Islam as statecraft: How governments use religion in foreign policy

The discussion of Islam in world politics in recent years has tended to focus on how religion inspires or is used by a wide range of social movements, political parties, and militant groups. Less attention has been paid, however, to the question of how governments—particularly those in the Middle East—have incorporated Islam into their broader foreign policy conduct. 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; these all embody what we term in this new report the “geopolitics of religious soft power.”

The paper explores the religious dimensions of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, looking at how the Islamic outreach strategies of the two governments have evolved in response to changing regional and global environments. We assess the much-discussed phenomenon of Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabism, arguing that the nature and effects of Saudi religious influence around the world are more complicated than we ordinarily think.

Meanwhile, since 9/11 and the rise of ISIS, the governments of several prominent Muslim-majority countries, among them Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt, have positioned themselves as the purveyors of a “moderate Islam” capable of blunting the narrative of extremist groups. We also look at Turkey and Indonesia as examples of emerging powers that, with somewhat less fanfare, have integrated elements of religious outreach into their broader soft power strategies across Asia and Africa.

Across these wide-ranging cases, the ways that states use Islam in their conduct abroad is often shaped by domestic considerations and, by the same token, the impact it has in target countries is frequently something other than intended due to the mediating effect of local actors and contexts.

We ultimately argue that while states are not always able to control the religious narrative or its effects, it is nonetheless important—and growing more important—to pay attention to the increased salience of culture, religion, and ideas in the context of an emerging “post-liberal” world order.