Negotiating Statist Islam: Fatwa and State Policy in Singapore

Afif Pasuni


This article examines how state-linked religious actors negotiate religious demands in a secular authoritarian state. There is a prevalent assumption that such religious actors lack the agency to affect state decisions. I do not seek to challenge that proposition, rather to qualify it by identifying the scope and extent of their authority. Taking the state as an autonomous actor, I examine fatwas or official religious edicts in Singapore through the lens of ‘policy feedback’, which analyses how the bureaucratisation of religious institution created new legal and bureaucratic channels that shape state policies. This paper aims to primarily answer the following question: What role do fatwas play in shaping statist interpretation of religion? I answer this by looking at the historical development of religious bureaucracy in Singapore – which includes the fatwa institution – and analysing the role of fatwas in relation to state policies. I argue that the bureaucratisation of religion not only regulates religious demands, but creates a juncture for religious institutions to inform and contest statist version of Islam though policy feedback, a concept that has thus far been only partially applied to economic issues. Policy feedback explains how religious demands are negotiated at the bureaucratic level and is particularly instructive in clarifying the discourse between the state and the fatwa institutions, which underlines that the policies and programmes of the autonomous state can be influenced by the very demands of religious bureaucrats. This paper also introduces Statist Islam as an original concept with which to conceptualise the amalgamation of statist and religious interests, and considers how the informal authority of fatwas continues to function beyond the legal and bureaucratic restrictions set by the state.

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