Utrecht Religie Forum

Blogs en video's

How to Control Religion 101

Have you ever wondered how important religion can be for state leaders? Do you know how they try to keep what they see as ‘disturbing’ religious ideas under control? If you want to have key information to start answering those questions, this blog post is for you.

In the Netherlands, the legitimacy of decision-makers is largely based on the fact that they are elected. If you vote, you implicitly agree with the idea that elected politicians will make choices in your name as your representatives. This is, however, not the case everywhere. In some political systems, non-elected leaders play an important role in the decision-making process. The legitimacy of quite a few of these rulers is largely dependent on religion. In such cases, these leaders make sure that religious messages spread in their society do not go against their interests.

Regulating ideas

There are many ways to control the spread of a message and the rise of specific groups in a society; some of them are not specific to religion. These techniques range from repression and co-option to strategies including divide-and-rule and bureaucratisation. They can all be used to inhibit some religious groups and support others. First, leaders can use the physical power of the state (the army, the police, the security services) to arrest, torture, imprison or intimidate the members of specific religious groups that threaten their legitimacy.

Religious actors who have ‘disturbing’ views can also be integrated into the state-system. Then, leaders hope that they will modify their discourse and behaviour once they understand their interest in becoming more moderate and staying within the limits of the system. State leaders can also try to fuel the disagreements within the groups they consider threatening. As such, they use them to weaken those movements or even cause their dissolution. The state can also create a legal framework to regulate those groups. It can impose limits in terms of number of members, activities that are authorised, funding sources, etc.

Controlling religious messages

Beyond those general tools, specific actions can be taken to target religious movements. The state can decide to turn preachers into civil servants. They thus become dependent on the state for their salary and must respect its rules to keep their job. That means the state chooses to hire some – and not other – preachers and can select those who represent the official religious interpretation. It can also impose training on all its employees and attempt to make them spread the state’s religious interpretation. Then, decision-makers can also resort to more specific tools of control, including the regulation of the content of preaching. This can range from imposing topics that preachers must address to detailed speeches that need to be read.

Of course, the efficiency of those methods depends on many parameters. These include the history of the country and its religious movements, its context, the receptivity of its population to religious messages, etc. Of course, these are only a few examples of the many techniques that rulers can use to try to limit the spread of alternative religious messages.

Astrid Bourlond is a PhD Candidate in Islamic and Arabic Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. She specialises in religious policies in Jordan.

Image: Barbed wires in front of religious sites in Jerusalem (copyright: Astrid Bourlond)