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Islam has become a major, even obsessive, topic of public debate over the past two decades. From efforts by Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power through the ballot box to the violent radicalism of the Islamic State (or ISIS), the dominant image of Islam in world politics has been that of a religious ideology pushed by nonstate actors who wish to see a more “Islamic” form of politics. But what about states themselves?
Conflicts between Middle Eastern governments often appear to be about hard power, and in many cases they are. Saudi Arabia is leading a war in Yemen against the Houthis, which it views as a stand-in for Iranian expansion. But there is another side to most Muslim governments: they, too, use—and abuse—Islam for political ends.
In nearly every Muslim-majority country, Islam is an important—and sometimes the only—ideological currency that mixes effectively with more standard realpolitik. With the decline of both socialism and pan-Arabism in the Middle East, the only real ideological competition to Islam comes from nationalism. But nationalism, by definition, is difficult to promote outside one’s own nation. This means that governments—even relatively secular and progressive ones—have a powerful incentive to insert Islam into their foreign policy, using religious ideas to increase their prestige and promote their interests abroad—to deploy, in other words, what we call “Islamic soft power.”
There’s a catch, however. Once “Islam” is injected into public debates, how citizens interpret their religion is transformed from a private act of faith into a matter of national security. Governments feel compelled to directly involve themselves in debates around the nature of Islam or else risk leaving an ideological vacuum for domestic challengers to fill. In other words, internal disagreements over Islam’s role and relevance in everyday politics shape how states use Islam abroad.
Once “Islam” is injected into public debates, how citizens interpret their religion is transformed from a private act of faith into a matter of national security.
In one sense, the use of Islamic soft power is nothing new. Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars to fund mosque building, the dissemination of (often controversial) religious texts, and scholarships to study in Saudi religious universities. The export of the Saudis’ ultraconservative version of Islam has been driven by the royal family’s and the religious establishment’s sense of obligation to spread Islam, but it has also served a geopolitical purpose, allowing Saudi Arabia to contrast itself and compete with regional rivals, such as Egypt under the secular-nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser or Iran after 1979. Tehran has similarly used Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary brand of Shiite Islam to portray itself throughout the Muslim world as an anti-imperialist Islamist power.
Since the Arab revolts of 2011, however, Islamic soft power has emerged as an increasingly important part of a new geopolitics of religion, as we discuss in a recent report. To an even greater extent than in the past, today’s Muslim governments are attempting to shape religious discourse and control religious knowledge in order to pursue their own national interests.
Take the October assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, which provided the odd spectacle of a rigidly Islamist regime killing a writer it accused of being an Islamist. Today, Saudi Arabia opposes a particular kind of Islamism—that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet decades ago, Saudi Arabia was only too happy to provide sanctuary and jobs for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, outsourcing aspects of its vast proselytization apparatus to affiliates of the Islamist movement. Exiled Brotherhood figures were given faculty positions in Saudi universities, and many populated the senior tiers of Saudi-funded international religious organizations, such as the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. But after the 2011 revolutions, when Brotherhood-affiliated political parties won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, royal families in the Gulf increasingly came to see the movement as an existential threat to their regimes’ survival.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates now label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Fearing that the group’s mix of religious piety and organizational skill will allow it to appeal to their populations, they warn of the dangers of Islamism. Yet the anti-Islamists are just as likely as the Islamists to mix religion and politics—only in a different way.
Anti-Brotherhood governments are aggressively trying to assert control over religious institutions and promote what might be called “statist Islam”—a version of the religion that is, above all, subservient to the interests of the state. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has called on Al-Azhar University to update and modernize its approach to Islamic sources as part of a wider "religious revolution" that can counter both the oppositional Islam of the Brotherhood and the violent, extremist Islam of ISIS and al Qaeda. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) pledged in 2017 to return Saudi Arabia to a tradition of “moderate Islam” that he claimed was once prevalent in the kingdom. He has curbed the influence of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, taking away their authority to make arrests, and issued harsh sentences against independent religious figures such as Sheik Salman al-Awda, a hugely popular cleric with a Brotherhood-friendly streak. Whereas previous Saudi monarchs and senior royals have always allowed for at least some give-and-take with the country’s religious establishment, MbS has made it clear that for him, moderate Islam is not just about rejecting ISIS but about promoting deference to existing political authorities.
The other two Gulf powerhouses, Qatar and the UAE, have also developed distinctive approaches to supporting and promoting religion abroad. Qatar has positioned itself as a patron of Muslim Brotherhood–style Islamism, providing—much to the chagrin of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—a sanctuary for Islamist dissidents and hosting a range of broadly pro-Brotherhood media outlets. The UAE, meanwhile, has quietly emerged in the past decade as the chief patron of a number of major Sufi scholars and has funded high-profile conferences that bring together not only Muslim leaders from across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East but Christian and Jewish leaders from Europe and the United States, too. A major theme of these conferences is religious pluralism, but it is a quietist pluralism that does not challenge the state.
For the United States and other Western powers, the realities of Islamic soft power complicate attempts to understand Muslim-majority allies. Washington should recognize, first, that internal competition over the role of Islam and Islamism cannot be contained within a country’s borders and that the foreign policies of authoritarian allies are not—and cannot be—insulated from intra-Islamic struggles at home. This means that even for U.S. officials with little interest in human rights, there remain important reasons—along strictly “national interest” lines—to pay close attention to how regimes suppress their domestic opponents. Human rights abuses cannot be bracketed as a matter for naive idealists not schooled in the hard realities of realpolitik.
Various U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have picked up some bad habits when it comes to embracing religious actors that their Arab allies tout as solutions to religious extremism. Like the UAE, Jordan and Morocco have also positioned themselves as champions of “moderate Islam,” a supposed antidote to religious extremism. Western governments have lauded their sponsorship of interfaith summits and the creation of training centers for religious leaders—even as the jury remains out on the effectiveness of these initiatives. After all, the religious institutions involved are often viewed by populations in the region as mouthpieces of the very governments they despise. These are hardly credible voices.
Winning hearts and minds, however, is not necessarily the point. The use of Islamic soft power is meant to serve governments more than it serves Muslim publics. Almost without exception today, those vying for dominance in the Middle East have embraced various forms of religious outreach in their regional strategies. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s paranoia around Iran’s assertiveness across the region has led Riyadh to encourage, or at least turn a blind eye to, virulent and at times violent anti-Shiite sentiment from Saudi and Saudi-linked preachers, particularly in countries, such as Lebanon and Iraq, where Tehran has a strong presence. On the one hand, these clerics are engaging in a full-throated condemnation of what they genuinely view as heresy; on the other hand, their expressions of faith serve the agenda of a Saudi state that views Shiism as an avatar of Tehran.
Iran, for its part, has sought to stoke sectarian tensions in countries such as Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon, where Shiite populations experience discrimination and disenfranchisement. Iran cannot afford to engage in outright anti-Sunni agitation, which would alienate the vast majority of Muslims. Instead, Tehran draws on symbols of Shiite persecution from Islamic history in an attempt to equate incumbent Sunni regimes with the anti-Shiite perpetrators of the past. In each of these examples, geopolitics and Islam are inextricably intertwined, so much so that it is hard to know where the former ends and the latter begins.
Although Islam has always been present in the region’s politics, its importance has grown in recent years—thanks not only to the convulsions of the Arab Spring but to decisions made in Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump, like his predecessor, Barack Obama, has tried to disengage from the daily irritations of Middle East politics and hand over more responsibility to Arab allies. This has encouraged these allies—particularly Saudi Arabia—to adopt more aggressive foreign policies, which has in turn required an ideological language for sustaining that aggression. Islamic soft power, whether in the form of anti-Shiism or “moderate Islam,” offers just that.
More broadly, a shift is taking place around the world as doubts build about the future of liberalism and the U.S.-led “liberal international order.” With the global consensus around liberalism fraying, more space is opening up for ideological combat. If the United States continues to withdraw from its role in promoting a predictable world order, competition around Islam—who defines it, who speaks for it, and who gets to mobilize it for their own ends—looks likely only to intensify.