Richard A. Nielsen

Neubauer Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



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The Changing Face of Islamic Authority in the Middle East

Richard A. Nielsen
Middle East Brief 99, May 2016


Since 2014 when ISIS declared itself a new Islamic caliphate, the questions of what is Islamic authority and who wields it today have taken on a new urgency. In this Brief, Dr. Richard Nielsen explains the changing nature of Islamic authority in the Sunni Muslim Middle East. The Brief demonstrates that there is a distinction between those nominally in authority and those who actually have broad influence, and describes how traditional Muslim authorities have lost ground to new, more ideologically diverse clerical voices. The Brief also argues that the decline in the influence of state-employed clerics means that governments that have previously relied on religious authority now risk actually undermining it when they seek religious cover for their political projects. Taken together, the evidence presented here shows that religious authority in the Middle East is not as absolute as it often appears to outside observers. Even the most influential clerics face substantial limitations on their ability to change worldwide Islamic discourse around contested issues like the correct definition of “jihad.”

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