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The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power

Around the world today many states integrate religion and religious outreach activities into their foreign policy and diplomacy as a form of soft power. Manifestations of this trend vary widely, from informal efforts to cultivate solidarity with global co-religionists by states whose history and identity are entangled with religion to more direct deployment of religious institutions and actors in the service of specific foreign policy and national security objectives. The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power (GRSP) project represents a multi-year, cross-disciplinary effort to systematically study the use of religion in foreign affairs. Through a global comparison of varying motivations, strategies, and practices associated with the deployment of religious soft power, project research aims to reveal patterns, trends, and outcomes that will enhance our understanding of religion’s role in contemporary geopolitics.

While the GRSP is global in scope, some project research involves a particular focus on understanding the global impact of transnational religious propagation and religiously inflected cultural diplomacy activities sponsored by several countries in the Middle East—including Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran, and Turkey—which for decades have deployed religion as a form of soft power in pursuit of their evolving foreign policy and other objectives. Project research will consider the motivations, modalities, and mechanisms surrounding state sponsorship of religious soft power. Case studies of multiple countries that have been on the receiving end of such influences will identify and assess the local impact of such activity in various world regions with respect to shifts in religion and culture; levels of societal pluralism and inclusivity; the status of women and minorities; and dynamics of instability, conflict, and violence.

Project outputs will include two edited volumes, a series of policy briefs, various online commentary articles, and working papers, as well as audio and visual resources such as podcasts and short videos. The project will also organize a range of events and public outreach activities to disseminate the research findings. Some of the policy-oriented outputs will be developed, co-published, and disseminated in cooperation with the Brookings Institution. The outputs arising from this project will inaugurate a new field of study around the role of religion in contemporary global politics and will directly address knowledge gaps with data and analysis that can inform and shape scholarship, policymaking, and practice. 

This project is made possible by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with additional support from the Henry Luce Foundation. The statements made and views expressed in project outputs are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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Project Leaders

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Peter Mandaville

Senior Research Fellow

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Shadi Hamid

Brookings Institution

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