When and How Religion Matters in World Affairs

Responding to: Religion, Violence, and Peace

By: Jocelyne Cesari

July 6, 2016

Until the collapse of the Soviet Empire, religion did not matter in the study of world affairs. There were several reasons for this neglect, most notably the building of the international community after the Westphalia treaty as a club of rational state actors acting on material and security interests, although the reality may not have been as compliant to this dominant perception.

The end of the Cold War and the emergence of religiously motivated political groups dramatically changed this perception. It is the work of Samuel Huntington, first presented in a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs and subsequently elaborated in a 1996 book, which has dominated the discourse on culture as an element in international conflicts. Huntington argues that Islam is uniquely incompatible with and antagonistic to the core values of the West (such as equality and modernity).

This argument resurfaces in most current analyses of international affairs and globalization, notably in terrorist studies since September 11, 2001. However, as abundantly proven by the social sciences, civilizations are not homogenous, monolithic players in world politics with an inclination to “clash,” but rather consist of pluralistic, divergent, and convergent actors and practices that are constantly evolving. Thus, the “Clash of Civilizations” fails to address not only conflict between civilizations but also conflict and differences within civilizations. In particular, evidence does not exist to substantiate Huntington’s prediction that countries with similar cultures are coming together, while countries with different cultures are coming apart.

The cultural divide is thus envisaged as the primary cause of international crises. 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. Additionally, Huntington’s argument can be situated within the current trend of researchers attempting to understand the scope of the political revolts against the Western-dominated international order. But what culture and what Islam are being spoken of here? The idea of a monolithic Islam leads to a reductionism in which the conflicts in Sudan, Lebanon, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan are imagined to stem collectively and wholly from the domain of religion. It is, moreover, ironic that the role of religion, so long ignored or neglected in terms of international politics, is now exaggerated and decontextualized in an ahistorical perspective, which has elicited its fair share of criticism from scholars of Islamic cultures.

Seen in this light, the clash of civilizations thesis represents an attempt, albeit a consistently inadequate one, to shift international politics away from an exclusively nation-state-centric approach, only to immediately recreate and legitimate the view of a fixed world of cultural agents participating in predetermined conflicts of interest. This is to say that any attempt at an analysis of culture and global cultural conflict is an admirable one, but it must not be done through a reification of both culture and civilization. This ahistorical approach to Islam’s global role extends to all religions in world politics leading to the major problem of when and how religion matters internationally.

More generally, the Western experience of separation of religion became normalized with the Westphalian order and has become the international standard of interactions. The concept of secularism is a crucial aspect of this international order. It is based on the fiction of a clear-cut border between public and private space and state and religion, borrowing from a romanticized interpretation of European and American history. In this context, any manifestation of religion on an international scale is seen as something opposed to modernity and a form of resistance to the secularized liberal order.

The second major problem is one of classification. Within international relations, religious manifestations are categorized almost exclusively as ideological phenomena, that is, identified and studied primarily as ideas or beliefs. Such an approach reduces religion to a rhetoric that is used in political mobilization and hence gives the illusion that knowledge of the concepts and symbols of religious traditions is the major way to understand their role in politics.

The politicization of religion cannot be found solely in the study of religious doctrines, which is often the bias at play when it comes to political Islam. In fact, the politicization of Islam has not significantly affected theology or doctrines (except in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran with the introduction of the vilayet a faqih concept). But it has certainly changed the belonging to the Islamic tradition by mingling it with national belonging. It has also modified the praxis of the religion by transforming personal piety into public behaviors.

In most Muslim-majority countries, political Islam is not the monopoly of Islamic parties but also a foundational element of the nation-states. Although most of the founders of Muslim-majority countries were indeed Westernized, they nevertheless included Islam in the state apparatus, spurring its politicization by turning it into a modern national ideology, which operates as a common denominator for all political forces, secular or otherwise. As such, political Islam should be understood in a broader context that goes beyond Islamist political ideology or Islamic parties. In this broader sense, political Islam includes the nationalization of Islamic institutions and personnel under state ministries and the use of Islamic references in law and national education.

More specifically, the adoption of the nation-state by Muslim-majority countries after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 has been the decisive political change that led to the reshaping of Islamic values and institutions. These changes have translated into a brand new status of the religion that I call the hegemonic status of Islam. This term refers to a combination of two or more of the following characteristics:
  • Nationalization of institutions, clerics, and places of worship of one religion;
  • Insertion of the doctrine of that religion in the public school curriculum (beyond the religious instruction, for example, in history or civic education); 
  • Legal restrictions of freedom of speech and expression as well as restrictions of women’s rights (marriage/divorce/abortion) based on the prescriptions of that religion. 
Most Muslim countries, including Turkey, possess two or three of these features. The only exceptions are Lebanon, Senegal, and Indonesia (although discriminatory practices do exist). Interestingly, they are also the only ones that qualify as democracies according to the Freedom House index. While democracy can accommodate some forms of state involvement into religions, the hegemonic status granted to one religion can be an issue for democratic life or a transition to democracy. It is the reason why most Muslim countries rank low on the democracy index and high on most of indexes on political violence.

To sum up, certain types of state-religion relationships are related to lack of democracy, not Islam as a religion. Therefore focusing on Islam (or any religious tradition) as the variable to understand conflict and political violence is not productive. The existing statistics on political violence should not be explained by the essence of Islam but the state-religion status in each country. In other words, it is crucial to utilize grounded, historical approaches about any religion and democracy in order to provide different conclusions on existing data.
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When and How Religion Matters in World Affairs