By A.Kadir Yildirim, Fellow for the Middle East, and Mason Reece, Center for the Middle East Intern
In a study supported by the Henry R. Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, we examine the nature of religious authority in the contemporary Middle East. Who speaks for Islam in the Middle East, and who wields religious authority?
Religion and religious authority are valuable political resources — ones that various religiopolitical actors such as Islamist and fundamentalist (Salafist) groups and governments use throughout the region. Despite its to a well-grounded conception of how religion and politics interact, we lack comparative cross-national data on Islamic authority in the Middle East. The non-hierarchical and decentralized structure of Islamic authority and the dynamics of a free market of religion make it imperative to have such data.
Our study on religious authority in the Middle East was animated by three key observations about the region’s religious space and three related questions. First, Islamist actors across the region have enjoyed widespread electoral popularity. Does this political popularity translate into religious favorability and authority for Islamists? Second, state-affiliated religious leaders are generally assumed to lack the charisma, intrigue and authority other religious leaders are deemed to possess. State affiliation is presumed to undermine their authority. How much influence and authority do state religious officials actually have? Lastly, there are some strong undercurrents of (violent) extremism in the region, as evidenced by the presence of Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliates. Is there a strong support base for extremists among the broader population?
As part of this study, we conducted an original 12-country public opinion survey that asked 16,497 respondents their views on 82 religious leaders. The survey included direct questions about the respondents’ approval of and trust in these religious leaders. The results depict a complex religious space in the Middle East that reflects its citizens’ nuanced approach toward religion and the religion-politics relationship. Full results of this study are available here. Here, we briefly visualize some of our key data at the aggregate level.
Map plotted by Mason Reece, Center for the Middle East Intern
This interactive map depicts the results of the questions about respondents’ approval of and trust in these religious leaders, varying by leader and by country. It can be accessed at this link, or by clicking on the map above.
The map displays the results of the original 12-country public opinion survey — specifically the section concerning respondents’ views on religious leaders. In each country, respondents were asked their views on 13 religious leaders; in total, 82 religious leaders from across the region were named in the survey. We assessed views on these religious leaders in two different ways. First, respondents indicated whether they approved or disapproved of each name in the list they were shown. Second, respondents were asked to indicate their level of trust in these 13 religious leaders. Data was then combined into city specific and country specific data, which is then displayed on the map. The survey’s appendix, with more detail, can be found at this link.
The selector menu is the main component of the right sidebar, allowing the user to change between the data displayed on the map.
- The first selector can be changed between trust and approval, switching the question displayed and changing the color scheme. Trust is in green; approval is in orange.
- The second selector changes the name of leader — but only the seven leaders that every respondent in every country was asked about. The other leaders’ results can be seen in the pop-up (described below).
- The final two buttons are toggles to show or hide the cities (represented by dots) or the countries. Cities are also automatically hidden when zoomed out.
At the bottom, the scale is displayed for the question displayed (trust or approval). For trust, the values range between 1-5, while for approval the values range between 0% to 100%. The trust scale is scaled linearly; however, the approval scale is exponential to better highlight differences, since the data is significantly right-skewed.
When a country is clicked on, the ensuing pop-up will display a chart depicting all of the leaders asked about in the respective country. The charts are split between transnational leaders (a list given to respondents in all countries) and national leaders (a list given only to respondents in this country). Each bar is color-coded according to the category of leader. A more comprehensive analysis of this data, including references and full images of these charts can be found here.
When individual cities are clicked, the ensuing pop-up displays the results for all of the leaders respondents were asked questions about in that country. The pop-up also shows the city name and country.