Baker Institute study challenges conventional wisdom on state religious officials in Middle East

Who speaks for Islam and who holds religious authority in the Middle East? A new study from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy aims to provide answers by identifying the channels of influence between religious leaders who claim to hold Islamic authority and individual Muslims across the region.

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

The findings depict a complex religious space in the Middle East that reflects its citizens’ nuanced approach toward religion and the religion-politics relationship, said A.Kadir Yildirim, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute, who oversaw the study and discusses its scope and significance in a paper published this week, “The New Guardians of Religion: Islam and Authority in the Middle East.”

Supported by the Henry R. Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, the study will feature additional papers by country-specific and topical experts that will be posted in the coming weeks at www.bakerinstitute.org/research/new-guardians-religion-islam-and-authority-middle-east.

As part of the study, the researchers conducted an original 12-country public opinion survey that asked nearly 16,500 respondents their views on 82 religious leaders. The survey included direct questions about the respondents’ approval of and trust in these religious leaders. Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, the researchers also aimed to gauge the respondents’ views of these religious leaders indirectly, Yildirim said. To this end, they used endorsement experiments.

“This experimental design allows us to make a series of religious statements the focus of the respondents’ evaluation instead of the religious leaders themselves,” he wrote. “The combination of alternative methods to map religious authority in the region enables us to reach a more comprehensive set of conclusions than we would be able to by using a single method.”

The researchers found that the popularity and religious influence of Islamist actors vary across the region. “On one hand, Islamist figures obtained notable levels of approval from respondents in most countries in our survey,” Yildirim wrote. “Likewise, they were found to be trustable at significant levels compared to most other figures in our survey. On the other hand, survey respondents were notably more lukewarm about Islamists when asked about their views on religio-political issues in our endorsement experiments. Islamist names typically garnered negative endorsement scores in our endorsement experiments, indicating that respondents were more likely to disagree with a statement when it was endorsed by an Islamist leader.”

The study fundamentally challenges the conventional wisdom on state religious officials, Yildirim said.

“Our study shows that state-affiliated religious leaders have largely outperformed our expectations in terms of having the trust and approval of large segments of respondents in all countries in our survey,” he wrote. “This finding holds with the endorsement experiments as well. Importantly, state-affiliated religious officials have the most influence in countries where the state employs religion and religious discourse as a key element of its national identity, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iran and Jordan. However, considered in tandem with the relatively weak performance of Islamists in our study, particularly in endorsement experiments, it is evident that the support that state religious officials receive is conditional on ensuring a nonpartisan approach to religion. Maintaining that nonpartisan position is key to their stature as legitimate religious authorities.”

The most concerning finding in the study is that extremist religious discourse has a sizeable audience, Yildirim said. “Respondents in our survey did not express support for local or transnational extremist figures such as the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when asked directly in the trust and approval questions,” he wrote. “However, endorsement questions revealed a dramatically different picture. In several countries, support for al-Baghdadi was among the highest when asked indirectly in endorsement experiments. Such support is particularly strong among respondents from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco — countries that send the highest numbers of foreign fighters into Syria.”

Yildirim emphasized, “It is important to caution against securitizing U.S. foreign policy engagement with religion in the Middle East because it carries the serious risk of delegitimizing the local religious actors who are involved in such engagements. This is particularly a concern for state religious officials who are viewed and instrumentalized as agents of moderation. Religion permeates various aspects of life in societies across the Middle East. Reducing it to extremism and extremist violence alone compromises the ability of the U.S. foreign policy to engage with a much larger population and a broader set of issues.”

Yildirim’s main research interests include politics and religion, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.