Annelle R. Sheline is a research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a non-resident fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her research focuses on religious authority in the Middle East, examining the intersection of religious and national identities in the Arab monarchies, and emphasizes implications for combating violent extremism.
In late May 2019, the Muslim World League gathered over 1,000 Muslim religious leaders from 139 countries for a conference on “Centrism and Moderation” in Mecca. The conference produced the “The Mecca Document,” a 29-point declaration of the Islamic commitment to principles of nonviolence based on Qur'anic verses and Sunnah. The gathering preceded a trio of summits convening the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation at the invitation of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in the holy city of Mecca.
The Mecca Document represents the latest in a string of declarations issued by Muslim religious scholars (ulama) to denounce various acts of violence carried out by Muslim individuals. Other examples include the Amman Message of 2004, when King Abdullah II of Jordan invited ulama from around the world to affirm the shared principles of Islam in response to declarations of apostasy (takfir) that Al-Qaeda used to justify the killing of Muslims.
In 2006, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia gathered Sunni and Shi’a religious leaders to release the Mecca Declaration, condemning sectarian violence in Iraq.
In 2010, the former Mauritanian minister of justice, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, convened religious leaders in Mardin, Turkey to issue a correction of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Mardin fatwa, which Al-Qaeda used to justify killing non-Muslims.
In 2016, King Mohammed VI of Morocco asked global ulama to draw on the Charter of Medina, established by the Prophet Mohammad in 622 CE, to affirm the rights of non-Muslims in the Marrakesh Declaration, a response to atrocities carried out by ISIS against Yazidis and other religious minorities.
The Muslim religious leaders that attend such gatherings tend to be affiliated with the religious bureaucracies of their home countries, and are not necessarily seen as particularly credible sources of religious authority, especially by the individuals that carry out the attacks that such events are intended to condemn. Given that such declarations are unlikely to reduce the likelihood of violence, what is their intended purpose?
Blaming Islam Rather Than Authoritarianism
The proliferation of such declarations after September 11, 2001 is significant. After 9/11, powerful actors like the United States demanded that so-called “moderate Muslims” denounce the actions of the “radicals” that had carried out acts of terrorism. The view persists that all Muslims must condemn the actions of their co-religionists, though critics have pointed out that acts of violence by Christians, Jews, or members of other religions do not typically generate similar demands, as such individuals are not seen as representative of their collective faith.
Simultaneously, such declarations offer an opportunity to members of the official religious establishment to reassert their religious authority. Decades of rising literacy combined with the spread of new technologies—from cassettes to social media—and the popularity of unofficial, unaffiliated religious figures have eroded the authority of state affiliated ulama, and so declarations provide a public forum in which to try to re-establish their relevance.
And yet the Muslim political leaders that frequently convene such gatherings and issue statements decrying violence may contribute to the view that Islam is collectively at fault, and that Muslim religious leaders bear some responsibility for the actions of individual adherents. This is due, in part, to the willingness of Muslim political leaders to blame a “misinterpretation” of Islam for violence. If a corrupted form of Islam is seen as culpable, leaders in the Middle East can avoid acknowledging the ways in which political and economic inequalities in their own states reinforce authoritarianism, domestic coercive apparatuses, and state-sponsored brutality, all of which can provoke violent responses from those targeted. From the perspective of Arab dictators, blaming a certain interpretation of Islam for extremism deflects attention from their mistreatment of political activists, while allowing them to play the role of savior by promoting so-called “moderate Islam.”
International allies like the United States accept an explanation that confirms Islamophobic assumptions, and also obviates the responsibility borne by the United States in continuing to support dictatorial regimes in the name of stability, despite an alleged commitment to democracy. Declarations like the Mecca Document allow actors like Saudi Arabia to assert their alleged commitment to tolerance, despite the kingdom’s routine acts of violence, both against domestic political dissidents as well as international targets like Yemen, Syria, and more recently Sudan.
Declaration Proliferation as Global Phenomenon
The apparent inconsistency between a stated commitment to nonviolence alongside state-sponsored bloodshed is hardly limited to Muslim political leaders. International relations theorists have long debated whether commitments to international institutions measurably influence states’ behavior. For example, state commitments to protect human rights do not necessarily correlate with the actual protection of human rights. Scholars have shown how membership in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is just as likely to worsen or not affect state respect for human rights as it is to improve it.
Given the anarchic nature of the international system, no authority exists to enforce international agreements, so realists would be unsurprised by states’ willingness to violate them. Yet one might assume that states which invoke religion—a source of transnational authority that remains undertheorized by international relations scholars—face stronger constraints on behavior if they wish to retain spiritual legitimacy.
Even so, state-affiliated religious officials do not tend to be seen as authoritative, particularly among individuals that reject the legitimacy of the authoritarian regimes they represent. Efforts to ground such declarations in the Qur'an, hadith, and other texts can also prove challenging, as the foundational religious texts of most faiths are rife with contradictions and can be used to justify incongruous behaviors.
Even if a declaration issued by religious scholars is grounded in authoritative and unambiguous scriptures, the individuals that issue them have few mechanisms to enforce their edicts. In this manner, statements like the Mecca Document and the Marrakesh Declaration may intentionally resemble those issued by the United Nations. The UN also lacks enforcement mechanisms, a structural feature baked into the institution’s founding in 1945. Issuing a declaration is one of the few things the UN can do, and so declarations begin to resemble ends in themselves, rather than a stated commitment to a subsequent plan of action.
And yet such declarations are often seen as significant: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was issued in 1948 following the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, inspired subsequent declarations, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN in 1959, and was based on a set of seven principles established by the League of Nations in 1924. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was itself modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen by France’s Constitutional Assembly in 1789, which drew from the United States’ Declaration of Independence in 1776, which was inspired in part by Enlightenment-era philosophy as well as the Magna Carta of 1215.
Although these documents were and are imbued with significance, most were established without a clear plan for their implementation. Some include enforcement mechanisms, others are primarily intended to affirm a shared commitment to so-called universal values pertaining to human rights, equality, and dignity. If such declarations are seen as legitimate even if many lack concrete measures to compel compliance, then texts like the Mecca Document can hardly be criticized for following a similar model.
Yet although declarations issued by the UN are not always followed or enforced, the principles they affirm are relatively uncontested: although human rights violations occur regardless of the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is not significant dispute over the idea that humans should have fundamental rights.
When declarations are issued in the name of Islam, they often emulate the conceptual simplicity of UN declarations. Yet seeking to reduce a vast and complex religious tradition to a single principle, such as “tolerance,” will only satisfy an uninformed student of religion. When Muslim religious leaders seek to derive authority from UN-style declarations but do so by stripping down the nuances of Islam, they lose the legitimacy of both.
Declarations as Track II Diplomacy
Alternatively, the purpose of an apparently ineffective declaration may lie in the gathering it precipitates, rather than the content of the declaration itself. For example, the recent meeting of the Muslim World League was followed by meetings of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Mecca. Prior to the meeting of the OIC, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman invited the emir of Qatar, who sent the prime minister as his representative. The invitation generated media buzz, amid hopes that the development might signal a thaw in the Gulf crisis. Although the conflict remains unresolved, it is possible that Saudi and Qatari representatives met in private under the auspices of the gathering. The OIC issued the Mecca Declaration following the summit, which affirmed the member states’ support for Palestine and rejection of infringement on national sovereignty.
Although declarations may lack a concrete plan for enforcement, the relationships between participants forged behind the scenes may result in more cordial relations in the future, or at least the potential for them. Under this interpretation, the declaration may merely be the public face of the more consequential private agreements and relationships.
Yet while declarations like the Mecca Document may be comparable to other examples of international summitry and statement production, the religious character of the meetings should not be overlooked. Messages and declarations that result from a gathering of religious leaders represent the geopolitics of religious soft power, an arena of increasing competition among Muslim political leaders.
When Morocco’s King Mohammed VI released the Marrakesh Declaration, it was acknowledged by President Barack Obama. Delegates from non-Muslim organizations such as the United States Institute of Peace attended as an expression of their support for the declaration’s objectives. The initiatives by Jordan that followed the Amman Message included the Common Word Initiative, which was intended to highlight spiritual commonalities with Christians and prompted a united response from an ecumenical group of Christian leaders. Jordanian efforts eventually resulted in the UN annually observing World Interfaith Harmony Week. More recently, the UAE hosted Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi, who joined Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar, to sign a document of fraternity calling for an end to religious conflict.
Declarations as Religious Soft Power
These initiatives appear primarily intended to bolster the religious authority of their host governments, both in the eyes of their domestic constituents as well as the international community. These governments also compete with co-religionists to establish the primacy of their religious authority, representing a form of “religious outbidding.” Saudi Arabia’s decision to convene back-to-back summits in Islam’s holiest city may have been partly motivated by the Emirates’ hosting of Pope Francis, which marked the first time a Catholic pontiff has visited the Gulf, an event to which the Saudis were not apparently invited. Note that the Saudi government framed the recent summits in Mecca as an expression of King Salman’s desire to consult with his Muslim allies in response to aggression from Iran.
Saudi Arabia likely desires to underscore that it is they, not the UAE, and certainly not Iran, who speak for transnational Islam. Given that last year’s GCC meeting took place in Riyadh, the OIC in Istanbul, and the Arab League in Dhahran, the selection of Mecca as the location of all three summits this year may be intended to remind Muslim allies of Saudi Arabia’s religious preeminence.
Furthermore, unlike the Amman Message, the Marrakesh Declaration, and the Washington Declaration, the Mecca Document was released only in Arabic and relied heavily on religious texts, underscoring that it was intended primarily for an Arabic-speaking Muslim audience. Subsequent coverage in English was simplistic, including a Newsweek opinion piece by the head of the Muslim World League, Muhammad al-Issa.
Saudi Arabia faces a different set of challenges than other Arab states that seek to build or wield religious soft power. When Jordan released the Amman Message or Morocco the Marrakesh Declaration, they could target these initiatives at non-Muslim audiences without unduly risking their religious credibility. In contrast, Saudi Arabia had spent decades exporting its version of Wahhabi Islam, which it portrayed as the most correct interpretation of the faith.
Issues such as the strict segregation of genders and the enforcement of rules around modesty for both men and women, but especially women veiling, were framed as the manifestation of Saudi piety and adherence to a higher caliber of Islamic norms. The recent altering of religious rules, or their characterization as “marginal,” may alienate the many Muslims who once emulated the Saudi example. Therefore, the summitry in Mecca may be intended to reinforce Saudi religious authority at the international level.
The Saudis may hope that the Mecca Document builds international Muslim support for Saudi Arabia’s rhetorical endorsement of “moderate Islam,” a position most publicly signaled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in autumn 2017. The Saudi government’s efforts to overcome the kingdom’s reputation for extreme conservatism threatens to undermine Saudi Arabia’s Islamic authority. The shift could potentially appear to some conservative Muslims as an abrogation of Saudi Arabia’s self-proclaimed status as the world’s most properly Islamic society.
Historically, Saudi Arabia exhibited minimal concern for its image in the eyes of non-Muslims, focusing almost exclusively on deploying its religious soft power in a manner that appealed to conservative Muslims, both domestically and internationally. It remains to be seen if Saudi Arabia can successfully retain its religious soft power while also adopting a more “moderate” image.
The proliferation of declarations issued by ulama on behalf of their respective governments is likely to continue. They provide an opportunity for Muslim political leaders to signal their commitment to the international security agenda while vilifying Islamist opposition actors as terrorists. They also allow members of the official religious establishment to proclaim their own importance.
Yet such initiatives tend to rely on cherry-picked versions of historical religious documents, while ignoring more exclusivist or “problematic” aspects. Overly simplistic engagement with complex texts reinforces the tendency to view Muslims as bound by ancient scriptures, rather than capable of reinterpreting their religious traditions in a manner that accords with their individual values.
Treating Muslim religious texts as causing either aggression or tolerance reinforces the essentialization of Islam that contributes to Islamophobia while also overlooking how specific policy decisions and state repression motivate violent reactions and contribute to extremism. International summitry and the proliferation of declarations, as modeled by organizations like the UN, may appear as a relatively harmless opportunity to affirm the relevance of participants. However, while the UN may be able to retain legitimacy even if its declarations are not always effective, making a declaration on the basis of an overly simplified Islam that ignores the nuances of religious texts is likely to only appeal to non-Muslims, while alienating Muslims looking for real engagement with their religious tradition. The broader dynamics at play suggest that the long-term effects of “declaration proliferation” may be more counterproductive than they initially seem.
Editor's Note: These articles were written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, a partnership between Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Brookings Institution supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective authors.