Social Science Research Council Research AMP Mediawell

Preaching Politics: How Politicization Undermines Religious Authority in the Middle East

Yildirim, A. Kadir; Williamson, Scott; Grewal, Sharan; Kuenkler, Mirjam
British Journal of Political Science

A growing body of research demonstrates that political involvement by Christian religious leaders can undermine the religion’s social influence. Do these negative consequences of politicization also extend to Islam? Contrary to scholarly and popular accounts that describe Islam as inherently political, we argue that Muslim religious leaders will weaken their religious authority when they engage with politics. We test this argument with a conjoint experiment implemented on a survey of more than 12,000 Sunni Muslim respondents in eleven Middle Eastern countries. The results show that connections to political issues or politically active religious movements decrease the perceived religious authority of Muslim clerics, including among respondents who approve of the clerics’ political views. The article’s findings shed light on how Muslims in the Middle East understand the relationship between religion and politics, and they contribute more broadly to understanding of how politicized religious leaders can have negative repercussions for religion.