Preaching Politics: How Political Contestation Affects Religious Authority in the Middle East (With A.Kadir Yildirim, Sharan Grewal, CJ Freer, Mirjam Kuenkler, and Yusuf Sarfati)

The Islamic faith is fiercely contested by political actors in the Middle East. Islamist movements have leveraged religion to challenge incumbent authoritarian governments, and these governments have responded by strengthening their control over state religious establishments. Despite the centrality of this contestation to the region’s politics, there is little systematic research that explores how politicization has affected perceptions of religious authority. Drawing on novel survey data from more than 11,000 respondents in 11 Middle Eastern countries, we assess whether the authority of religious figures continues to depend on traditional indicators of religious expertise, or whether authority has become dependent on political factors including independence from the government and political beliefs. A conjoint experiment indicates that authority is discounted when religious figures participate in politics or follow more politically active approaches to Islam, while expertise in religious affairs remains a strong driver of perceived authority. We argue that these findings indicate an authority advantage for state religious officials at the expense of opposition-oriented Islamists, and we use descriptive survey questions about religious figures in the 11 countries to provide support for this claim. The findings illustrate limits to the appeal of Islamist movements, and they suggest that state-affiliated religious establishments in the Middle East may exercise greater religious authority than is commonly assumed.