Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid at the Brookings Institution:
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.