As everyone knows, religion and politics are a combination so combustible that their mere mention can scuttle polite conversation (except with opinionated taxi drivers). But should the role of religion in IR be similarly marginalised?
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd says that the study of religion in IR has been framed by the forces of secularism that define ‘the terms of the debate in such a way that religion is understood as (at best) irrelevant to politics and (at worst) an existential threat to rational public order’. As Hurd describes it, IR theory has tended to: reduce religion to a binary construct (either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ religion), regard religion as a cover for more fundamental material variables (e.g. power politics, class) and make fixed assumptions about the place of the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ in global politics. The secular consensus, a foundational principle of modern (Western) politics, effectively ‘privatises’ religion by depriving it of ‘practical, political effects’ and relegating it to the margins of the public sphere. In Hurd’s view, IR theorists have been captured (or at least influenced) by this secularist paradigm and accordingly have given scant scholarly attention to religion. (Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. ‘Religion and Secularism’ in Richard Devetak, Anthony Burke and Jim George (eds.) An Introduction to International Relations. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012 pp. 322-335)
But ignoring the interplay between the two ‘co-constitutive concepts’ of religion and secularisation should now no longer be an option for IR academics. The events of the Arab Spring illustrated how both religious and secular forces actively contest the political space. As it stands, Islamists have taken over in Tunisia (which under Habib Bourguiba (1957-87) was probably the only Arab state to ever experience truly secular rule) and Libya and look poised to do the same in Egypt. So is Arab secularism a spent force? Nasser Rabat argues in favour of its ongoing relevance, despite recent setbacks that saw secularist movements, like the 6th of April movement in Egypt, fail to grasp the nettle and compete for power in the region’s post-revolutionary governments. Rabat views the immediate place of the secularists as embodying a robust, lawful opposition – a role that is vital to the stability of these states as they look to move beyond the repressive regimes of Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Mubarak.
The Middle East (‘the Holy Lands’) really is the crucible of the religion vs. secularism debate. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 is perhaps the definitive example – the US-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had taken Iran down an unpopular, pro-Western, modernising path of secularisation, was overthrown by the clergy headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Tehran’s foreign policy has been inextricably linked to Islamism ever since – a position that has brought it into conflict with Israel (‘the Zionist regime’ or ‘the Little Satan’), the United States (‘the Great Satan’) and, most aggressively, Shia-majority Iraq (ruled by the secular Ba’aths until the US invasion in 2003). Further, Iran’s links to radical Islam are overt – the theocracy has supported Hamas and Hizbollah as well as engaged with al-Qaeda and allies itself (and its nuclear ambitions) to nuclearised Muslim Pakistan. Of course, Pakistan, was founded on the basis of religion as the Partition of India created both an Islamic republic (Pakistan) and a secular, Hindu-majority India, currently led by a Sikh, Manmohan Singh.
Even the EU’s ongoing financial ructions have been cast in a religious light. Europe is no stranger to wars of religion but could religious difference really underlie the eurozone meltdown? The (Protestant) push for austerity driven by Merkel (the daughter of a Protestant pastor) has been met with opposition by the ‘Latin Alliance’ of Catholic Spain and Italy, backed by France. Fiscal continence (a.k.a Protestant thrift) is important to Germany – having learnt harsh (even diabolical) economic lessons from Goethe’s Faust and the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic. The debate about whether Germany should continue to subsidise the loose-spending Catholic states (and Orthodox Greeks) rumbles on. With 2017 marking 500 years since Luther sparked the Reformation, could Europe divide itself along religious lines again – with a Protestant economic order of financially like-minded Germans, (Calvinist) Dutch and (Lutheran) Finns aligning in a ‘northern eurozone’?
And where does the world’s hegemon stand on religion and IR? The US, for many outside observers, represents the polar extremes of religion and secularism – the God-fearing Bible Belt, the Amish, a Mormon Presidential candidate, Scientologists et al coexisting in a land that is the prime exporter of secular cultural imperialism (democracy, Hollywood, Coca-Cola and ESPN etc.) Interestingly, the US is one of the few high-income countries that ranks highly on Gallup’s religiosity scale – about 65% of Americans think religion plays an important role in their daily lives. According to the poll, poor countries (with a per capita GDP of less than US$5,000) were far more likely to be religious than wealthy economies with Muslim nations, Bangladesh and Niger, topping the rankings. Is there a link between religion and poverty? Stateside, Barber suggests that Republicans are able to exploit the religious propensity of poor voters despite the GOP’s natural constituency being the affluent. For the Christian Right, social conservatism occurs at both ends of the income spectrum.
Does religion play a greater role in more trying circumstances? What do religion and secularism have to say about IR?