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The Rise of Islamic Soft Power

Religion and Foreign Policy in the Muslim World

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

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

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