re broken down. When we talk about traditionalists, generally speaking, what the literature talks about, and here we’re talking about the literature in generally speaking English, so traditionalist doesn’t necessarily come up as much when you’re talking about other languages, including most Islamicate languages. It’s usually in the English language that people talk about that and you have different meanings that are ascribed to that word. Traditionalists can mean that movement which was responding to modernity in the 20th century and there’s a whole discussion around that and that’s a reaction against modernity on a philosophical level. That’s generally not what people are talking about when we get into this discussion around power and politics, although sometimes they do overlap, but maybe we get into that another time. Generally, what people are talking about when they say traditionalist is that they “follow traditional Islam,”again, a very English centered discussion? Generally speaking, traditionalist Islam or traditional Islam in the English language would usually mean A) Sunni, B) following or at least recognizing the normativity of the four extant schools of law, C) following one of the three main approaches in Sunni theology, and the last, D) recognizing the legitimacy of Sufi orders. That would generally be what people would say is traditional Islam and they would put it as such. I have to say that within the Arab world, within the Indian subcontinent, none of that is going to be particularly controversial. The vast majority of the Muslim world that is Sunni, if you go to the religious establishment of those places as opposed to “the masses,” that’s not going to be particularly controversial. When you talk about Morocco, this is actually enshrined in Moroccan law that Morocco follows the Maliki school of Sunni fiqh, one of the four, and that it follows the school of the ashari in terms of theology, that’s one of the major approaches in aqeedah and “follows Junaidi tasawuf” which is a code word for saying that it’s sharia-based Sufism. You see the same in other institutions like the Azhar in Egypt, the Qarawiyyin in Tunisia, Dar al-Mustafa in Yemen and so on and so on and so on, but that’s about it. Those are approaches to the tradition of Islam, those are religious approaches. Beyond that, you have politics and how these things manifest themselves in the world and then there are huge differences that go across the board in that regard, which I’m sure we’re going to get into over the next half hour or so, but those differences have meant that over the past century or so, you have different movements come up, like different types of salafi movements, so what I would term “purist salafi” movements that emerge out of Saudi, modernist Salafi movements which emerge out of the late 19th or the early 20th century in Egypt and in Syria, and these are going to be connected to what I’ve described as this more normative, historically-based approach. They’re not necessarily always counter to them either and they come out of it and they become the subjects of great philosophical dispute within religious establishment across the Muslim world, sometimes on a religious level, sometimes more on a political level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody agrees on politics within this nebulous thing that we call traditional Islam, they don’t. There are lots of differences of opinion on a wide variety of things, not least to do with the modern nation state, engaging with political power, upholding fundamental freedoms and fundamental rights, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I hope I didn’t make that even more complicated now.

Peter Mandaville 08:35    

No, this is a wonderful way to start because you’ve already helped to put some brackets around traditionalism as a concept and associated with specific things and people in the world, which is really helpful, but you’ve also nodded towards some of the other questions that I want to explore with you today, including the question of how traditionalist groups and formations differ from other across different regions, where politics fits into the picture, and, of course, this question of how we should think about the relationship between traditionalist scholars and other approaches to contemporary Islamic scholarship that seem very prominent today, such as salafism. Before we turn into those questions though, Hesham, I wanted to ask you about a particular turn of phrase or choice of terminology that I have seen in your published work off and on over the years, which always struck me as fascinating. You, in writing about these issues, sometimes refer to what you call “Normative Sunnism,” and it’s fascinating to me to see that formulation because obviously debates and discussions about what constitutes true Islam or authentic Islam is so much of the fodder of the conversations that we have and the whole concept of normative Sunnism seems to suggest that there is some thing settled that is normative, and you don’t use the term in a way that suggests that you somehow exclusively have unique knowledge as to what constitutes normative Sunnism, you use it in a fairly analytic fashion as is if there is this object out there called normative Sunnism. I just wanted to invite you to talk a little bit about what you mean by that, to unpack it a bit, because as I understand it, it’s not wholly unrelated to the way that you have characterized the boundaries and parameters of traditionalist Islam just now.

H.A. Hellyer 10:29    

It’s a good question. It’s very difficult to answer that question given our modern moment. I say that because, although we might be on a call right now discussing this in a very analytical way, we might be engaging on this drawing upon historical facts and figures and things that are not really a subject of dispute, but simply bringing up the issue of what constitutes or what falls within the realm of what historically has been Sunni Islam, frankly, invites huge pitfalls that are dangerous, if I can be frank, and what I mean by that is that if I were to say right now, for example, that group A or group B is historically rooted within a normative approach to Sunnism, i.e., that they can trace all of their thoughts, their approach to law, their approach to theology, their approach to spirituality, to trends that existed before the modern period and I say that group ABC diverged from that, then even though it might be absolutely true and I might have the facts to back it up, there will be those in today’s current political environment that will take that exposition and say, “Oh, in that case, we can go to war with them,” or “In that case, we can lock them up,” or, “In that case we can ban them.” It becomes really difficult and I’ve struggled with, well struggling maybe not the right word, but I’ve been very precise in how I engage in this discussion, particularly over the past 5 to 10 years, because you never know what’s going to happen after you make these sorts of analysis and it becomes very difficult, particularly in the aftermath of the first wave of the Arab spring. So, when I use the word “normative,” I mean that indeed there’s been a settling process and I do say settling “process” because it’s not something that simply ends. You have extant schools of law, extant simply meaning that they’re still operative, that people still follow them, and that they are able to follow them because there are enough people who are experts in each of those schools that can actually teach them and understand them in the way that they were being taught before. I remember when I was studying this years ago that there was one fear that an instructor I had, who is from Syria, he talked about the Hanbali school and he had actually studied the Hanbali school of Fiqh and he had done so with one intention, one intention alone, because he had previously studied Shafi’i fiqh and he said, “I want to study it so that it doesn’t get lost.” What do you mean got lost? There are all these books and he said, “Yeah, but you can’t pass on a school of law unless there are enough people that have mastered that school of law in person, in the flesh.” That was his worry. Now maybe his worry was exaggerated, but it was very interesting to me to see that this emphasis on living mastery that had been passed on from living masters was extremely important in considering the extent to which something could continue to be normative in a real sense, i.e., not just in a book. The parameters of what Sunni Islam has historically been about, again, has been about these approaches of the fiqh, which, again, have settled on the processes that make up the four schools and I say the processes because ijtihad continues and development within those schools of law continue. That’s not something that simply ends. Years ago, in academia, people were still arguing about whether the “gates of ijtihad” had been closed. That was settled, thankfully, in academia because it wasn’t something that had really come up within historical jurisprudential arguments, it was about levels of ijtihad that might be beyond the reach of most people, but, even so, when it comes to theology, there’s a very famous– formula is not the right word, but a very famous approach that Imam Safarini put forward where he said that the three Imams of Ahl al-Sunnah are Ashari, Maturidi, and Imam Hanbal, and that these are the three approaches that stand, the maturidi, the ashari’s, the atharis, and what the salafis might consider to be their predecessor, and that’s obviously debateable, but that’s the thing. When it comes to Sufism, that generally speaking, as I said earlier, it’s a recognition that Sufism itself is a legitimate science, but also that there are multiple ways of manifesting and, in the same way, there are multiple ways of manifesting the schools of law. When I say normative Sunnism, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m very cautious, or I try to be cautious at least, about saying what groups do not fall into that particular category because it does allow for our work to be used in ways that we just wouldn’t want it to be used. That’s a real concern that I have. It’s also why I try to keep in mind that these discussions don’t happen in a vacuum, that you have governments and states and movements that are very keen to take certain differences and make them huge when they’re not all that huge, but also, even when there are differences, there are differences and you might not regard them as normative. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to be arrested or locked up or something. It is delicate in that regard, but I’m glad you brought up the question. I hope I’ve answered it properly.  

Peter Mandaville 16:14    

You have, and you’ve also offered a great segue into where I’d like to go next, which is to begin to explore those differences and the politics and the politics of difference in this space. You, in characterizing traditionalist scholarship, already indicated that there are some notable differences between different groups across the Muslim majority world and Muslim minority world with respect to traditionalist Islam. I wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about the similarities and differences between traditionalist ‘ulema in different geographies. How should we understand the sources of these differences? Is it down to differences in educational formation and scholarly training? Is it just different networks that people move and work in? Or is it more to do with differences in the, if I can put it this way, the ambient religious culture in different regions? Or is it primarily politics or geopolitics these days?  

H.A. Hellyer 17:11    

I think it’s all those things. If I’m quite honest with you.There has been a narrative that’s being put forward, I disagree with this narrative, but it’s a neat narrative where people argue that those that maintain this connection to a premodern approach to Sunni Islam are, by virtue of that, are going to basically be slaves to power,that they’re going to be quietest, that they’re not going to be interested in doing anything else and that by necessity, if you’re looking for any activist sort of approach, then it has to be rooted in newer movements and revivalists and reformers, et cetera, that sort of take formation in the early to mid 20th century. I’m very skeptical, I’m not even skeptical, I think this is bunk because when you look again at how history has unfolded, that’s simply not the case. You have groups that were entirely normative in terms of their approach to Sunni Islam in the pre-modern period, in the modern period, that were very suspicious of power, that were very much in an oppositional mode to different political authorities of their day. Sometimes those authorities were foreign, they were colonialist powers or imperialist powers, but sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes they were Muslim powers who they deemed not to be just forms of rule and you can argue that because of the fact that they held to very mainstream approachs to Sunni Islam, that they were simply going to be quietists but that’s not what happened. That’s not what happened with people like Omar Mukhtar in Libya, who fought against Italian fascism and was a disciple in a Sufi order, very much attached to a very historically normative approach to the Sunni Islam. You had that in many different parts of the Muslim world, in Southeast Asia, in South Asia, and other parts of Africa. That’s not really going to work very well if that’s the narrative you want to put across. You also had it again when it came to opposing Muslim rulers. Again, it didn’t mean that if they held to a traditional kind of approach that they weren’t going to be able to break out of this quietest mold. Also, by the same token on the other side of it, you had people who were very much involved in these “reformist” movements, these revivalist movements, sometimes they would have been pure salafi movements, sometimes it would have been modernist salafi movements, much more Muslim brotherhood in content and they supported the powers that be. A little known fact that I came across in my research was when the civil war in Algeria broke out, this is often brought up as evidence that “Political Islamism” is never going to be allowed the chance to express itself. Well, in the form of FIS, that was definitely the case. They won the elections and the elections and the results were canceled and so on and so that part of the narrative has some grounding, but another part of the narrative, which hasn’t been studied as much is that there was a Muslim Brotherhood movement in Algeria at the time and it backed the military. When you talk about the Arab uprisings between 2011 and 2013, in particular, you had Salafi groups that were supportive of the powers that be as opposed to being supportive of any revolutionary activity. When it came to Sudan, where Omar Bashir was finally forced from power, the”modernist, revivalist tendencies,” which were linked to the brotherhood and so on, they were very supportive of the Bashir regime. When you get to a place like Syria, there’s much more of a division and the division isn’t between traditionalist ‘ulema or more historically mainstream ‘ulema on one side and the revivalist on the other, because within the “traditionalist” camp, there was a huge diversity of opinion. Sheikh Ramadan al-Booti was obviously an example of someone who stood by the regime. There were many others who certainly did not and were incredibly active in opposing the Syrian regime and validating armed struggle against it. Same thing happened in Libya as well. When you talk about the subcontinent in India and in Pakistan, there is a big history there of ‘ulema being involved in political activity and history will not be kind to those who insist that “a “historically normative” approach to Sunnism means that they have to be quietest. That’s certainly not what happened in the Indian subcontinent. I think people try to do this and force that that round peg into the square hole, frankly, for ideological reasons that are not particularly useful in an analytical frame. Now, the question is why they have those differences and that’s what I meant when I said that all of the factors that you brought up, I think all of those factors apply. I think a big function of it is frankly very sociological in terms of how people live these kinds of experiences. I remember being in Egypt in 2011 when the uprising began and a very noted scholar, who I’ve written about a lot, who was part of the protests, was actually killed towards the end of the year in the midst of being in a clash between protesters and the security forces. The question then becomes, well then who was he? Was he part of a revivalist movement? He was not. He wasn’t aSalafi, he wasn’t part of the Muslim brotherhood. He was actually, on the contrary, someone who was very supportive of the historical religious establishment of Egypt and, more to the point, worked in the state religious institution. He was Amin al Fatwa, a very significant official state position, and he never resigned that position, by the way, he even passed the fatwa saying that police officers can not fire on unarmed protesters while he was in that position. So, complicating the narrative, I think, is really important and making sure that people understand that actually it’s not a foregone conclusion that you’re going to have this approach to politics or that approach to politics because people don’t really operate like that. They don’t simply take what they see in a text and simply apply it. It becomes mediated through their experiences. And we’ve seen so much diversity on how people apply these different approaches that I think it behooves us to complicate and recognize the complexity of this,  

Peter Mandaville 23:53    

This point that you made about the assumed inherent quietism of traditional scholarship is fascinating and one that I think has become entangled, in complicated ways, with the security policies and agendas of countries well outside the immediate regions we’re talking about, including Europe and North America. Certainly one thing that I began to notice here from my vantage point in Washington D.C. in the years immediately following 9/11. Going back 16 or more years now, there came to be internalized within the Washington D.C. national security establishment this idea that Sufis are intrinsically quietest and, therefore, if you were to somehow promote Sufism, and I guess by extension traditionalist scholarship in the Middle East using US resources, then you would somehow have a neutralizing effect on the political discourse and the mobilization space that activist groups, and particularly militant activist groups like Al-Qaeda and eventually ISIS would have to operate. One thing that I did want to get into a little bit later is kind of your views on the industry that’s grown up around this relationship between national security and the promotion of traditionalist scholars, but I first wanted to explore, in a little bit more detail, one particular geography that you’ve already mentioned, Hasham, which is that of Syria. Obviously Syria as a location has had a very important standing, certainly within the Middle East as a hub of traditional scholarship, you already mentioned the importance of the late Sheikh Ramadan al Booti as this figure of towering stature and so I wanted to get your views on how the civil war and its aftermath, what effect has that had on traditionalist scholarly networks in the Middle East given the central role that Damascus has played in that world for so long.

H.A. Hellyer 25:56    

Syria plays—  played rather, a significant role in the production of religious knowledge in the Arab world, but Syria was also, I won’t say that its authority was contested, that’s not so much the issue, but because Syria was also under a pretty closed regime, it also meant that its networks beyond Syria were less than what you might find from other countries. For example, you had people from Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Malaysia traveling from that part of the world to further their studies in the Arab world and, generally speaking, they wouldn’t be going to Syria. They would go to the Al Azhar in Egypt, they might go to Jordan, they might go to Saudi, very few, comparatively speaking, would go to Syria and that’s a function of simply the political dynamics of the time. You had Westerners who would travel and sometimes they would travel far more to Syria and they would travel to Syria because they would be under the impression, and it’s not an unfounded impression, that although the institutions might not be as well known as others like the Qaraween or the Azhar, for example, that the quality of education would be better or at least more reliable. Again, they were not necessarily unfounded in this assumption at all. The civil war has ended that. Bashar Al Assad’s extremely brutal regime has ensured that, first, a lot of scholars, I personally suspect that most scholars, have left Syria altogether, that there are very few that are left in Syria. That doesn’t mean that everybody went to war against Bashar Al Assad because there are quite a few that did not engage in the uprising and said very little about the uprising, but they left anyway. They relocated to different places, some of them, a huge number of them, relocated to Turkey. Turkey was where they managed to find refuge and space to continue their teaching, and then others scattered into different places, but I would say the largest plurality probably went to Turkey, partly because of geography because it’s a neighboring state. When it comes to the differences though that happened in Syria as well and how that plays out in the networks, that was also something that was interesting because, yes, Ramadan Al Booti was a very significant figure, he was not the only significant figure within, more broadly speaking, Syrian scholarly networks and quite a few of them were very opposed to the Assad regime and made their opposition extremely well known. You had this very intense discussion unfolding in different religious establishments, but also among the students of all of these religious establishments between 2011 and onwards, particularly up until 2014, I suppose, where people wondered, well then what was the right course of action? Ramadan Al Booti is this great towering scholar, but he stood by the tyrant, what does that mean? I think a lot of people try to find meaning in his approach that was rooted in his religious credentials or in his religious commitments and I’m not sure if that’s the best way to examine it because the reality is that the same religious commitments that he had were shared by people who took a completely different view and who were not less bound or less committed to the same Corpus of religious teachings as he was, but they took a completely different viewpoint on what that meant in terms of opposing the Assad regime. That that’s raised an interesting question for everyone, sometimes people try to, I won’t say get away from it because I do think it’s a legitimate way to look at it, but people say that actually, he didn’t really know what was going on, that Ramadan Al Booti wasn’t really engaged in technology that much, that he didn’t own a television, that the information that he consumed was generally given to him by the secret services and that he’d lived in that system for so long that he simply depended on the empirical data that he was given as opposed to suspecting the empirical data, which is why he characterized the protestors in such strong language because that’s what he thought they were. He wasn’t lying. A lot of people explain away his opposition in this regard to the uprising and are explaining it away, but I also think that it has grounding as well, not saying it’s wrong. Then others will bring up another question, why didn’t he double check? Why didn’t he verify? That’s when I think things get interesting from a analytical viewpoint,because I think that many who look at these establishments from particularly outside of the region are probably not as aware as they might think they are about the effects of living under systems like that, that if you live under an authoritarian system for a significant period of time, particularly in your formative years, then the things that you begin to imbibe or recognize as just normal, which are not normal, which are completely abnormal, which are completely outrageous, but that you’ve seen them so many times that you simply become immune to what they are and you begin to see them as just very regular. I’ve seen this many times. As somebody who’s spent a lot of time in the Arab world, but also a lot of time outside of it. My father is English. My mother was an Arab. I’ve spent my entire life between these two very differing political environments and I can see very clearly that there are some things that people take for granted that they never would otherwise and we sometimes make assumptions about how much of an effect that might have. Americans, for example, make assumptions about guns that nowhere else in the world is going to fly and Brits will make assumptions about healthcare, which will definitely not be the case in the United States and so on and so on, but these things are a bit more blatant whereas the effects of living under authoritarianism is very different and much more subtle and the religious establishment are not immune to the same pressures and things that you know exist. I remember thinking about this years ago when it came to Imad ‘Afat, one thing about Sheikh Imad that personally I suspect had a lot to do with why he was different. When he was younger, he was a radical, we note that he was politically a lot more radical when he was younger and then he left that and he embraced a much more mainstream approach. I reckon that actually his younger days of being more radically inclined in terms of his politics, that actually they actually saved them from that, so there are these very contextual, very subjective realities that play out and there are all of these different factors that exist. Yes, I’m not someone by the way that thinks that ideas, that approaches, to religious texts are simply irrelevant and it’s all about circumstance. I don’t believe that. I think that some people are genuinely inspired and motivated and pushed by very firmly held beliefs that are rooted in, what they at least think is, religion. I do believe that and this puts me at odds with a lot of people that I know who would prefer to think that no, ideas don’t really mean anything, they’re just excuses for people to be the way that they are and I don’t believe that at all. Taking that aside, there’s still going to be a huge amount of variation that’s there. Yes, there’d be certain things that are cut off from you, so, for example, you hold to whatever you were taught at the Qaraweeen in Morocco, I don’t think that it’s going to be plausible for you to stick to that and, at the same time, join a group like ISIS, for example. You’d have to say goodbye to a lot of this stuff in order for you to do that, so there will be things that you will be”immunized” from. At the same time, does that mean that everybody who goes through that system is going to think that the king is Amir al Mumineen and should never be questioned or it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a variation of approaches there. I suspect the latter more than anything else.  

Peter Mandaville 34:23    

There are a couple more questions or topics that I’m hoping that we might be able to touch on while we have you. One of them is to delve into the entanglement, the political insecurity entanglement of traditional scholarship in recent years. From the mid 2000s onwards, there have been a number of governments in the Middle East that have pursued efforts that have appeared to try to position them as purveyors of moderate antiextremist Islam and we saw this coming out of Jordan to some extent, certainly Morocco, and the GCC subregion has been active in this space in recent years with countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, to some extent, being involved in pursuing projects and conferences and summits focused on pluralism and tolerance and moderateness and interfaith solidarity building, including, sometime,s fairly high profile relationships or what appear to be relationships of patronage between those governments and particular religious scholars. Some of it is obvious, the longstanding relationship between the Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi and the authorities in Doha, and of course, more recently the prominence of Abdallah bin Bayah and we’ve just had just this past weekend the latest meeting of the Forum for Peace and Muslim societies that the Sheikh presides over. I wanted to get your views on how we should parse and make sense of the politics of official engagement within sponsorship of religious scholarship in the present political insecurity contexts.  

H.A. Hellyer 36:15    

Before I get to that, the examples you’ve given are very clear examples as to why there’s no single sort of explanation here. Yusuf Qaradawi is not, religiously speaking, quite the same mold as someone like Abdullah bin Bayah, and yet the loyalty aspect or the support of a particular government and not criticizing the government, to say the least, but also supporting its approaches beyond, that’s pretty much shared, even though they come from very different backgrounds and approaches to religion, more generally speaking. I think that’s important because I think people forget that. I would also say that when you look at Turkey, if we want to include that in the discussion as well, that you’re going to find differences there too and that those differences don’t necessarily mean that those who don’t support Erdogan are going to be “anti-traditionalist.” It won’t make any sense when you do that. Too many examples will be outside of that neat equation and there’s a lot more that goes on here. In terms of your actual question, which is a very important question, I’d say that all of the countries you mentioned, and then more on top of that, when they are involved in instrumentalizing Islam for political purposes, invariably, they’re going to try to create some sort of narrative or image that fits within their political projects. The Saudis did it, the Turks did and I continued to do it and the Saudis continued to do it as well. The Qataris did it, the Egyptians, the Emaratis most certainly, the Moroccans, whenever Islam is instrumentalized, especially when it’s partisan, but even when it’s not partisan, differences on the basic level of the state and the state isn’t a contested political authority that, that’s going to be the case pretty much everywhere. Some try to do it more often than others. It used to be that the big interfaith meetings that you heard about regionally speaking would be in Doha and then there’s obviously efforts by the Saudis to do stuff like that as well. There was the King Abdulaziz Interfaith Center, which was previously in Vienna, which seems to have moved to Portugal recently.That’s a Saudi initiative. When it comes to Egypt, there’s domestic stuff, but also more international stuff that relates to that, but of course, Egypt has religious plurality in the country itself, so it has a different impetus. The Emiratis, as you noted, have their Forum going on this week. They’re definitely in that space and that also plays into soft power politics as well on a geopolitical level. The temptation that I’m always worried of is saying that one country is doing it to the exclusion of others. I think that depending on where you’re talking about in time, if you go between 2000 and 2005, you will see this country is more active, between 2005 and 2010, this country is more active, et cetera. I think that it depends very much on where they’re at at the present time. You brought up the UAE, the UAE wasn’t really doing this stuff outside of the country or with an outward facing approach until about 2011 or 2012, before that they were doing a lot of this sort of stuff, but it was all domestic. It was all very much about internal affairs. Egypt does a lot of stuff domestically, internationally it does a lot less, but that’s also a function, frankly, I think of focus and financial resources. The Qataris don’t really do much on domestic religious diversity because they don’t have much of it whereas they do a lot more on international stuff. The Saudis, the Saudis have been going through a very interesting phase, to put it lightly, over the last few years because Mohammed bin Salman is certainly not interested in political pluralism, but you also saw a noted Shi’i Lebanese scholar just being given citizenship of Saudi Arabia, but he’s a Lebanese scholar that opposed Hezbollah. When religion is instrumentalized, invariably, those states are going to have to say, we’ve got the real McCoy and all you lot are wrong. Now, they might make it explicit. They might just have it as implicit and sometimes very strange relationships come up as a result. You have places like the Azhar, which is extremely aware, on a leadership level, of its own approach to religion and it’s very critical of purist Salafism coming from Saudi and yet quite happily go off to Riyadh or Jeddah and participate in conferences that are hosted by the religious establishment that they frequently criticized at home. I don’t know if that really answers your question or not, Peter, except to say that I think a lot of countries are doing that. It’s not that they’re all doing it the same way or to the same extent. As I said, if you go to different time periods, one country is probably doing it more often than others, but frankly it’s pretty much inevitable that if they want to instrumentalize Islam for political purposes, then they’re going come to this one way or the other. The Turks, the Egyptians, the Qataris, the Saudis, the Emiratis, it’s an equal opportunity enterprise and it can be used for very deleterious effects and arguably very good ones as well. Religion can also be a mobilizing factor for many different places. Again, that’s not something to ignore. Religious belonging can be deployed in a way to bring people together, for them to collaborate on issues of mutual,good, etcetera, but it can also be used for really bad things and we’ve seen that a lot over the last decade, in my opinion,  

Peter Mandaville 42:14    

I really like your answer, Hesham, because you make it impossible for us to simply embrace a crude rejection of such efforts out of the assumption that this is nothing other than cynical, instrumental mobilization of religion on the part of the state in order to achieve certain specific security or political agendas. Certainly there are elements of that in place sometimes, but there’s also a far more complicated background to this in many cases and what might first appear is not always the case. When you dig into and understand what in international relations theory is, we might call, the various two level games that are being played by various governments that engage in this f effort. I wanted to conclude our time with you today by asking a more forward-looking question. It’s an omnibus question about the changing global geography of traditionalist scholarship. Obviously we have talked about many of the conventional mainstay figures and locations associated with traditionalist scholarship, but I know that you’re also someone who follows emerging trends, are yourself connected to a vast and very diverse range of geographies that include places like Malaysia and South Africa, and so I wanted to invite you to talk a little bit about connections between traditionalist scholars globally, between the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, about Alawi networks and how they’re changing and just get from you your sense of what are the emerging trends in traditionalist scholarship and to what extent are we seeing a different geography emerge as being more relevant in these kinds of debates and discussions, including, if I might add, the impact of these changes on traditionalist formations as they exist in Europe and North America.  

H.A. Hellyer 44:17    

The way that I would interpret change would be to see students, where are students going? That’s the way that I would try to map it. When it comes to the last decade, the upheaval as a result of the Arab spring has meant that fewer people were coming to Egypt for a certain period of time. Although I think that they’ve basically come back because, again, it’s a new generation of people. Syria, virtually nobody is going to Syria anymore because of the security situation. Yemen was never a place where a huge number of people went because it was a lot harder to get to and a lot harder to stay and now the COVID-19 situation is making things a lot more difficult when it comes to that. That’s not really changed too much. I think the biggest question has to be, are there going to be countries that allow for a wider environment of openness where people will flock to as a result of that openness. When it comes to Turkey, if you’ve noticed over the past few years, a lot of Syrian scholars have moved to Turkey and then a lot of people are trying to set up things in Turkey. This is not necessarily a situation that is always going to be the same. For example, a few years ago, the Gulen movement in Turkey was not described or characterized as it is now, so that’s one difference. The political standing of the president, Erdogan, was very different as well five years ago, let alone 10 years ago, and the economic situation was very different as well. All of these things do play a role in terms of are institutions going to be built, are people going to flock to those institutions or not? When it comes to people who would have ordinarily gone to study in places like Mecca and Medina, are they still going to want to do that under a new authority where there wasn’t much openness to begin with, but you did have people who were able to give classes outside of institutions like Um al Qura or Medina University and so on. That’s gone and that’s gone because of the overall overarching set of restrictions that Mohammed bin Salman has been responsible for, at least according to the studies that I read. That means that people who would have ordinarily gone to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to study, they’re not going to do that anymore. They’ll go for pilgrimage, they’ll go for visitations and so on, but they won’t do long periods of study there because they don’t want to just go to the university. They want to study with scholars privately in their homes or in the mosques and so on and if that’s not available anymore, then they simply won’t. I know of cases like this, people who have come from Southern Africa, for example, who would ordinarily have gone to Mecca to study and saying, no, we’re just going to go to Egypt and Egypt has its problems. Egypt is an authoritarian state, et cetera, but Egypt is a place where we can find circles of knowledge that are outside of the university and we can participate in those and we can benefit from those. We can’t do that any more in Mecca. I think major population centers outside of the region are going to try to just keep doing what they’ve historically been doing and where they’re unable to continue in quite the same way, they’ll try to make adjustments. The biggest new hub in that regard, and I don’t think it’s huge, but I think it’s interesting to watch, is Turkey because for the first time in recent history at least, Turkey is a place where you don’t need to learn Turkish in order to study with Arabic speaking scholars, you can do your studies without having to learn the Turkish language, especially if you want to take from that Syrian experience, then yes, you’re far better off going to Turkey rather than going to Syria right now. That will be something that’s interesting, even if we imagine in 5 or 10 or 20 years time, if the situation in Syria looks very different, there might be a new experience that has been tried and tested in Turkey and that could be something very different, but again, all of this is up for grabs because the situation in Turkey could change. The economy is not in a good state and the economy plays on politics. The political fortunes of different political parties and figures are very likely to be affected by that. I think it’s an interesting time to just keep watching and I think over the coming years, there is still flux in all of these places. There’s flux taking place in religious establishments and political establishments. I think it’s an interesting time to watch and to see how this all unfolds.  

Peter Mandaville 49:03    

I’m hearing the flux. I’m hearing up for grabs. Such a fascinating portrait that you’ve given us, Hesham, of incredibly complex dynamics around these issues and I really genuinely believe that there are very few people out there that would be able to give that kind of broad global perspective in ways that captures the big picture while, at the same time, preserving enormous nuance in the way that you think about and talk about these issues, so thank you so much.  

H.A. Hellyer 49:31    

I know one guy, I know somebody, his name is Peter Manderville, he’s actually not too bad.  

Peter Mandaville 49:36    

That’s not true at all. We’re so grateful to have the chance to host you on the Maydan Podcast, Hesham, to learn from you. We hope that you will come back again in the future to let us know how the up in the air and up for grabness and the flux side of things are going, so thanks so much for being with us today.

H.A. Hellyer 49:55    

My pleasure. Thank you so much, Peter.

[Closing Music]


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