You gotta have faith?

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?


3 comments on “You gotta have faith?

  1. henning says:

    Rob, I’ve been wondering all along about the relative scarcity of religion in IR. I think despite very strong indications that religion somehow runs through a great many levels in international relations the discipline has thus far banned it to the margins, maybe in lack of a good idea of how to deal with it?!?

    If, as Hurd suggests, religion is, at worst, an “existential threat to rational public order”, then in theory realists should be up the barricades devising strategies to deal with the dilemma. We’re trying to couch religion in notion such as culture or identity, but it transcends our understanding of difference, as we cannot quite account for what really drives fundamentalists or what makes religious communities tick.

    The Philippine Iglesia Ni Christo, the largest independent Christian church in Asia, plays a crucial role in Philippine national politics, as during elections its bloc-voting community can deliver votes in the order of two million or more. In the last three presidential elections the INC has put their bets on the future president. And while Islam in Indonesia has not had the impact on voter behaviour as many had suggested in the wake of a re-emergent political Islam in the archipelago, Muslim credentials are nevertheless important factors that can help sway voter support and might, in the case of higher positions, even be essential.2

    Muslim communities have for some time closely followed the political intricacies of Muslim minority politics the world over, aided considerably first by an explosion on the publishing scene of pro-Islamist publications, such as in Indonesia in the late 1990s, and then, obviously, by the internet and, more recently, social media.

    The emergence of a global ummah has for some time been subject of sociological studies. As Olivier Roy points out in Globalized Islam: The search for a new ummah, one-third of the world’s Muslims now live as members of a minority, adding to the revitalisation of Islamic norms and values among the Muslim diaspora, and he considers contemporary Islamic fundamentalism a product and agent of the complex forces of globalization.3

    Interestingly, as Mona Kanwal Sheikh pointed out in a recent article,4 the relevance of religion to IR did not escape the attention of early realists, like Morgenthau and Niebuhr, as well as ES theorists Wight and Butterfield, among others. Unfortunately, these nascent debates were nipped in the bud, to be replaced by concepts such as culture and identity – a chance missed, it seems.

    With Iran you mentioned one of the more prominent historic examples of how religion and international relations interface. Yet the foremost testament to this interrelation to be found in history I believe takes us back to 1095, when Urban II summoned his eager followers to liberate the Holy Land, starting the first Crusades. According to last week’s edition of DER SPIEGEL, this ‘expedition’ reverberates through time until today.5

    1 “Iglesia Ni Cristo leader endorses Noynoy, Mar.” ABS-CBN News, 4 May 2010.
    2 “Ethnic and Religious Criteria Still Steer Indonesian Democracy.” Jakarta Globe, 22 May 2012.
    3 Olivier Roy. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
    4 Mona Kanwal Sheikh. “How does religion matter? Pathways to religion in International Relations”. Review of International Studies, 38 (2012): 365-392.
    5 “Kampf um die Weltherrschaft: Heiliger Krieg”. Der Spiegel, 31 July 2012.

    • roblaurs says:

      Thanks for your comment Henning. The ‘de-emphasis’ of religion’s role in IR does seem to be a glaring oversight on behalf of the discipline – maybe it can be partially explained by IR’s empirical grounding in social science?

      As you point out, religion has been cited as a casus belli for most of human history with the Crusades being a ‘high point’ for religiously-motivated militancy. In terms of the expeditionary wars’ modern-day reverberations – the politics of the Middle East today cannot be abstracted from the region’s great religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

      And of course, one of colonialism’s key drivers was the proselytisation of non-Westerners by missionaries on a ‘civilising mission’ (these evangelists have been historically revised by some, from “…visible saints, exemplars of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery” to “ideological shock troops for colonial invasion…”)

      In The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996), Samuel Huntington hypothesised that areas of geopolitical conflict in the post-Cold War environment would be located along religious and cultural fault lines. Huntington’s ‘remade’ world order featured (roughly) six ‘major civilisations’:

      • the ‘Western’ civilisation (the developed ‘North’ plus Australia and NZ);
      • Latin America;
      • the Slavic-Orthodox former Soviet states;
      • the Islamic ‘Greater Middle East’;
      • the ‘Eastern world’ (Huntington does differentiate between Buddhist SE-Asia, Hindu India, Confucian
      China and Japan); and
      • sub-Saharan Africa.

      Some difficult-to-categorise states were defined as ‘lone’ (eg. Israel) or ‘cleft’ if they straddled two civilisations (eg. Sudan – which has now formally separated into a Muslim state and a Christian-majority, sub-Saharan one: South Sudan).

      Huntington predicted that, in this Balkanised reconfiguration, conflict would result from differences in ‘civilisational consciousness’ and that religious difference, in particular, would boil over into full-blown clashes between civilisations (primarily between the West and the Muslim world). Unsurprisingly, Huntington’s views were picked apart by the likes of Edward Said (who vehemently disagreed with Huntington’s ‘monolithical’ reduction of Islam) and Noam Chomsky who slammed the concept as a new justification for the US committing atrocities abroad.

      Huntington’s title originated from an article called ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ so perhaps his view of the West’s impending show-down with Islam was a little predetermined…

      In response to the divisiveness of ‘civilisational conflict’ theory, various political leaders such as Mohammad Khatami, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have advanced initiatives like Dialogue Among Civilisations and the Alliance of Civilisations to promote understanding between different cultural and religious groups.

      Until a different mode of looking at religion within an IR context comes along (and I haven’t read the Sheikh piece) it looks as though the ‘good religion’ or ’bad religion’ dichotomy (eg. Christian fundamentalism, radical Islam, hardline Jewish settlers etc) is here to stay…

  2. […] religion, and the values associated with it, is a powerful force to unite them. Rob, in his July blog, discussed the question of religion in IR in detail and highlighted some of the points that I’m […]

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