The Role of Islam in Foreign Policymaking – Part V
May 6, 2022

Emir Hadzikadunic || 6 May 2022



The objective of this article was to provide an overview of the role of religion in Muslim majority states, in this case Islam, in their foreign policymaking. Notwithstanding its complex relationship with international affairs, the article revisited specific foreign policy cases restricted by Islamic constraints at the individual, domestic and international levels of analysis.

At the individual level, we could not speak of issues of religious incentives and pressures in foreign policymaking without reference to charismatic and powerful Muslim decision-makers. In some countries where domestic and international political environments have been more stable for longer periods, a strong individual leadership had an opportunity to act as an intervening variable in a limited number of foreign policy issues. The impact of Mahathir Mohamed on Malaysia’s foreign policy is a strong reference point. He was especially outspoken on issues where Muslim people were victimized by non-Muslim states. Yet in other cases, Muslim leaders inspired by Islamic incentives could not make any major foreign policy impact due to opposite pressures from domestic and international environments. Examples of Turkish prime minister Erbakan and Egypt’s president Morsi are most visible instances.

Some may look for more empirical approaches to explore specific human attributes that can reveal Islamic sensitivities or expose their absence from foreign policymaking. Cognitive theories come close to this conceptualization of mutually interwoven elements of individual belief systems on one hand and foreign policy decision-making on the other. They possibly suggest that specific philosophical and instrumental beliefs of leaders interrelate themselves with religious constraints in foreign policy making. They may even predispose a person to a certain type of foreign policy action. This article identifies that by using this or other similar methodologies new insights on Muslim states foreign policies could be explored. For example, what is the influence on foreign policy making by different Muslim leaders who score low on nationalism and who consequently value their “ingroup” as fellow Muslims high. Literature on this or other similar idiosyncratic factors is quite limited.

At the domestic level, we could not speak of issues of religious incentives in foreign policymaking without reference to shared beliefs and norms. Identity of a state also implies its preferences and consequent actions. This article reflects that Muslim majority states share many religious and nonreligious diversities. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, operate in a system that integrates politics (House of Saud) and religion (House of Al-Wahhab) without specific constitutional guidelines. Yet, in others, we find normative impact more important. Constitutional guides of the Islamic Republic of Iran are illustrative examples. Different local groups also play their part in foreign policy making. Islamic political parties and pressure groups in Indonesia after 1998; ulema and religious scholars in Saudi Arabia; Diyanet in Turkey after 2000s are few selected examples of many others that exist. Islamic religion that has become a re-born element in some countries, such as Indonesia in late 1990s and Turkey in early 2000s, has shown a strong transformative power of these groups.

Depending on conditions from the external environment, the role of Islam in foreign policy making has also tended to fluctuate. In some countries, Islamic incentives were boosted by sudden changes of geopolitical realities at the regional or international level. For example, Saudi Arabia deliberately designed a specific foreign policy of Islamic unity and solidarity in the 60s to meet new external challenges in the regional subsystem. In some other cases, Islamic incentives at the individual and domestic level boost changes in external realities. Driven by Khomeini’s religious zeal and new Islamic constitutional doctrines, the Islamic Republic of Iran pursued bold foreign policy objectives of “Neither East, nor West – but the Islamic Republic!” Iran also opposed American military presence in the sub-system, ignored the Soviet pole, withdrew from its formal alliances with Turkey, and challenged Saudi leadership in the Middle East. In Turkey, systemic factors have interacted with domestic attributes especially since Erdogan came to power in 2002. Their mutual interplay has added religion as yet another element in shaping what Ahmet Davutoglu called Turkish strategic depth. All these examples suggest that Muslim states face different geopolitical realities. It is quite possible that different Islamic traditions might also develop different strategic cultures that shape choices within the Muslim world. This article identifies literature gaps in this particular area.

In conclusion, Islam as intervening variable receives less attention within the confines of the international domain. At this level of analysis, it is more elusive and not easily observed in a systematic way. Of all the possible topics, it is anticipated that Islamic incentives only play more active role in issues of religious solidarity, relations within Muslim world, human (Muslim) rights, pro-Palestinian views, promotion of the soft power, aid-programs, state of Muslim affairs and the like. Of three major features of foreign policy – principles, commitments and actions – Islamic constraints are also more effective in the realm of views and orientations. In other words, they are rather part of Islamic vocabulary, speeches, or declarations. In the realm of concrete foreign policy outcomes, with an exception of aid programs, protection of Islamic symbols and other similar activities, Muslim states are more vulnerable to their national interests. In patterns of conflict and alliances, Muslim states are still exposed to traditional power politics and balancing behavior that emanate outside of national borders.


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Dr Emir Hadzikadunic is a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamic Renaissance Front. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the International University of Sarajevo and was the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Islamic Republic of Iran (2010-2013) and Malaysia (2016-2020). He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at Faculty of Administrative Science & Policy Studies, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Malaysia. This essay also appears on Context: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies at

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