The religious establishment have largely lost credibility among youth in the Muslim world due to a perceived lack of principles. This stems from two causes:
(1) They don’t stand up to those in power
(2) They allow their interests to prevent them from consistently standing by their principles.
The perception of the religious establishment being at the beck and call of the government, as is the case across the Muslim world, severely affects their legitimacy. It gives the impression, normally correct, that they are or would be unwilling to stand up for truth if that entails biting the hand that feeds them. In a conflict between supporting the government and upholding justice they choose the former, particularly in states where the establishment is completely beholden to the government as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
This has greatly diminished the respect held by al-Azhar in Egypt, a formerly prestigious centre of learning in the Muslim world. Its grand sheikh and the former mufti of Egypt both repeatedly and enthusiasticly publicly supported crackdowns and oppression by the Sisi regime, abandoning any pretence of principle (1). Even religious leaders with no official position, such as the preacher Amr Khaled, who had one of the biggest young followings in the Arab world, committed this cardinal error and was abandoned in droves by his fans. This vacuum of legitimacy in the Muslim world has allowed the current situation in which anyone can claim to speak with religious authority. ISIS exploited this successfully, claiming to be the true adherents of Islam who would defend Muslims from the tyrannical leaders as well as foreign intervention – this explains the failure of the traditional establishments to combat their appeal.
Fatwas condemning violence generally only aim at the “easy target” of ISIS, ignoring Sisi’s mass murder of Egyptian protestors, Saudi aggression against Yemen and more. When Abdallah Bin Bayyah, head of the Union of Muslim scholars and one of the most influential and respected scholars in the world, recorded a message to the youth about violence and ISIS he spoke very harshly. However, he has never openly given advice this clearly or harshly to dictators. Bin Bayyah has not been accused of approving of tyranny in any way – he has an extremely principled record – but whether through oversight or otherwise, his fatwa did not cut as harshly in both directions, despite being equally applicable, and did not gain the appreciation of many Arab youth.
This dynamic also exists in the west – many reformist or reform-oriented religious figures have a complete lack of legitimacy among Muslims because they side with the state against their own communities and support policies which target and discriminate against them (2, 3, 4). A connection between western Muslim leaders and funding from the state or any organisations or figures with
Restoring legitimacy to religious leaders and undoing this chaos can only happen when there is a complete separation between religious institutions and politics, removing the conflict of interest that could entice them to abuse religion to gain power. This won’t happen without self-control – only they can make the decision to completely eschew politics.
Restoring legitimacy will also require sacrifice; when they become unaligned with any political side, promoting only principles, they will become the targets of those threatened by them and their principles, as happened to Sheikh Emad Effat (5). When this happens, they will truly be considered on the side of the youth and the Arab spring, and no longer illegitimate abusers of religion.
Ahmed Gatnash and Iyad El-Baghdadi are both writing on the Arab Spring.