In every major Muslim country, governments use, abuse, and instrumentalize religion, but they don’t merely use it; they feature it as a major component of their foreign policy. We tend to think that Islamist governments and parties are the ones that mix religion and politics, to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable. However, the United States’ more secularly oriented and “progressive” Arab allies do it just as much—sometimes even more so.

Why? The short answer is that Islam effectively mobilizes people, and non-Islamist governments in Muslim-majority countries, however authoritarian they may be, cannot hope to be insulated from their own populations—populations that almost without exception remain religiously conservative. Because Islam is so resonant in the public sphere, not promoting a brand of Islam leaves an ideological vacuum, which is simply a nonstarter for authoritarians. Religion, then, becomes not merely a private matter but a question of national security. So governments must monitor and regulate religious knowledge and production. 

As Peter Mandaville and I discuss in a recent report on religious soft power, these regimes—including in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates—have all draped themselves in the flag of “moderate Islam,” each with their own nationalist spin on the concept.[i] In doing so, they seek to counter domestic and regional ideological challenges emanating both from mainstream Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist organizations like the Islamic State, or ISIS. Often, particularly in the cases of Egypt and the UAE, this means blurring together very different domestic and regional ideological challenges into a single, all-encompassing, anti-Islamist narrative. For them, religious extremism isn’t the problem; Islamism is.

Pointing to the instability that the Arab uprisings wrought, authoritarian regimes argue—either directly or indirectly and with at least the implicit support of the US government—that this is not the time for democracy, political reform, or anything that might challenge the existing authorities. Instead, they prioritize religious reform and promote interfaith dialogue. This is not, in other words, the time for anything rash, these countries’ officials caution American audiences time and time again. The UAE has emerged as a primary sponsor of interfaith summits with a focus on religious pluralism and coexistence overlaid with a strong Sufi tenor. In Morocco too, Sufi traditions—which were once associated with rebellion in the colonial era but today tend toward deference to political authority[ii]—figure prominently in Morocco’s brand of domesticated, quietist Islam. As Sarah Alaoui writes, “This quietism is necessary in a country where the king rules over both the secular and spiritual spheres, and heavily relies on Islam—and a purported lineage to the Prophet Muhammad—to legitimate his rule. This control of the religious sphere has only increased post-September 11.”[iii]

All of this raises a difficult but vital question:Can authoritarian regimes, which are by definition suspicious of dissent and free inquiry—bedrocks of religious freedom—truly be champions of religious liberty and pluralism?Arab governments appear to be saying yes they can, and that there is no other way regardless. A second, related question is whether religious pluralism can help pave the way for political pluralism. Empirically, at least in the case of the modern Middle East, the second question invites an easier reply. If religion and politics are inextricably intertwined even under anti-Islamist governments, then to have freedom in one but not the other is simply not possible. If certain religious interpretations are not strictly private but threats to the state’s religious legitimacy and control of religious production, then an authoritarian state will only allow religious expression that does not threaten the state.

This repressive instinct might seem largely cynical—and to some degree it is—but there is a deeper set of philosophical assumptions driving what might be termed repression in the name of tolerance. One might even call it liberal, if we consider the long history of Enlightenment intellectuals in Europe striking Faustian bargains to protect hard-won liberties from the too pious masses. As the political theorist Faheem Hussain notes, “Enlightenment philosophes were prepared to make a spoken or unspoken agreement with authoritarian interests, promising obedience and loyalty as long as core liberal values such as freedom of expression over private beliefs were maintained, at least those opinions that wouldn’t trouble the security of the state.”[iv] Hussain writes, “As the philosophes did before them, Egyptian liberals find themselves within societies that have religious majorities who view liberal ideas as at best religiously problematic, or at worst foreign or infidel.”

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in the eighteenth century, the influences of the emerging liberal culture masked tyranny in rosier glasses. In Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), he elaborates that “the sciences, letters, and the arts…spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down…and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people.”[v]

“Liberal repression” today might seem unreasonable—a convenient excuse for the will to power and subjugation. But it draws on a widespread strain in political science that democracy, to be done well, requires a sequential, multi-stage approach. Before democracy, there must be a democratic culture (although it’s never quite clear how a democratic culture might come to be in an environment that discourages democratic behavior). More importantly for our purposes is the relationship between religious freedom and pluralism on one hand, and political freedom and pluralism on the other. In the sequencing paradigm, the liberalization of religious thinking is both a first step and a prerequisite, setting the foundation for everything that comes after. Hearts must be habituated to democratic ways, and this requires a change in mentality and attitude rather than a change in political behavior.

The sequencing of religious reform first and then—and only then—democracy “worked” for Europe. Far from some well-thought-out grand strategy, however, this sequencing occurred naturally and organically in the nineteenth century. But to impose an outdated step-by-step process on modern societies is an altogether different (and patronizing) prospect. Knowing that democracy, or something like it, is within reach, citizens have no interest in waiting indefinitely for something their leaders say they are not ready for. Today, even as democracy finds itself in relative decline, it remains such a normative good that actively denying people the right to vote for their own leaders requires conscious and continuous acts of suppression.

This suppression is precisely what numerous Arab governments have doubled down on, either suspending political reform or doing away with it entirely. And what drives the re-embrace of repression, after the interlude of the Arab Spring, is a mixture of religious and political insecurity and an almost obsessive need to keep at bay any challengers to political-religious legitimacy. The basic dynamic—of nations and peoples contending with divides over religion’s role in public life and Islam’s relationship to the state—is unlikely to change anytime soon. As I argue in my book Islamic Exceptionalism, Islam, since its founding moment in the seventh century, has played an outsized role in public life and has proven resistant to repeated attempts to privatize it.[vi] Over the span of 14 centuries, the form these “Islams” have taken has changed according to time and place, but it has never disappeared. Even at the height of Middle East’s short-lived secular moment of the 1950s and ’60s—which, rather than a sign of things to come, is better understood as a brief aberration—governments remained intimately involved in religious matters. In attempting to de-politicize religion, they contributed to its ongoing politicization by trying to make it subservient to newly independent nation-states. This itself was a profoundly political position which drew on centuries of classical Islamic thought around deference to political authorities, however imperfect they may be.

What we are witnessing today is an intensification of this basic posture of politicization through de-politicization. The timing is no accident. The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of religiously inspired mobilization, with Islamist movements gaining ground and even power through democratic elections across the region.

In addition, the rise of ISIS as a military and ideological threat created an even stronger Western and international desire for reliable regimes that were willing to use the authority and reach of the state to counter extremist narratives. For their part, authoritarian regimes deftly promoted their authoritarianism to those same Western audiences as a necessary evil in the broader fight against extremism. A strong, relatively “enlightened” state, however repressive, represented the best chance to secure the freedom and safety of two groups that tended to suffer under democratization—religious minorities and women. This was a message tailor-made for Western interlocutors, who were always looking for evidence of a long-awaited Islamic reformation. If the large majorities in these countries were conservative and retrograde on things like minority rights and gender equality, then top-down, authoritarian leadership wasn’t a bug, but a feature. 

Egypt, under General-turned-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was on the extreme end of the repression spectrum, presiding over the Rabaa massacre, which Human Rights Watch called the worst mass killing in modern Egypt’s history, on August 14, 2013.[vii] Yet he came to power by dissolving a democratically elected Islamist government that he (as well as Western powers) saw as holding to an outdated, rigid interpretation of Islam. Even as his government persecuted Shiites, gays, and atheists, Sisi, in a high-profile 2015 speech, called on the religious establishment to modernize its approach to Islamic sources as part of a wider “religious revolution.”[viii]

None of this meant that Sisi wasn’t willing—in a way that his Islamist predecessor never could have dreamed—to rely heavily on the country’s clerical class to justify in explicitly religious terms the killing of Muslim Brotherhood members in Rabaa. As former Grand Mufti Ali Goma’a put it in a video made for the military shortly after the dispersal, “When someone tries to divide you, then kill them… Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them. We must cleanse our Egypt of this trash…they reek. God is with you, and the Prophet Muhammad is with you, and the believers are with you… [Oh God], may you destroy them.”[ix]

That Goma’a and other pro-regime clerics would employ the kind of takfirist reasoning usually associated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State—arguing that Brotherhood members were akin to heretics and therefore their blood was licit[x]—belied the Sisi regime’s dogged promotion of “Egyptian Islam,” “moderation,” and religious tolerance. President Sisi also went out of his way to publicize his partnership with the Coptic Orthodox Church, portraying himself as a protector of Egypt’s Christian minority. Speaking at the opening of the Coptic Cathedral of the Nativity in January 2018, he proclaimed that the inauguration provided “a message for the whole world. A message of peace and love.” He continued, “We present a model of peace and love among us. Love and peace will come out from Egypt and spread to the whole world… Evil, havoc, ruins, and murder will never defeat good.”[xi] 

In reality, Sisi’s tenure has been just as bad—or worse—for Christians as his predecessors’. Discrimination remains rampant, including caps on the number of Christians who can serve in the military, police, and other security agencies.[xii] In one high-profile incident in February 2016, three Christian teens were sentenced to five years in prison for (oddly enough) mocking ISIS.[xiii] They fled the country. The website Eshhad (“Witness”) documents the full scope of attacks and discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities in Egypt.[xiv] Importantly, the database clarifies which actions are from state actors versus non-state actors. While the Egyptian government may argue that many of these incidents are out of its control, there are a striking number of incidents where state actors are implicated.

Then there is the widely praised 2016 church construction law—which might have been considered the Sisi regime’s one concrete step, were it not for its lack of implementation. As the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Stephen McInerney and Amy Hawthorne note, “Under the new law, the Egyptian state has legalized just 24 percent of the unlicensed churches that have applied for formal approval and, remarkably, has approved the building of new churches at an even lower rate than Hosni Mubarak’s regime… Under Sisi, tens of thousands of Christians have been left with nowhere to pray.”[xv]

But optics can go a long way, and Sisi, whatever his faults or however intense or unforgiving his repression, can claim at least one thing: he is not an Islamist, something that would put him in good stead with most American administrations, but particularly the Trump administration, which has repeatedly floated the idea of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. In January 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Cathedral of the Nativity and had words of effusive praise for his Egyptian counterparts. “It is a very special thing to have this in the heart of the Middle East, this enormous cathedral where people can come worship in Egypt,” he said. “It’s a land of religious freedom and opportunity. It’s remarkable.” Or as President Donald Trump tweeted, “Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future!”[xvi]

Similarly, the UAE’s emphasis on being a model of tolerance has, perhaps counterintuitively, coincided with increased levels of repression. In 2016, the UAE established a Ministry of Tolerance. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the minister of tolerance, explained the country’s mission: “We want to restore our real religion, which stems from our holy book the Quran, which believes in living together. It believes in the dignity of a human being.”[xvii] Ahead of his historic visit to the United Arab Emirates—the first-ever papal visit to the Gulf—Pope Francis described the UAE as “a country which strives to be a model for coexistence and human fraternity, a meeting point of different civilizations and cultures. A place where people find a safe place to work, live freely and where differences are respected.”[xviii]

In the case of the UAE, there are virtually no Christians who also happen to be citizens (most Emirati residents are expatriates), but religious pluralism is just as important within faiths as it is between them. And there are only certain kinds of Islamic expression—those that de-emphasize political involvement and do not contest the religious authority of the state—that are permitted in the country. What the UAE does is not “political Islam” in the traditional sense, but it is certainly a politicized Islam. As the preeminent American scholar of the Gulf, Gregory Gause, describes it, “The United Arab Emirates… represents a third trend in political Islam. Official Islam in the Emirates is tightly tied to state authority and subservient to it. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis have no ambition to propagate Islam beyond their borders. Just the opposite—they support anti-Islamist forces in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. This is top-down Islam, but in one country.”[xix] In short, in the UAE, it is not Christians but Muslims who do not enjoy religious freedom.

In Egypt, for similar reasons, Muslims do not enjoy religious freedom either. But Christians are also deprived of their freedoms—not just as Christians but also as Egyptians. Christians, like anyone else, deserve and desire the right to choose their own representatives at the local and national level. When there are no meaningful elections, Christians are affected just as Muslims are. The same applies to restrictions on, for example, the activities of non-governmental organizations. Christians should have the right to join an NGO of their choosing and advocate for the causes they believe in. But under regimes like Sisi’s Egypt that claim to be protectors of minorities, there are no organizations that can operate without fear of running afoul of the government.

This is the danger of cordoning off minority rights as something separate from the overall human rights situation in a given country. Religious minorities aren’t only religious minorities; they are also citizens and shouldn’t necessarily be seen only or primarily through their membership in a minority community. Just like any of their other fellow citizens, minorities may value other things as much or even more than their identity in a minority group—and that may include basic civil liberties and political rights, such as the right to peacefully protest and the right to express their political and religious preferences in a context of free and open public debate.

It is conceivable, at least in theory, that a “liberalizing” authoritarian regime could be good for minority rights, but it is hard to imagine what this would look like in practice anywhere in the Middle East. We have more than six decades and dozens of different regimes whose experiences we can assess and analyze. It is, unfortunately, a record of failure. As the Turkish author Mustafa Akyol notes, “None of these regimes have really given their societies what should be the bedrock of modern civilization: individual freedom. They have suppressed dissent, replaced religious dogmatism with nationalist fervor, and enacted cults of personalities.”[xx]

Despite a rather large number of cases to choose from, neither religious pluralism nor religious freedom has emerged in the absence of fundamental political freedoms. Until one state in the region—any state—can demonstrate otherwise, it is fair to conclude that the former is simply not possible without the latter. Even the regimes most intent on presenting themselves as progressive and “secular” are—and will continue to be—intimately concerned with religious authority and control. Under the authoritarian states of the Middle East, private acts of faith are never merely that. The sequencing of freedoms does, in fact, matter. But that sequence must begin with politics and not theology.  

[i] Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid, “Islam as Statecraft: How Governments Use Religion in Foreign Policy,” Brookings Institution, November 2018,

[ii] Shadi Hamid, “Misunderstanding the Victims of the Sinai Massacre,” The Atlantic, November 26, 2017,

[iii] Sarah Alaoui, “Morocco, commander of the (African) faithful?” Brookings Institution, April 8, 2019,

[iv] Faheem Hussain, “Egypt’s Liberal Coup,” Faheem Hussain – Some Thoughts, August 13, 2014, A shorter version was published on the website Open Democracy,

[v]  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts,” Rousseau: the Basic Political Writings, ed. and trans. Donald A. Cress(Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co, Inc, 2012): 6.

[vi] Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam Is Reshaping the World (New York: St. Martin’s, 2016).

[vii] Human Rights Watch, “UN Human Rights Council: Adoption of the UPR Report on Egypt,” March 20, 2015,

[viii]Dana Ford, Salma Abdelaziz, and Ian Lee, “Egypt’s President calls for a ‘religious revolution,’” CNN, January 6, 2015,

[ix] David Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh, “Egypt Military Enlists Religion to Quell Ranks,” The New York Times, August 25, 2013,

[x] “Full video for the fatwa of Dr. Ali Gomaa on the permissibility of killing and carrying weapons of Kharijites which was introduced to the officers and soldiers,” posted by Dr. Ali Gomaa, August 25, 2013. See also Elmasry, “The Rabaa massacre and Egyptian propaganda.”

[xi] “President Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi speech in Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church,” posted by Egypt Today, January 8, 2018,

[xii]  Marlo Safi, “Is Sisi Good for Egypt’s Christians?” Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2019,

[xiii] Project on Middle East Democracy, “Egypt Daily Update: Teens Receive Max Sentence in Blasphemy Case; Nadeem Center Rebukes Health Ministry Allegations,” Fabuary 25, 2016,

[xiv] Mustafa Rahooma, “Lawyer of ‘Minya Children’: I do not know anything about traveling abroad,” Elwatannews, September 5, 2016,

[xv] Stephen McInerney and Amy Hawthorne, “The Double Talk of Trump’s Favorite Dictator,” Foreign Policy, April 8, 2019,

[xvi] Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “Excited to see our friends in Egypt opening the biggest Cathedral in the Middle East. President El-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future!” Twitter, January 6, 2019, 6:59 a.m.,

[xvii] Aya Batrawy, “UAE’s tolerance embraces faiths, runs up against politics,” Associated Press, February 2, 2019,

[xviii] Associated Press, “His Holiness Pope Francis Sends Powerful Message of Peace and Coexistence Ahead of Historic Visit to the UAE,” February 2, 2019,

[xix] F. Gregory Gause III, “What the Qatar crisis shows about the Middle East,” Washington Post, June 27, 2017,

[xx] Mustafa Aykol, “Islam and the West: Mustafa Akyol Responds,” Law & Liberty, February 28, 2019,