Religious Authority and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Principal Investigator: A.Kadir Yildirim

The purpose of this project is to study the nature of religious authority in the contemporary Middle East. The notion of religious authority is central to understanding the interplay between religion and politics, particularly in the Middle East. Yet our understanding of Islamic authority in this part of the world is severely limited despite the rising prominence of religion in the region’s political landscape. Islam’s largely decentralized and non-hierarchical structure of religious authority – with the exception of some hierarchy within Shiite Islam – presents us with a free market of religion. In order to analyze Islamic authority in the Middle East, this project proceeds in two interrelated directions.

First, we examine how Islamic authority is distributed across the region. Three questions guide our research: 1) who speaks for Islam in the Middle East, 2) who wields religious or sacred authority, and 3) to what extent do the region’s most politically active groups, such as Islamists and fundamentalists, possess or exert religious authority?

Second, we analyze the underlying dynamics of religious authority in the Middle East. Specifically, the project maps the channels of influence between various religious actors in the region (i.e., Islamists, Salafists, state religious agencies, religious scholars and Sufi groups) and the individuals that they court. We will examine: 1) why individual Muslims confer legitimacy to the claims of religious authority made by various groups, 2) which demographic groups are more likely to be associated with certain kinds of religious actors, and 3) how religious actors sustain their authority over time.

Data and Outputs

The project is composed of two main parts. First, survey experiments will be performed in 12 countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Second, the principal investigator and the project’s country directors will perform fieldwork in five countries across the region: Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Tunisia, and Turkey. Face-to-face interviews will be conducted with representatives of a diverse group of religious actors. The survey data will provide a snapshot of religious authority in various contexts while the fieldwork will allow for examination of the specific mechanisms through which the authority is built and maintained. This project is the first of its kind; to date, no region-wide, systematic investigation of religious authority in the Middle East has been undertaken.

The findings of the project will be published in two forms: first, in a comprehensive report following a May 14, 2018, workshop at the Baker Institute in Houston; second, in a policy report that will accompany a March 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. This conference will allow the dissemination of the project’s findings to a broader policy community.


The nature and structure of religious authority carry major implications for both the domestic politics of Middle East countries and U.S. foreign policy in the region. The mapping of Islamic authority in the Middle East can inform decisionmaking on various policy issues in the region, such as pluralism, democratization, and the public role of religion. In addition, a nuanced and data-based representation of the relationship between religion and politics — such as the one this project creates — is an opportunity to devise foreign policies that can better address major issues that are fed by religious fervor, such as violence and radical extremism. Improved foreign policies can be developed and implemented only if policymakers understand the true nature of religious authority in the Middle East. Relying on quantitative and qualitative data, the project introduces a new focus to policy debates and builds on the findings of existing scholarly literature.


This project is generously funded by
The Henry R. Luce Initiative
on Religion in International Affairs