Baker Institute expert: Islamic countries built mosques to bolster regime stability

In countries ranging from Morocco to Yemen, national mosque construction from the late 1970s through 2010 was the result of political elites’ anxieties over regime instability posed by Islamist activists, according to new research by an expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

Drawing on an analysis of 25 countries that recognize Islam as their official religion, Annelle Sheline, the Zwan Postdoctoral Fellow at the Baker Institute, found that mosque construction increased after 1979’s Iranian Revolution when political elites adopted a strategy of Islamic nation-building, using national mosque-building to visually manifest their regimes’ religious authority.

Sheline’s article, “Constructing an Islamic Nation: National Mosque Building as a Form of Nation-Building,” was published this month in the journal Nationalities Papers.

A scholar of religious authority in the Middle East who also holds an appointment at Rice’s Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, Sheline examines “the empirical puzzle of why two-thirds of officially Islamic states (in the Middle East and North Africa) constructed a national mosque between 1979 and 2010,” she wrote. “Although factors such as rulers’ self-aggrandizement or economic incentives likely played a supporting role, they cannot account for the specific time period, and pressures associated with Islamist activists offer the best explanation for the increase in mosque construction after 1979.”

The increase of national mosque construction ultimately made the practice ubiquitous among all officially Islamic states, converting it into an important part of national identity, Sheline said. “National mosques in these contexts represent a nation-building strategy to undermine the standing of Islamist groups by reclaiming physical, visual and rhetorical religious space,” she wrote.

Sheline added, “By constructing visual representations of the state’s power over religion, political elites hoped to visually demonstrate their power and authority as well as undermine that of the Islamist opposition. The construction of a national mosque signals a shift in political elites’ strategy of nation-building toward a greater emphasis on Islam in the public sphere and, specifically, as a component of the national identity.”

Sheline focused on three cases of national mosques built after 1979, analyzing three monarchies: Jordan’s King Abdullah I Mosque and King Hussein Mosque, completed in 1989 and 2005, respectively; Morocco’s King Hassan II Mosque, completed in 1993; and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, completed in 2001.

All of the 25 officially Islamic states have a large congregational mosque in their capital cities, according to Sheline’s article. In all 25 cases, the mosque functions either officially or unofficially as the national mosque. Such mosques serve as a state space as well as a religious space in their capacity as the staging ground for official religion. These mosques are where the head of state is photographed praying during national and religious holidays, and from which the Friday sermon is typically broadcast on state television. Being located in the capital city, national mosques are a physical reminder of the religious authority of the state in officially Islamic contexts, Sheline said.

Islamist activists are defined by Sheline as individuals interested in making Islam more central to public life.

“Following the events of 1979, political elites viewed Islamist activists with greater trepidation and sought to consolidate regime control over the religious sphere by signaling the Islamic character of the nation through the construction of a national mosque,” Sheline wrote. “The continued popularity of Islamist groups throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, reinforced political elites’ anxieties about Islamist activists, and the need to assert the religious authority of the state, and the Islamic identity of the nation.”

Monumental architecture has long been associated with the projection of political power, Sheline said.

“In Muslim majority societies, political and economic elites often chose to demonstrate their prominence as well as their piety by constructing large congregational mosques,” she wrote. “Similar to the construction of a cathedral, temple or other grand religious structure in non-Muslim contexts, a large mosque could signify or elevate the importance of a given location. In the era of nationalism, the tradition of building monumental structures has often been used to glorify the nation. Architecture is frequently noteworthy in the national capital, as the institutions of government are typically housed in structures intended to evoke national pride. As empires transitioned to states, leaders often sought to dignify newly established capital cities using architecture.”

Future scholarship could expand the scope of the inquiry beyond officially Islamic states to evaluate how mosque-building is used for Islamic nation-building in countries like Turkey, Indonesia or Kazakhstan, Sheline said.

“The findings offer guidance for considering how religious structures have been used by nation-builders to signal national identity in non-Muslim contexts that may have previously been overlooked due to the perceived association between secularism, modernity and nationalism,” she wrote. “Temples, churches, synagogues and other religious structures built by the state can be fruitfully studied from a comparative perspective as emblems of nation-building.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.