Religion and politics have a long, complicated history around the world, but in the Middle East, religion continues to play a crucial — and at times corrosive role — in the region’s dynamics.
“Whether it is state support for transnational religious propagation, the promotion of religious interpretations that ensure regime survival, or competing visions of global religious leadership,” several Muslim-majority countries are strategically using religion as a form of soft power, according to a report co-authored by two senior fellows at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid.
Using religion to project power is certainly not exclusive to the Middle East. Religion and politics have been inextricably linked around the world for centuries.
But in the Middle East, where varying strains of Islam are integral to, and at times define, a nation’s identity, the interplay between religion and geopolitics can be a combustible mix.
Mandaville and Hamid’s report, “Islam as Statecraft: How Governments Use Religion in Foreign Policy,” says the discussion on Islam in world politics tends to focus on social movements, political parties and militant groups — i.e., the Islamic State’s quest for an Islamic caliphate or the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to enter the political fray.
“Much less attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which a number of governments … have opted to deploy Islam as a component of their own foreign policy conduct.”
For example, the two scholars note that emerging powers such as Turkey and Indonesia push distinctive “brands” of Islam “as part of the cultural diplomacy that accompanies their broader international efforts,” they write. Meanwhile, in countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, government-linked religious institutions promote “moderate Islam” as a way of appealing to Western nations and bolstering their counterterrorism credentials, according to the report, which was released last November.
But two countries in particular use religion as a fundamental component of their foreign policy agendas: Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its Shiite adversary Iran, whose rivalry has created a proxy war that has reverberated across the region and the world.
The Exploitation of Faith
There is little doubt that differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam have created a major schism between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But experts say both countries cynically exploit this religious divide to rile up their publics and further their own geostrategic ambitions.
“The long-standing Saudi Arabian-Iranian rivalry is a sectarian battle, to be sure, but it is first and foremost a conventional geopolitical competition — one that has more recently intensified into a battle for survival,” Mandaville and Hamid write.
The two oil-rich neighbors have long competed for regional influence — a tug of war that has escalated in recent years. Under Saudi Arabia’s de facto young ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has flexed its muscle in Yemen, where Riyadh has spearheaded a military campaign to oust Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels from power. It has also led a largely unsuccessful blockade of Qatar, ostensibly to curb its financing of terrorism, although most experts say Salman wants to turn energy-rich Qatar into a vassal state. Most importantly, Salman has sided with President Trump in targeting Iran as an existential threat to the region.
Meanwhile, Iran’s proxies such as Hezbollah continue to meddle in countries such as Lebanon. In addition, Iranian manpower and money have been instrumental in propping up Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, against Sunni-backed rebel groups trying to oust him. While Iran’s involvement in Syria’s civil war has been hugely costly, it has allowed Tehran to preserve a critical ally in the region.
Behind this projection of power, however, are vulnerabilities that factor into each nation’s calculus. Shiite-majority Iran is encircled by a sea of more powerful, wealthier Sunni-dominated monarchies. Saudi Arabia boasts the Arab world’s largest economy, while a combination of international sanctions and mismanagement has crippled Iran’s economy, leading to widespread discontent at home.
But the Iranians have some geostrategic advantages. Militarily, Saudi Arabia is able to buy much more sophisticated weaponry and technology, but Iran has a larger, more battle-tested army and nimble proxy militias. Population-wise, Iran’s 81 million people dwarfs the 32 million in Saudi Arabia. Like Saudi Arabia, Iran is also home to a highly educated, sizable youth demographic. And the constraints on Iran’s oil exports have forced Tehran to diversify its economy, whereas oil-dependent Riyadh lags behind in making this transition.
Given these factors and Tehran’s substantial oil and gas reserves, if Iran were to ever emerge from international isolation, it could pose a significant threat to Saudi hegemony in the region.
Both governments also purposely stir up sectarian grievances as a convenient way to galvanize national anger at an ideological enemy and deflect it away from their own bungled policies — in Saudi Arabia’s case, its military quagmire in Yemen, and in Iran’s case, its inept handling of the economy.
Mandaville and Hamid acknowledge this cynical use of religion for geopolitical ends — what one scholar termed as “geosectarianism” — which creates a vicious cycle that makes it difficult to distinguish the “religious” from the “political.”
“The religious fuels the political; a worsening political conflict inflames religious passions, and so on,” they write.
They add that projecting religious influence abroad, “far from representing a monolithic and deliberate expression of foreign policy intent,” is often shaped by domestic views on the role of Islam in politics.
“Because Islam is such a resonant political currency and resource, even governments that are viewed as more secularly oriented such as Jordan, Morocco or the United Arab Emirates, have a strong interest — and a strong security interest — in engaging with religious ideas,” they write. “If these governments didn’t directly involve themselves in debates around the nature and purpose of Islam, they would be leaving an ideological vacuum that domestic challengers can take advantage of.”
And that would be particularly dangerous to authoritarian governments because “they tend to see regime survival as inextricably linked to religious legitimacy.”
Given that Saudi Arabia and Iran each claim the mantle of their respective forms of Islam and have engaged in a battle for supremacy in the Muslim world, Mandaville and Hamid focus on Saudi Arabia’s history of “exporting” Wahhabism and on Iran’s unique brand of “resistance culture.”
Saudi Arabia’s Religious Exports
Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabism, the puritanical form of Islam based on a literal interpretation of the Koran that is the dominant sect in the country, has evolved over the years. Mandaville and Hamid note that in the 1960s, for example, Saudi Arabia’s embrace of religious conservatism was seen as a counterweight to the secular nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Interest in Saudi Arabia’s more conservative brand of Islam grew exponentially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, an extremist group that was itself an outgrowth of Saudi-sponsored fundamentalism.
Mandaville and Hamid argue that while the kingdom has spent tens of billions of dollars to promote Wahhabism as a form of soft power, it has not always done so as a concerted government effort. Rather, there are a constellation of Saudi state organizations and non-state entities that have spread this ultraconservative form of Islam around the world.
“It is not the case that there is someone sitting in Riyadh directing money to fund proselytization to specific countries where Saudi Arabia is trying to have a particular affect or achieve a certain foreign policy objective,” Mandaville, who was previously a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department during the Arab Spring, said at the report’s launch at the Brookings Institution on Jan. 8.
The report lists a number of groups loosely affiliated with the Saudi royal family, including the Muslim World League, an organization “established in 1962 through royal patronage to promote Muslim solidarity,” and the Islamic University of Medina, established in 1961 to provide “training in the classical Islamic sciences to Muslims from around the world.”
“The state certainly has a role, particularly through the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Da’wa [or propagation], which for decades has been involved in providing support and funding for everything from mosque building around the world, lecture tours by particular clerics, the distribution and dissemination of certain kinds of textbooks and religious materials,” Mandaville said.
Since 9/11, the Saudis have been more “stringent” in their oversight of religious charitable organizations, Mandaville said. At the same time, various members of the sprawling, and at times competing, web of royal family members continue to act as financial patrons for some of these organizations, making it difficult to determine whether they are acting with the endorsement of the state or not.
There is another reason for the recent shift in how Saudi Arabia promotes its distinct strain of Islam: Crown Prince Salman, who has made an effort to brand himself as a moderate Muslim reformer intent on modernizing the kingdom.
Whether or not he is a true moderate, Salman sees that “pursuing a moderate Islamic branding is very effective from a foreign policy standpoint,” Hamid, who also recently co-edited the volume “Rethinking Political Islam,” told The Diplomat.
Hamid described Salman as an “anti-Islamist,” even though Saudi Arabia is still “one of the most rigidly Islamist regimes in the world.”
In some ways it is a contradiction that Salman “is the de facto leader of what is still to some extent a theocratic regime, and one of the few in the world,” Hamid said.
At the same time, Hamid said Salman “is not a secularist. He believes that religion should play an important role in public life.”
Salman is also practical. He knows he can’t rock the religious boat too much for fear of jeopardizing the historical pact between the House of Saud and the ultraconservative Wahhabi establishment that gives Saudi leaders religious legitimacy. Under this bargain, the monarchy controls political and military affairs, while Wahhabi clerics have ultimate authority over religious and social affairs.
Salman’s reluctance to fully break with this longstanding compact might explain why his modernization efforts have at times appeared schizophrenic. For instance, Salman lifted the ban on women driving last year, earning him international praise, but in the same breath, he jailed several prominent women’s rights activists — possibly as a way of appeasing religious hardliners who feared his reforms were moving too fast.
This contradiction underscores one of the report’s central conclusions: that a state’s projection of religion outside its borders explains a lot about the “competing social and political forces within the country from which it emanates.”
In Saudi Arabia, “deference to stability, deference to the preservation of the state takes precedence over all other concerns, and Islam in this view is supposed to protect the state and be intertwined with the state in order to protect it,” Hamid told The Diplomat.
In other words, the royal family works to project a brand of Islam that reinforces its own legitimacy at home. This is where Saudi Arabia finds common cause with the United Arab Emirates, which also has an interest in self-preservation in regards to how it perceives and promotes Islam.
This, in many ways, explains Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran, a state founded on the idea of “Islamic Revolution,” which continues to support Shiite minority groups across the Middle East that, depending on one’s viewpoint, are either seeking to overthrow existing regimes or standing up against marginalization by the Sunni majority.
Iran’s ‘Resistance Culture’
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia use the narrative of the Islamic Revolution to justify their feud. Salman, in an October 2017 interview with The Guardian, blamed his kingdom’s embrace of ultraconservatism over the last 30 years as a direct response to the Islamic Revolution and Tehran’s attempts to spread that revolutionary fervor across the region.
“We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it,” Salman told reporter Martin Chulov.
But Iran’s theocratic leaders say this zero-sum attitude shows why they must defend themselves against outside forces, particularly the United States, that are seeking to take over the country — just as they did for decades prior to the 1979 Revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini led the overthrow of the unpopular U.S.-backed Shah.
That move gained the Islamic republic unlikely admirers. In the midst of the Cold War, Mandaville and Hamid write that Iran had successfully tapped “into a persistent yearning among many recently decolonized countries for an alternative to the twin poles of U.S. capitalism and Soviet communism.” This helped Iran become an emblem of the non-aligned movement that resisted choosing sides in the Cold War.
“A number of Sunni-dominated countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria saw pockets of conversion to Shia Islam due to Iran’s perceived anti-imperialist credentials in the wake of 1979,” according to the report, which noted that even mainstream Sunni Islamists initially welcomed the notion of Iran serving as an ally against their own repressive regimes.
In addition to emphasizing its anti-imperialist credentials, Tehran became deft at using religious soft power as a tool to advance its tactical objectives, such as stoking Shiite grievances in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Hewing to its “resistance” roots, Iran continues to position itself as “a hub for pushing back against American influence in the Middle East.” It also portrays itself as “the protector of embattled Shia minorities,” backing local Shiite populations in their fights against established status quo governments in countries such as Sunni-dominated Bahrain.
Today, however, Iran is seen as much more sectarian than it once was, in large part because of its support for Assad’s regime in Syria, according to Hamid.
Assad, who is part of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, brutally suppressed an uprising against his minority rule. Sunni powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia quickly joined the fight, backing insurgents against the regime. The resulting violence has killed upwards of 500,000 people and displaced millions more.
Most Sunnis view the Assad regime as odious for using ruthless tactics such as carpet-bombing and gassing thousands of civilians, most of whom are Sunni.
Iran’s alliance with the Assad regime “constrains Iran’s popularity” in the region, Hamid said.
Still, Iran’s flexibility has been “the defining feature of Iran’s soft power strategy since the revolution,” according to the report. Iran tailors its approach based on religious, ethnic, linguistic and historical differences — for instance, stressing its ethnic and historical “Persian” commonalities in its outreach to Afghanistan.
Iran conducts this cultural outreach through the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO).
“Often co-located with Iranian embassies around the world but reporting directly to the supreme leader, ICRO officers provide funding and other assistance for a wide range of cultural initiatives including art exhibitions, libraries, educational initiatives, and people-to-people exchange programs,” Mandaville and Hamid write.
This traditional outreach is being coupled with innovative new technologies as the Saudi-Iran rivalry increasingly plays out in social media and on news broadcasts. “[A]ll of this activity has generated a social environment in the Middle East in which many issues — religious and otherwise — have been viewed through the lens of sectarianism,” the report says.
Religion’s Enduring Political Power
For those in the West, where countries are seeing a generational decline in young people identifying with a religious affiliation, it may be difficult to grasp how potent religion remains in the Middle East.
In his book describing how Islamists and extremists use social media to spread their ideologies and recruit young followers, American scholar Haroon Ullah writes that religion is still a powerful force in the Middle East.
It is a myth that “religious leaders don’t matter — they do,” Ullah told an audience at Boston’s World Affairs Council in June 2018.
Indeed, Muhammad al-Arifi — a Salafi cleric educated at King Saud University — is the region’s “most influential personality on Twitter,” Ullah said.
Of course, this phenomenon is not new nor is it confined to the Middle East. Religion has fueled countless wars throughout history, from the Crusades to the Islamic State’s holy war against the West. And despite America’s bedrock separation of church and state, religion plays a key role in U.S. foreign policy. Evangelicals, for example, are a critical base for the Republican Party and often export their beliefs to countries in Africa and elsewhere. Likewise, Russia has leveraged allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church to build support for its policies in Ukraine and the Balkans.
“Our report and our project primarily focus on the Muslim world, but the story of religious soft power is not one that is restricted to the Muslim world,” Mandaville said.
This story of religious soft power is also continually evolving in today’s multipolar world, as geopolitical actors rely on the unifying power of religion to fill the vacuum left by a “breakdown in the global consensus around liberalism,” according to “Islam as Statecraft.”
“It should not be surprising that the competition around Islam has intensified as America’s role in promoting a predictable and constraining liberal order has declined,” Mandaville and Hamid write.
In a region where the U.S. is still fighting its longest war in Afghanistan and frequently deploys troops to conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, religion has proven to be a long-lasting and deadly opponent.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 scrambled the balance of power in the Middle East, giving Iran a newfound Shiite ally. The Arab Spring, less than a decade later, fractured the U.S.-led order in the region, as President Obama embraced the democratic uprisings, leaving countries like Saudi Arabia questioning America’s commitment to its traditional allies.
The landscape shifted yet again under President Trump, whose desire to extricate the U.S. from foreign military adventures in the Middle East has left Saudi Arabia and others worried about a security void — and the prospect of Iran filling that void. On the flip side, Trump’s cozying up to Crown Prince Salman and his attacks on Iran show that the administration will still be heavily involved in the region’s political machinations.
Taken together, America’s somewhat contradictory policies have had the effect of strengthening and re-energizing religious elements in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Tehran, Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and re-imposition of economic sanctions have empowered religious hardliners. In Saudi Arabia, reforms to modernize the kingdom are likely to face stiff resistance from the Wahhabi establishment, which will seek to maintain its control in the wake of changing regional realities and the battle against Iran.
Mandaville and Hamid argue that given these complex, interconnected dynamics, countries will turn toward their religious ideologies to secure their regimes, a trend that policymakers need to take into account when considering the increasing role of Islamic soft power around the world.
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.