Religion and International Relations Theory: From Absence to Challenge

By: Jocelyne Cesari

September 28, 2015

Religion and World Order

More than a decade after 9/11, it cannot be said anymore that religion is the “black hole” of international relations scholarship. In fact, one of the unexpected consequences of this tragic event has been to fix IR scholars’ sights more firmly on religion. Most of the post-9/11 literature is actually an attempt to explain “the secularizing silence” (Sheikh)—scholars attributing this neglect to the nature of Westphalian order and the consequential influence of secular principles on international affairs. In this regard, the discipline has for a long time lagged behind the concrete political influence of religion both nationally and internationally, from Hindu and Buddhist nationalism to political Islam. This neglect of religion by the IR discipline is partially due to the fact that the international system, as noted in Tom Banchoff’s essay, “remains strikingly secular.”

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.

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