Nov 20th 2018
In the 21st century, students of world affairs will have to sharpen their understanding of a related but distinctly different phenomenon: the projection of religious soft power, mainly in the form of rival versions of Islam. That, at least, is the contention of two senior fellows at Brookings, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid have just published a 30-page paper as a foretaste of a project that will look in more detail at the dissemination of religious influence by individual countries.
As they point out, religious soft power in the realm of Islam is associated in many people’s minds with one binary contest. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, spread Sunni pietism with a fundamentalist edge, and a brand of Shia Islam that goes long on grievance, victimhood and resistance to the existing world order.
It has become a commonplace that since the 1970s Saudi Arabia’s masters have been using their oil wealth (and the prestige that goes with hosting the holy sites) to disseminate their own version of back-to-basics Islam by funding mosques, tracts and organisations which can often supplant locally rooted varieties of the religion. During the cold war, this was blessed by the West as a counterweight to communism; much more recently, an upsurge of Saudi-inspired Salafist Islam has been regarded as an unexpected side-effect of turbulent popular uprisings. Meanwhile, since the Iranian revolution of 1979, that country’s clerical masters have tried to gain global traction through Shias and other non-Sunni minorities in many lands.
So the binary picture isn’t false, but the authors plead for a more nuanced understanding. Many other countries and regimes are projecting their particular versions of Islam internationally. These include the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, both eager practitioners of emollient inter-Islamic and inter-faith diplomacy; and the elected Islamists of Turkey who (despite turning furiously against the once-mighty global network led by Fethullah Gulen, the exiled preacher) continue to sponsor mosques in unlikely places, from America to the developing world. Even Indonesia is trying to win global sympathy for its own Muslim culture and its approach to de-radicalisation.
As for the activities of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the authors note, they are neither monolithic nor invariably successful. Iran’s clerics may be trying to wield influence over the Shia majority in Iraq, but instead Iraqi-inspired theology is gaining traction among Iranian seminarians. The Saudis lavishly funded bodies like the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, only to find them partially taken over by the pragmatic, populist variety of Islamism propagated by the global Muslim Brotherhood, with its roots in Egypt.
Within each country, moreover, the range of actors involved in religious-power projection can be quite broad and confusing. As the authors note, the religious attachés attached to Saudi embassies have often been “viewed with suspicion by the kingdom’s foreign ministry, which worried that their not-always subtle activities would create tensions with the local government and population.”
Private donors are often as important as the state in the spreading of Turkish Islam, of which one striking example is the establishment of mosques in areas of Africa where Turkish-led construction projects are in progress.
All this must be rather surprising to Mr Nye, who developed his concept of soft power, in part, as a way of showing how Coca-Cola and disco dancing were helping to win the cold war for the West. He might scarcely have imagined that his analytical template would one day be applied to different varieties of a conservative, revealed religion.
In truth, religious-power projection long predates the superpower competition of the late 20th century. It was practised by most of history’s traditional empires, whether the faith they propagated was Christian, Muslim or any other. What is different about the 21st century is that technology makes it easier than ever to enter the hearts and minds of people thousands of miles away. Advertisers and political propagandists know that, and so does every variety of preacher.