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

Religious leaders frequently acquire significant influence over political affairs. But how does this politicization in turn affect their authority on matters of religion? We develop and test competing theoretical expectations for this question using a survey of more than 12,000 Sunni Muslim respondents in 11 Middle Eastern countries, where religion and politics are closely intertwined. Drawing on descriptive questions and a conjoint experiment, we demonstrate that open political involvement tends to undermine the authority of religious leaders, even when individuals agree with their political stances. Instead, religious leaders are perceived as more authoritative when they cast themselves as apolitical experts. These findings contribute to research on Islamist movements by revealing significant limitations to their religiopolitical messaging. The results also contribute to the broader literature on religion and politics by suggesting that religious leaders are more likely to drive social and political change when they maintain their distance from politics.