The literature provides a mixed picture of how religion and ideology shape the claims of states and non-state actors. For instance, in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the state is aware of a growing respect for Islamic values among the younger generation. To stop opposition movements using Islamic narratives as a source of legitimacy, the state draws on nationalist ideology to strengthen its claim to authority and also curtails the display of religious symbols (Matveeva, 2009). Other rulers have sought to bolster their legitimacy by appealing to their Islamic credentials. In Egypt, President Sadat launched an ambitious mosque-building programme (Gilsenan, 1988). Similarly, Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi aimed to increase his legitimacy with a mosque-building programme in Muslim countries across the Sahel.
When religion threatens state legitimacy
In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the younger generation tend to be more religious than their secularised fathers. Islamic political movements such as Nashriya-i Hizb-i Nahzati Islomii Tojikiston (the Islamic Renaissance Party) or Hizb ut-Tahrir are active in both countries. Their claims that they can provide better security, growth and welfare at the local level because they fear God and are thus incorruptible, resonate with the young generation. The secular ruling party in Uzbekistan uses the law and nationalist ideology to counter this message. The country imposes strict limits on religious observance including the wearing of Muslim dress by non-clergy in public) and local customs and traditions to counter the message of foreign clergy. Imams also have to pass a political awareness test, know the national anthem, be familiar with the president’s writings and express support for the state, president and constitutional order to counteract religion as a competitive source of legitimacy (Matveeva, 2009).
In China, socialist ideology has recently been reformulated to increase the regime’s legitimacy in the face of potentially weakening legitimacy from increasing economic growth and nationalism (Holbig & Gilley, 2010). Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both invested much conceptual energy and large sums of money in modernising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology (Holbig & Gilley, 2010). Hu Jintao required all 70 million party members to familiarise themselves with ‘Sinicised Marxism’ and founded an Academy of Marxism whose aim was to develop theoretical innovations of Marxism and compile new Marxist textbooks catering to the tastes of younger generations. While the Chinese government regularly polls its citizens to measure its legitimacy, this data is not publically available so it has not been possible to assess the impact of CCP’s reintroduction of ideology.
In terms of non-state groups, religion and ideology have been used to delegitimise existing power structures and systems of inequality throughout history. Recent examples include Al Shabaab’s successful use of Islam to create an identity across clans in Somalia and to promote a more pluralistic representation of different clans than that promoted by the traditional clan structure. This increased their legitimacy among the younger generation and those who were members of less powerful clans (Mwangi, 2012). Likewise, part of the source of legitimacy of the Pakistani Taliban for people living in the province Khyber Paktunwa is drawn from their rhetoric on the need to dismantle the feudal system and promote equality between the classes (albeit a Wahhabist version of equality where women are subservient to men). In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers used Marxism to increase their legitimacy among lower castes (Biziouras, 2012). The Irish Republican Army (IRA) drew on human rights ideology to legitimate their claims to better treatment in British prisons.
As Beetham’s conceptualisation of legitimacy indicates, the use of religion or ideology will gain legitimacy only among those who share similar beliefs and values to that promoted by the religion/ideology. Thus the legitimacy of the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its Islamic principles and rejection of liberal democratic philosophy, was accepted by a broad swathe of the more conservative/religious Iranians but was questioned by most of the non-Muslim West for precisely the same reasons. The use of Islam to promote equality between clans or classes by Al Shabaab and the Pakistani Taliban resonates with Muslims who experience inequality in each of these countries, but it fails to gain these groups any legitimacy among non-Muslims both domestically and internationally. In contrast, the IRA’s use of human rights ideology resonated with some British citizens and increased the legitimacy of its demands. In analysing the influence of religion or ideology in shaping legitimacy claims, it is clear that different actors wield tradition/religion, nationalist, ethnicity-based, ideology international or other narratives of legitimacy to mobilise different actors for distinct political purposes.
- Biziouras, N. (2012). The formation, institutionalization and consolidation of the LTTE: Religious practices, intra-Tamil divisions and a violent nationalist ideology. Politics, Religion & Ideology, 13(4), 547–59. See document online
- Gilsenan, M. (1988). Popular Islam and the State in Contemporary Egypt. In F. Halliday & H. Alavi (Eds.), State and ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan (pp.167-90). London: Macmillan.
- Holbig, H., & Gilley, B. (2010). In search of legitimacy in post-revolutionary China: Bringing ideology and governance back in (GIGA Working Paper No. 127). GIGA. See document online
- Matveeva, A. (2009). Legitimising central Asian authoritarianism: Political manipulation and symbolic power. Europe-Asia Studies, 61(7), 1095–1121. See document online
- Mwangi, O. G. (2012). State collapse, Al-Shabaab, Islamism, and legitimacy in Somalia. Politics, Religion & Ideology, 13(4), 513–27. See document online