Jocelyne Cesari holds the Chair of Religion and Politics and is director of research at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom; at Georgetown University she is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and an associate professor of the practice of religion, peace, and conflict resolution in the Department of Government. She is the T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School. Former president of the European Academy of Religion, her work on religion, political violence, and conflict resolution has garnered recognition and awards from numerous international organizations such as the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs and the Royal Society for Arts in the United Kingdom. She is a Professorial Fellow at Australian Catholic University's Institute for Religion, Politics and Society. She teaches on contemporary Islam and politics at Harvard Divinity School and directs the Islam in the West program.
In the last ten years, a more ambitious thrust of the literature on religion and IR has been an attempt to respond to the question: How can religion be addressed within IR theory? Most of this literature consists of describing in detail religious factors that are important to some areas of international relations: religious identity, religious motivations for political behaviors, religious human rights, religious NGOs, religion in global justice and religious violence. For example, Thomas Scott suggests looking at religions as “interpretive communities” that may affect ideological justification as well as power relationships between political protagonists. Jeff Haynes apprehends religion as a soft power (culture/values/ideas). Dan Philpott argues in favor of ideas on political power (political theology) and differentiation (relation between state and religion) to connect religion to the IR research agenda. Finally, some discuss the aspects of religion and world affairs than can benefit the IR discipline (Snyder; Sandal and Fox). Interestingly, the bulk of the work on religion and IR concerns terrorism and political violence based on religion, contributing to the dominant and misleading perception that the scope and reach of terrorism in the name of God has grown out of control.
Nevertheless, two promising and much less visible ideas are emerging from this burgeoning literature. One is that religion is multifaceted or, in Alfred Stepan’s terms, “multivocal” and therefore cannot be addressed with a priori, fixed definitions. The second is that most of the definitions or concepts of religion, secularism, modernity, and democracy that inform IR models are Western-centered and therefore not relevant when applied outside the West (or even necessarily within it). Interestingly, there has not yet been any significant work in the IR discipline at large that makes use of these two propositions. One can argue that a decade is not sufficient to produce significant scholarship on religion and IR. But it can also be said that acknowledging the multidimensionality of religion is the first step, with the second step being to operationalize it. In other words, a modus operandi is needed that would translate these new approaches into research protocols and make religion “work.” I would like to contribute to this debate by suggesting that the relevance of religion is not in some of its forms per se but in the kinds of interactions between religious and political actors, institutions, and ideas. It means that there is no one-size-fits-all of definition of religion and secularism that can be used independently of the context in which they operate.
In this regard, the vast literature of sociology and anthropology of religion can be a resource to contextualize religion and secularism. IR scholars need not become experts on religion to incorporate the existing knowledge about religions as social practices in different contexts and cultural areas. For example, in my research on Islam and politics, limiting my approach to Islam to beliefs proves to be a dead end as the same belief can lead to opposite political mobilizations. Instead, looking at belonging and behaving and the ways they are interconnected helps us solve the puzzle of apparently secular projects leading to political battles over Islamically correct social behaviors observable in Turkey or Tunisia. In other words, the increased social and political visibility of Islam is not caused by an increase in beliefs. People are not stronger believers than they used to be, but their identification to belonging and behaving has certainly shifted, leading to a collusion between political and Islamic belongings that facilitates political mobilization.
The question is not anymore on the nature of religion but more on how historical processes and cultural transformations inform the tensions of religion versus politics or secular versus religious that we witness everywhere. Such a perspective requires a longue duree, historicized and interdisciplinary approach that drastically challenges the dominant rational choice-centered theories implemented through fixed variables that still dominate the IR discipline. But it will allow a better grasp of the increasing fluidity of the boundaries between national and international as well as secular and religious that are key to the “neo-Westphalian” order in which we live.