Amr Dalsh / Reuters A poster of Sisi in downtown Cairo, with the al-Azhar Mosque in the background, May 2014.

The Rise of Islamic Soft Power

Religion and Foreign Policy in the Muslim World

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

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