From 9/11 to COVID-19: Lessons Learned on Religion and Politics

By: Jocelyne Cesari

September 8, 2021

Religion, Peace, and World Affairs: Reflections on the Legacy of September 11

When, in 1935, Joseph Stalin asked, “How many divisions?” to gauge the relevance of the Vatican on the international scene, he pretty much encapsulated the disdain of contemporary state rulers regarding religion as a significant component of world affairs. 9/11 dramatically changed this perception—today, nobody would dare say that religion does not matter. However, exactly how religion matters is still very much up for debate.

At the policy level, the security lens has dominated and continues to dominate the perception of religion. Religion matters almost exclusively when and how it is a threat to the security of state interests and to the lives of people. There has been no shortage of conflicts and attacks since 9/11—from Al-Qaeda to ISIS, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Syria to Yemen—that have strengthened the conviction that religion is trouble. These conflicts are why the “clash of civilizations” thesis, although repeatedly invalidated by scholars, has remained so influential in political circles and popular media. Admittedly, the Huntingtonian position is based on a premise that cannot be simply dismissed: that identity and culture play a decisive role in international relations. In a painful way, 9/11 put religion back on the political agenda, after it had been marginalized—if not concealed—since the foundation of the Westphalian order in 1648. But which culture and which religion are being invoked? This question still needs much more thought, and it is one where scholars of religion and politics in general and the work of the Berkley Center in particular can make important contributions. In this respect, three major misconceptions are worth correcting.

At the policy level, the security lens has dominated and continues to dominate the perception of religion. Religion matters almost exclusively when and how it is a threat to the security of state interests and to the lives of people.

First, Islam remains the religion of choice when it comes to scholarship on religion and international affairs. Such a focus obstructs the political role of other traditions around the world—as if other religious traditions have no inclination to violence, while history and current empirical data tell us otherwise.

As a consequence, the second flaw is the emphasis on security and terrorism. Such a bias completely prohibits the visibility and understanding of the societal and civic roles of religious organizations in multiple domains: for example, social welfare, economic development, and humanitarian assistance. In some cases, religious communities and faith-inspired organizations are the most efficient institutions at the grassroots level and, at times, can even play a larger role than the state in providing support to citizens in need. Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the positive roles of religious communities that have often been at the forefront of care, both physical and psychological.

Third, religion is conceived very narrowly with exclusive attention to ideas or doctrines, even though we have established that most of the political conflicts related to religion do not pertain to beliefs but belongings. 

Religion is conceived very narrowly with exclusive attention to ideas or doctrines, even though we have established that most of the political conflicts related to religion do not pertain to beliefs but belongings.

Even more significantly, religious leaders have emerged as influential voices on global issues such as climate change, the market economy, the refugee crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic. In this new orientation, what is key is not the doctrine carried by a religious institution but its capacity to offer plausible alternatives to the failure or limits of secular organizations. From this perspective, the pandemic has opened a window of opportunity for religious communities to be relevant at the global level when they adopt an agenda aimed at the improvement of humankind and are able to overcome the limits of nationalist policies. This orientation is certainly attractive to younger generations that too often turn away from religion, not because they are have lost faith but because they see religious institutions as being out of touch with their needs and aspirations.

That is the most interesting and provocative trend that has emerged in the last 20 years, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic. That is also the one that the Berkley Center could put at the center stage for its next 20 years of work.

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