Leaders of the Pakistani religious movement Jamaat-e-Islami lead an anti-NATO procession in 2012. (AP Photo/Qazi Rauf)

In the Islamic world, mixing religion and politics appears to be a recipe for electoral success.

Where once the consensus among social thinkers was that secularism would define public life in societies worldwide, nowadays experts say that in Muslim-majority countries, politicians who invoke religion frequently gain a distinct political advantage over their secular rivals. Indeed, in countries as varied as Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia, parties guided by a vision of political Islam have mobilized popular support.

To what extent are pious or religiously devout politicians evaluated differently than regular politicians? Are there circumstances when this supposed advantage breaks down? In our analysis, we find that appeals to religion can sometimes backfire, causing a backlash from voters when nominally devout politicians fall short of the higher moral standards that they implicitly invoke.

Pakistan — literally, the “land of the pure” — has long expected that its politicians adhere, at least publicly, to conservative Islamic behavioral norms. Its constitution goes so far as to require every member of Parliament to practice “obligatory duties prescribed by Islam” and “abstain from major sins.” In recent years, after filing their nomination papers, many would-be legislators have even faced questioning by lower-court judges to verify that they were “pious enough to face the electorate.”

In a recent study, we sought to better understand how Pakistani voters evaluate electoral candidates who claim to be pious, compared with candidates who make no such claims. Given the frequency of allegations about how politicians in Pakistan use their access to public office for private gain, fake their educational degrees or avoid income taxes, we were particularly interested in observing how self-proclaimed pious candidates were evaluated when such damaging information was brought to light.

Working with the Pakistan Institute of Public Opinion, we carried out a door-to-door opinion survey among 800 people in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. In our survey, we embedded an experiment in which we randomly assigned respondents to read and respond to slightly different versions of a vignette describing a hypothetical candidate standing for local office.

The candidate was varyingly described as either a Sunni or Shiite Muslim who brought development projects to the community. In some versions of the survey’s vignette, respondents were also told that the candidate considered himself a pious man who prayed five times a day, gave to charity and would “serve God” through his work in the community. In other versions, we left out any mention of such religious devotion. Finally, for each candidate, the survey told respondents of allegations that the candidate had failed to pay his taxes and lied about having a university degree.

We asked survey respondents about their level of support for such a candidate both before and after the allegations of personal impropriety were revealed. Because our survey experimentally assigned some respondents to receive a version of the vignette with mention about the candidate’s piety, we can isolate how this information affects respondents’ level of support.

While limited in geographical scope, our results challenge some of the prevailing understanding about religion and politics in the Islamic world.

We found that survey respondents generally reacted negatively to prompts emphasizing candidate piety — what we term a “piety penalty.” In fact, substantially more respondents said that learning about the candidate’s presumed piety made them less, rather than more, likely to vote for the candidate.

It may be the case that our hypothetical candidate’s description of himself as pious was perceived by the survey respondents as a self-serving effort to gain public esteem and high office, rather than a genuine and heartfelt devotion to one’s faith.

Yet, even after taking this initial evaluation into account, survey respondents were still significantly more likely to punish the nominally pious candidates for engaging in behavior perceived as untrustworthy or corrupt, compared with candidates who make no such claims. We term this finding a “hypocrisy effect,” because we believe that invoking a candidate’s claim to personal piety cues voters to expect higher standards of conduct.

What do these findings tell us about politics in the Islamic world?

The conventional wisdom is that political Islamists have an advantage over secular opponents in winning the hearts and minds of the electorate in Muslim-majority countries.

Some argue that invoking religion resonates with Muslim voters because it is easily understood by them or is seen as more culturally legitimate. Others point to the relative success that Islamic organizations have had in providing social services such as charity or jobs on the ground; people who receive these services then vote for Islamist politicians out of gratitude or from the belief that they can get things done. Perhaps appeals to religion and personal piety serve as a convenient mental shortcut or heuristic that communicates something memorable and positive to voters who are unfamiliar with the quality of individual politicians or their policy positions.

Factors such as organizational capacity, service delivery and ideology therefore serve to build up Islamists’ reputation as leaders who are honest and effective. Ultimately, it is this perception that allows them to stand out in a region where status quo politics is all too frequently associated with venality and corruption.

But as our empirical study demonstrates, precisely because this advantage rests on being seen as “competent, trustworthy and pure,” Islamist politicians pay more dearly than their secular opponents when they fall short of voters’ expectations for proper behavior.

Despite the near-daily invocations of religion in Pakistani public discourse, Islam’s place as the official state religion and the long-standing participation of Islamist parties in the country’s elections, we found evidence of a public disenchantment with bringing religion into the political arena.

Our survey respondents were generally suspicious of those who sought to mix religion and politics. Even though they almost all claimed high levels of personal religiosity in terms of mosque attendance and ritual observance, only 1 in 6 considered Islamist parties better than non-religious parties. Almost 3 in 4 respondents believed that religious leaders lost at least some credibility when they joined political parties or the government.

While religion is deeply important to people in these regions — and, indeed, many regions around the world — it would be an error to automatically assume that supposedly religious candidates necessarily have an advantage over secular ones. In fact, they may run unique political risks for using religious appeals if they raise voters’ expectations in ways they are unable to meet.

Michael Kalin and Niloufer Siddiqui are PhD candidates in political science at Yale University. Kalin also is a research fellow at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. This piece was made possible in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Yale University and the United States Institute for Peace. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.