A Discussion with Jeffrey Haynes, Professor, London Metropolitan University

With: Jeffrey Haynes

November 11, 2016

Background: Jeffrey Haynes is a leading scholar of religion in international relations, with a lengthy list of publications reflecting his diverse and prolific research on the topic. Discussing his career and perspectives with Katherine Marshall in Basel, Switzerland on November 11, 2016, he reflected on the complex roles of religion in current world affairs, including the rise of populism and extremism. He describes the paths he has pursued, linking keen interests in democracy, religion, and social justice issues. He elaborates on his current focus on religion and the United Nations and the puzzle of limited scholarship about the topic, which he ascribes to a willful blindness. This has changed since 9/11, but there is still a scarcity of scholarship and limited understanding of the complex issues involved. His current UN research focuses on the Alliance of Civilizations.
With what is happening in the world today, including the election two days ago of Trump but also the rise of populism in various European countries, what kind of reflection do you think we need to pursue? Where do you see religion in some of the backlash, populism, even Christian extremism?

Trump’s election is part of a much broader issue, and indeed religion is a relevant element. However, our understanding should not be distorted by our tendency to create a sharp secular religious divide. Take the example cited in the media, that 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in the United States. Does that imply that their religious beliefs encouraged them to vote that way? They may be conservatives (with a small c) and religious. But they voted not just as religious people. Their Christian beliefs are part of their conservative worldview. I would be inclined to see it in that sense. And right wing evangelicals may be first right wing and second evangelicals. Their Christian approach dovetails with their conservative worldview. And as we know well, the interpretation of religious ideas is all-important.

I would start from the premise that people have an ideological worldview, and the brand of Christianity they choose is to some extent reflective of a wider ideological approach. I would not want to put it solely as right wing/left wing. It highlights, I think, that if we assume that faith is an independent variable we are missing the point. A Catholic or an evangelical is going to see the world in a certain way, as a man, a woman, a rich person, a poor person, and so on. And faith is a component of that but may not be the overriding factor. An almost cliché is that many Americans, like many Europeans, fear for the future. And a big strong man with a clear set of simple (if simplistic) policies has a great appeal. He will make the bad things go away and let the good things happen. Make America great again!

What brought you to the topic of religion and politics? How did you get started?

It began when I did a Ph.D. on Ghana in West Africa in the mid-1980s (I finished in 1988). Religion was not my initial focus, but when I came to explore the topic I found it particularly interesting.

I was living at the time in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. I finished my first degree and had done quite well (I had what we call in England a first class degree), so I thought I would go on to further studies and do a Ph.D. I am not sure now exactly why, as I had no aspirations at the time as to how I would use it.

Why Ghana?

The person who taught me was very inspirational. He [Steve Reilly] was a West Africanist, and he encouraged me to look into that part of the world. It was 1983-1984 at the time. Ghana was under the regime of a man called Jerry Rawlings, who was half Scottish and half Ewe. He seemed very inspirational. He seemed to be someone who had at least some limited capacity and ideas to change Ghana. Ghana, as you know, had been a terrible kleptocracy over many years and was really at a difficult stage. So anyway, I did a Ph.D. on Ghana.

What was the subject?

It was entitled "Rawlings and the Politics of Development Policy in Ghana, 1979-1986." It was really about how the country was seeking to change from one form to another. I had not really anticipated that it would. But at the time there was much discussion about what would happen, and Jerry Rawlings talked about “people’s democracy” that, even at the time, seemed very fanciful. So I did field work in Ghana. At first I found it very difficult to progress because everyone seemed to think that I was a foreign or an American agent or CIA. But eventually someone in the seat of government, responsible for overseeing my work, befriended me. She was a very powerful woman—Valerie Sackey, British. I think she was close to Rawlings and was head of the Castle Information Bureau. Somehow she became Rawlings’ confidante. She had great influence. She gave me a letter, and when I showed it to people they were suddenly keen to talk to me!

When I finished my thesis I realized that it was all very well to get interested in a country and to have that knowledge, but then the question was what do you do with it? And why did it matter? What was it that Ghana did not do, or could have done? I was looking for something else to do at the time. I did not want to spend my life as a Ghana expert, as it is—however interesting, a tiny pond.

In the late 1980s, someone telephoned me and said they were doing a book on church-state relations around the world, and would I write something on Ghana? I knew absolutely nothing about that subject, but I said I would. So I did this brief piece on church-state relations in Ghana, and it was actually quite interesting.

I began to explore the possibility of doing something more broadly on what I called church-state relationships in what was then called the Third World. A friend and colleague, Vicky Randall, was at the time working with the Open University Press. She asked what I might be interested in writing about, and I said, possibly “religion and politics in the Third World.” She said that sounded interesting, so I started writing a book on the subject, which was published in 1993. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago, but it turns out that I was really one of the first to get into that particular topic. And I realized that it was quite interesting stuff. So then I did a book on religion and politics in Africa, which was almost the first on that topic. That was more research based, and I also had to spruce up my French to get to key sources. It put together my Ghana interest with my broader interests. Then I did a book in 1998 called Religion in Global Politics, which was an international relations book, not a comparative global politics book in a global context. So at this stage I was one of the few people who had experience and publications in this area.

So meanwhile, were you teaching?

Yes, I was teaching. I had a two-year post at what was then Staffordshire University, in Stoke-on-Trent, in 1988. They were prevaricating about whether that would be extended, or replaced. I was then a youngish scholar, a Ph.D., and it was difficult then to find a full-time job. So I began to look for other jobs. I was teaching, writing, trying to get upward mobility. My first degree was in international relations—not in politics or political science. It was from Staffordshire.

Were you from Staffordshire?

No. It’s a long story. I did not come from that part of the world. I came from London. For various reasons I found myself in Staffordshire. I was married and had a child. I was 27 years old and had worked in various jobs and had various rather non-mind-expanding jobs. And in those days, of course, you could go to university, and they would provide you with money to do so. There were no fees to study, so I thought I would do something along those lines. My first teaching position was in international relations. And I then began to think of myself as an expert in religion and international relations.

Where did the religion come in for you? Did you grow up in a particular religious tradition? Had you studied religion at any stage?

My family background was, in fact, no faith—atheist. My mother and father were very left wing. My father had been a communist in his youth. So I grew up in that environment. And in fact one reason that I wanted to study religion was that I could not understand, then, 25 years ago, how anyone could be persuaded by religious arguments, or be persuaded to follow religious teachings. So I think I went into the topic, to look at it, not in a contemptuous way, but certainly in a very unconvinced way. I don’t know whether in fact it has been a benefit or a disbenefit, not to have a faith.

I think you know what it is like—when you look at actors who are in fact motivated by faith, it is clear that that is the reason, and it changes the way you look at the topic. So I got into it in a rather skeptical way, asking how one could follow religious teachings in a world where it seemed to me clear that religion might be important for individuals, as spiritually comforting and uplifting, but it did not seem to have any of the answers to many of the existential questions, I thought. So I think I went into it trying to understand why religion still seemed to be quite influential. But I really could not see why it would be so.

But by this time, in the mid- to late 1990s, I was getting somewhat bored with the work I was doing on religion. So I began to look at democratization. It was a time when there was a wave of democracies emerging. And of course there was a link to religion, because in some parts of the world—many parts of Africa, and Eastern Europe, Sri Lanka—you had religious actors involved in democratization processes so there was overlap. So from about the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, 2005, I did not work on religion per se at all. I thought that was it. I worked on democratization and development, and thought that I was finished with work on religion.

And then 9/11 happened, and that pushed all the buttons, really, with all the religious and ideological appeal, extremists, virtues, motivations for action, international relations, etc. But I resisted the pull for awhile. It seemed that everyone was working on extremist Islam. But I was gradually got back into it. I did a book on Comparative Politics in a Globalizing World, that I think is a really good book, even now, though it did not have much impact. Even today it is a good book.

So I thought we had 9/11, the influence of the Vatican, of a vast number of transnational actors of various kinds, an array of mostly non-state actors, who were clearly transnational actors, and I had not done a book about religion and international relations—the BBC did a piece on that. So I thought I would do a book on religion and international relations. And that came out in 2007, the first edition. And that got me looking at those issues again. At the same time in a parallel way I started to get into religion and development, because it seemed to be partially related to the democratization theme. There seemed to be lots more religious voices around that seemed to be concerned with the issues that I thought of and still think of as real world politics. They were quite influential on the ground. So I did a book in 2007 on Religion and Development: Conflict or Cooperation.

And so since then, for the last 10 years of so, I have done a lot of edited books. I did a second edition of Religion and International Relations and an Introduction to Religion and International Relations in 2013. But mostly, continuing with an international relations angle, I’ve got interested in the role of faith or religion at the United Nations, in a sort of global governance/global policy context. And that seems to me, has turned out to be highly interesting, because, as you know, a few decades ago religion did not have a voice at the United Nations.

If you remember, there was the famous exchange a few years ago between John Ruggie, who was a senior person at the United Nations, and Bryan Hehir, who asked Ruggie about religion at the UN, and Ruggie said that there is none. He was then the UN secretary-general’s special advisor on humanitarian affairs. And I thought that that was quite incredible. Because even then there were tons of NGOs, the Vatican and the OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation], and lots of religious actors. How could he even say that? Ruggie is not a fool, so I asked, "Why he would say that?" So I surmised that this was an ideological choice. And the reason that he said that there was no religion at the United Nations was because it did not fit into the state-centric focus of the UN, and therefore it’s not there. But of course it is there.

So I wrote a book called Faith-Based Organizations at the United Nations in 2014. And it is a book that has the dubious distinction that the publishers forgot to put in the bibliography, which is incredibly embarrassing. So they charge 80 pounds for a book with no bibliography. It has been quite well received, although it is quite a slim book. It started out very modestly, as I was contacted by a publisher, Palgrave, to do a book in their series called Pivot. It was a new thing that was supposed to be very slim—50,000 words. My draft was considered too long at 75,000 words. But I found the topic quite interesting.

I was also academic advisor to a big research project a couple of years ago coming out of the University of Kent, with Jeremy Carrette and Hugh Miall, about religious NGOs at the United Nations. So I got into the topic via that route. And then, almost by chance, I moved on to looking at the UN Alliance of Civilizations. That was partly because I got a research grant to do so, and partly because it seemed to me one of the interesting almost anomalies at the UN, because, for a start, what was a civilization? So that has occupied me for most of 2016. And I have to do a book on that by mid-2018. So that brings me up-to-date!

How did you get involved in development issues? Was it through your work in Ghana?

When I was 27 and thinking, "What should I do with my life?" I’d spent quite a few years traveling. I went to India and Pakistan, and I had been to North Africa. And in those days you could do it in a very basic way, hitchhiking, and not spending a lot of money, with slow, very laborious, but cheap methods of travel.

And without trying to be too dramatic about it, to say that I had experienced poverty. But trekking around someplace like India, by train and so forth, you can’t fail but see the ways countries are divided between haves and have-nots. I know that can sound like a cliché, but it was something that was highly interesting to me. How come we have these systems where there are these palpably rich people, driving around in big cars, with money coming out of their ears, and just alongside are dramatically poor people whose capacity to live a fulfilling life is zero? So, like young people, I saw this as existential stuff.

But where does religion come in in all this? Many of these countries would purport to have strong religious faiths and identities, and historical legacies of faith as an important component of their cultural and belief systems. But looking at religions, to my inexpert knowledge, it did not seem to be appropriate for there to be dramatically rich and dramatically poor people. So my departure into development issues was partly about seeing the world as it is and trying to understand why it was like that and what could be done about it. Not in a dramatic or proselytizing way, but just to understand a bit.

And then, of course, it was also the time, in the mid- to late 1990s, when suddenly, I would say, people became aware of the role of faith not in resolving the problems of development, but at least potentially playing an active part in the discipline, particularly grassroots attempts to develop—whatever we mean by development. Development to me means improvements, not in a complex sense, but at its most basic, improvements in people’s lives: a school where there was not a school; a paved road where there was not a paved road—those kinds of basic needs. And the motivations that religion could bring to help people to help themselves. What makes a community work together? Or work together with government? How far are they motivated by shared beliefs, so they voluntarily work together, and maybe that is the way. It was those kinds of issues, really, how religion could play a role in a palpable way and help in addressing the dramatic differences between rich and poor. Of course it is complex, especially in a place like India, but it seemed interesting. Anyway, that is what started me off.

And how have you pursued your different interests, in religion, international affairs, politics, development, and so forth?

I suppose it has come in a way to be focused on the United Nations, as a forum for the development of ideas. We can think of the MDGs and the SDGs really as a sort of global agreement to do something about the basic issues and global endeavors, and to apply the system to a certain set of goals. And how then...the question is how (if at all) the United Nations can help. Of course the UN is not a powerful actor; it is a forum and an environment, but it really does not have the capacity to make things change under its own volition. But it can be kind of exemplary. It can facilitate making something an issue, for example, on women and children’s welfare, something that has been key to development improvements. And the complicated issue of peacebuilding is something that the United Nations and other regional bodies have sought to address.

So my interest now is in how policies can be enacted. What makes it become relevant and put into practice and what do actors do, including religious actors, to help to deliver those policies, when of course, at the UN level, the policies are automatically transferred to the country and the local level. I’ve never been an activist, in the sense that I’ve never had an active role in trying to bring about those improvements at a practical level. So I wouldn’t claim that at all. So I am really trying to understand it from a scholarly perspective.

You edit a series of books. What is the focus?

My series with Routledge is about religion and politics—really very broad. I am very interested in the issue of global governance and how global institutions contribute to it. I am thinking now about doing a book about UNESCO. I really had not known much about it. It is clear that it, just one agency within the United Nations, faces an exceptionally complex environment. But in terms of the UN and religion, the absence of scholarship and reflection is really a willful blindness. And I think it is actually also a contempt.

A study some years ago (by the Park Ridge group) concluded that attitudes towards religion in the United Nations were very much affected by reproductive health and rights issues. It was such a polarizing and divisive issue that it shaped approaches.

Anne Stensvold [Norway] of course has focused on that issue. She co-wrote a report for Norad, the Norwegian aid agency, on that very topic. She is a historian of religion, and she is actually very anti-religion, because she sees it as this very malign force, particularly within the United Nations and particularly in its role of denial of rights to women and rights to children. It would be very interesting to compare what they found then (around 2000-2001) and now. I suspect that there were fewer NGOs then than there are now.

One of the major issues I have found in trying to do research on religion at the UN is the sparseness of sources. In many senses every aspect of the United Nations has been gone over many times with a fine-tooth comb, except for religion. Security and the Cold War and pretty much everything else has been very central, but religion has rather fallen through the gaps. Actually, it’s worse than falling through the gaps: it’s willful ignoring.

A question is how far religious institutions like the Vatican and the World Council of Churches are really seen as part of the system of global institutions of which the United Nations is the dominant but not the sole part. Some of the oldest and most significant global institutions are religious.

There are questions about how representative these institutions are, of course. But the same question can apply to many other institutions, like companies, that are considered part of the global system. You can represent without having literally a representative basis or function.

It does raise an interesting question: you have focused on democracy and on religion, and religious institutions are very rarely very democratic. Part of the skepticism about religious institutions is questions surrounding how representative the institutions really are. How do you square that circle?

It’s like NGOs, is it not? They claim to be representative, but they are not democratic either in most cases. They are self-selected and shaped by their motivations and their capacity to get resources and to affect people’s livelihoods. To some extent it’s a red herring. They are global actors, notwithstanding the fact that they are not in the sense we understand it democratic. To some degree they are a voice for people who do not otherwise have a voice. And their influence is palpable.

Where do you stand on the debates about why some countries have been so much more successful than others?

Some attribute it to culture, others to policy, or geography, or to the behavior of elites. Of course in the early 1950s Nigeria and South Korea had the same GDP, and of course they have moved in radically different ways—Nigeria still at a low level and South Korea around $30,000 per capita. The questions were very much the issue in the 1980s and 1990s, and structural adjustment was very much a focal point in that. What sets of policies are needed, and how does the global environment affect it? How far should a country engage or shrink from the world economy? Rawlings was very much of the school that we can do it ourselves, that one needs to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Which is tosh, of course. Look at North Korea.

Looking ahead, where are you seeing the most interest on these and related issues? What do you find is attracting the brightest students? What research areas are you encouraging?

That’s a good question. There’s lots of scope and lots of mileage in the peacebuilding field—also the roles of religious actors in this area. I would not say that it is new, but I am seeing a lot more sustained focus on that. Among places, there is keen interest in peacebuilding in Nigeria. There is a sort of conundrum. Here is a country with what Nigerians would see as almost unlimited potential, completely unable to move beyond this position they are in. And how does religion fit in there? That is obviously grossly simplified, and students very quickly realize that it is oversimplified. But certainly, and especially at the local level, the role of religion does seem to be largely about material resources. Even if it may purport to be about religious conflict, in practice it really is not.

Another topic of interest is the role of transnational religious actors, which I think is grossly under focused upon. Students are quite interested in that. They tend to come into it with the most interest in the lens of extremism. Why do some extremist ideas spread? What is there about some ideas that seem to spread and some not? Why are some ideas adopted even when many people think they are undesirable? There is a focus on transnational ideas and to some extent actors. Some of this focuses on violent extremism (which I tend to find rather tedious). There is the palpable security angle, but also nuances, how people perceive policies.

And then there is the impact of the transnational Roman Catholic Church. I think we are only now realizing what a massive, complex, and poorly understood entity it is. You have the Vatican at one end and the network of Catholic actors in various countries that are themselves reactive to the cultural environment in which they find themselves.

Another topic is what religious leaders can do in climate change and in development more broadly. Does it make a difference if religious leaders call for people to do something? Does it make people change behavior in terms of climate change? Not to get on an airplane, for example, or not do this or that? That is also about values and norms and beliefs and why people adopt some and not others. These are the areas that students seem to find most interesting. There is also the continuing interest in security: Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. But in those areas the role of religion is often utterly ignored by our colleagues in security sector. The view is that what the extremists believe is utterly irrelevant, and the issue is how we can stop them.

What about religious leaders and institutions in the United Kingdom? What is the distinctive feature?

You know, religion is so unimportant in the United Kingdom, in a social sense especially. One of the key issues for the mainline Protestant churches (not so much for the Catholic Church) is, how will they survive? For the Anglican Church, the projection is that in something like 20 years there will be no members at all. The archbishop of Canterbury is a well-meaning person, but he has no influence. Politicians in the United Kingdom, government particularly, will pay lip service to the church, because after all it is an established church, but it is really quite irrelevant. It will be reported on the news but will have no effect. The Christian churches in the United Kingdom are also very fragmented. The Anglican Church, I think, has 4 percent who go regularly to church and 96 percent who don’t. Islam is the growing religion, not because of conversion but because Muslims are closer to their faith. And then there are churches that are mostly immigrant inspired, evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are burgeoning, and which propound mostly the prosperity gospel. They attract huge crowds, with preachers from Nigeria who preach “give me your money, and we will turn it 10 times to your advantage.” But for the average person in the United Kingdom, I would say that religion is utterly irrelevant and it has no place.

One thing that shocked me most about the United States when I visited it recently is that religion has so much more prominent place. It really is a stark contrast with the United Kingdom.

Do you see a positive role for these established religious institutions in Europe in this troubled time?

The answer varies by country. Poland, for example, has an active church. In France, in contrast, the Catholic Church is largely irrelevant. Religion is an almost hated institution. The Eastern Bloc is a different story. There is the rise of nationalistic churches. In Western Europe Christians institutionalized religion. Germany has the very influential focus on the Lutheran churches. I am not sure that they really change policy. Switzerland had a referendum to ban minarets. I did not see Christian churches crying out about religious freedom. In Italy, there are ties between the Church and the government, but young people are moving away because they see this association. In Ireland there is a rapid move away from the Catholic Church because of the pedophilia scandal. In the Scandinavian countries, even though the churches are disestablished, I think they have more influence than in England.

Religion in Europe can socially be influential, but in a more political sense it is far less relevant. And it is a big difference looking at the United States. I see the historical, culturally embedded churches are losing much of the social influence they had. And their political influence is minimal. It is a somewhat anachronistic throwback to the past, irrelevant to most people.

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