On 28 February 2023, the Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme held a webinar titled “Soft Power, Islam, and Religiosity – Perspectives from the Middle East”. The webinar, conducted by SRP, saw 54 participants. It was part of an ongoing research project called “Competition for Muslim Minds,” which is attempting to understand religious soft power projects by Middle East countries and its impact on Islam, especially in Southeast Asia. The webinar featured Professor Peter Mandaville, Senior Advisor for the Religion and Inclusive Societies team at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP); and Dr Usaama al-Azami, Senior Lecturer at Oxford University. The discussion was moderated by Assistant Professor Mohamed bin Ali from SRP.
Prof Mandaville explained how religious soft power the ability of a state was to leverage sacred capital as a form of soft power in its external relations. Certain countries, by virtue of their historical relationship with a given religious tradition, had greater capacity to make use of their religious heritage or identity in their geopolitical persona. He also provided an overview of how Saudi religious transnationalism, commonly referred to as Wahhabism, had evolved to suit Saudi domestic and foreign policy interests; from countering pan-Arabism and the perceived Iranian threat, to the support of a new paradigm for Saudi’s Vision 2030.
Dr Usaama delved further into soft power and ideological contention in the region, highlighting the cultivation of scholars such as Abdullah Bin Bayyah, Shawki Allam, and Ahmad al-Tayyeb. He also explained how the discourse of religious soft power had been conflated with a certain kind of counter-terrorism discourse, resulting in the propagation of anti-democratic and, counter-intuitively, Islamophobic ideas.
During the discussion, both Prof Mandaville and Dr Usaama emphasised that religious soft power of Gulf monarchies was increasingly relevant in South, Southeast, and East Asia. Notwithstanding their pivot away from North America and Europe toward better relations with Asian economies, the Islamophobic component of religious soft power discourse could also have unintended effects on right-wing extremism in the region.