Regulating Islam

Religion and the State in Contemporary Morocco and Tunisia

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Sarah J. Feuer
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     238 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sarah J. Feuer’s richly detailed monograph focuses on the logic behind state regulation of Islam, using the education systems of Morocco and Tunisia as case studies. In Regulating Islam: Religion and the State in Contemporary Morocco and Tunisia, Feuer seeks to explain the variation in state policies around religion, and uses three primary factors to do so: regime ideology, political opponents, and institutional bureaucracy. At the same time, Feuer invests in contradicting narratives that have placed “secular” and “religious” against one another in a binary framework. One of the monograph’s greatest strengths is developing a clear theoretical framework while providing an in-depth history of the political, religious, and educational systems in Morocco and Tunisia, both of which can be used by specialists in many different fields.

Although there are many excellent works on education and nationalism including Moha Ennaji’s Multilingualism, Cultural Identity, and Education in Morocco (Springer, 2005) and Fida Adely’s Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith and Progress (University of Chicago Press, 2012), Feuer’s comparative treatment of Tunisia and Morocco begins with a broader theoretical perspective and shows the reader how this theory can be applied through two comparative historical analyses. Feuer’s theoretical chapter is carefully laid out and shows how each factor will be measured with historical evidence and interviews. For example, to measure the robustness of a regime’s institutional endowment Feuer asks a series of questions: Is the regime represented by a hegemonic political party (one that is popular, widespread, and active)? Could individuals join the party, become active, rise through the ranks? What does bureaucracy and civil service look like in the country? How is the educational system managed? How are teachers trained? How centralized is this system? How are the reforms implemented? These questions allow the reader to imagine the historical analysis to come and how they might apply these theories to another case study. While in theory the three factors of political opposition, regime ideology, and institutional endowment work interactively and concurrently, Feuer acknowledges that the actual lived examples are much more complex.

The subsequent chapters deliver the detailed historical examples and analysis that helps bring Feuer’s framework to life. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Morocco, and chapters 4 and 5 on Tunisia. The first chapter in each set (2 and 4) examines how the larger theoretical factors of regime ideology, political opposition, and institutional endowment develop between 1956 and 2010 in each country. The second chapter of each set (3 and 5) dives into historical narratives, interviews, and case studies to flesh out Feuer’s arguments. Independence from French colonization provides an opportunity to examine how this constellation of factors produced different outcomes as Morocco and Tunisia began to reshape their national identities.

Morocco has what Feuer terms a traditionalist ideology of legitimation, derived from the king’s descent from the prophet and the dual role of the king as head of state and commander of the faithful. Feuer argues that Tunisian Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali relied on non-traditionalist ideologies of legitimation because religion was not a main justification for their claims to power. Nonetheless, both Tunisian heads of state drew on religious rhetoric at different times and incorporated religion into their official duties. Morocco’s institutional endowment was weaker, and a co-opting of political opponents’ demands in the 1970s to introduce more Arabic into the education system created massive teacher shortages without clear structures for training new teachers for the Arabic curriculum. In comparison, Tunisia had an extremely strong institutional endowment, and Bourguiba did not pursue full-scale Arabization of the education curriculum. As a result, Tunisia did not face the same teacher shortage as Morocco, even though both countries faced similar pressures of introducing Arabic into a largely Francophone education system following independence.

With around seventy interviews to supplement archival research, Feuer is able to describe the educational reforms in Morocco and Tunisia year by year, matching them with the impact on individuals, reforms to bureaucratic institutions, changes in the political landscape, and reaction from the governing regime. Feuer also introduces the term “identity bargaining” to describe when a regime uses aspects of their constituents’ identities to trade concessions in exchange for lessened pressure to fulfill other demands (63).

As Feuer details throughout the chapters on Morocco, the regime faced pressure from political opponents that sometimes resulted in a rural-urban split, as when it created alliances with some leading tribes to stave off the power of the opposition Istiqlal party (81). However, the Hassan II regime also brutally repressed mainly rural, Amazigh areas of the country, particularly in 1958-59, following the attempted coup in 1971, and airplane hijacking in 1972. As Bruce Maddy Weitzman examined in The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (University of Texas Press, 2011), the tension between Arab and Amazigh identity in Morocco and other North African countries has been a question of national identity, education policy, and even of the role of religion. While Feuer focuses on Arabization of the education curriculum as it relates to French or English, the author neglects the debates on Berberization and Imazighen heritage which so perfectly align with the term “identity bargaining.” Both Tunisia and Morocco have mixed Arab and Imazighen heritage, which has been a point of contention in debates on national identity, education, and religion in the decades since independence. By referring to both countries as Arab, Feuer misses the opportunity to analyze another dimension which would enrich the monograph’s theoretical framework.

Nonetheless, in this case study of two North African countries, Feuer deftly demonstrates that her theory can be applied to different contexts. She additionally challenges the distinctions between secular and religious frames of governance and offers a nuanced explanation of religious regulations in Morocco and Tunisia over the past sixty years. Feuer’s target audience may be her peers in the fields of religious studies and political science, specifically those who study secularism, authoritarian governance, and state regulation and regime survival, but for area studies specialists and scholars of international education, Feuer’s monograph skillfully illustrates historical, educational, and religious facets of the Moroccan and Tunisian political landscape

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jessica Lambert is a doctoral student in Anthropology at Boston University

Date of Review: 
September 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah J. Feuer, an expert on politics and religion in North Africa, is a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She completed her Ph.D. in politics at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies, and previously earned her M.A. in Middle Eastern history from Tel Aviv University, Israel, and a B.A. in history and French literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa, including stints living in Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. Dr Feuer is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and has published in Foreign Affairs and Politico, among other outlets.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.