Handling Religion in Politics and International Relations

The impact of religion on the world stage is very striking at this moment in history. The most prominent example of this is the current wave of religious radicalism across much of the Muslim world but we can also point to the effects of Christian revivalism in Africa, the contested meaning of the Jewish state in world politics and the rise to power of the Hindutva movement in India.

Religion can clearly not be ignored but instead we must confront the need to understand how to appropriately handle religion both as a variable and an active factor in events.

Photo: Matthias Rhomberg

Before tackling such questions however, we must first understand exactly what religion actually signifies. Religion can mean a great deal to the individual, from a personal connection to the divine to a means of coping with personal stresses and tragedies, but it also has a wider social meaning that needs to be precisely defined.

The danger in treating this wider social meaning in an imprecise manner is that we gain a vague essentialised understanding of religion. Religion then becomes a detached independent force in events, distinct and separable from other forces at play.

An example of this kind of thinking is an assumption that since Islam is a religion, then "Islam" exerts a common force on events involving its adherents, from Malaysia to Morocco. Another similar assumption would that since Israel is a declared Jewish State, Israel's actions are the representation of "Judaism" on the world stage.

To counter this, I would like to offer a numbers of observed "truths". One truth, however reluctant some may be to accept it, is that religion is a malleable factor in individual decision-making. It lives alongside social class, culture, upbringing, temperament and a multitude of other factors.

A concrete example of how religion is a single variable amongst a complex set of motivators of behaviour can be seen in the practices of Catholics with regards to contraceptives. While the Catholic Church has maintained a longstanding opposition towards contraceptives, we find the effect on behaviour is highly variable, not just a simple division between "good" Catholics who obey the Vatican and "bad" Catholics who don't. Deeply devout societies in Latin America, for example, have far more complex relationships with papal edicts.

A second truth is that religion is often, if not always, a word used to identify an internally diverse religious tradition. The best example of this would be Hinduism, a vast range of spiritual beliefs, texts and practices. Note that we are not talking about varying levels of religious practice, two equally devout Hindus can easily have different dietary, scriptural and devotional practices. The impact of their Hindu faith on their social activities is likely to vastly different, as the internal politics of India stands testament to.

This applies equally to other religious traditions, a Pakistani female following a Naksbhandi Sufi order will have vast doctrinal and social differences compared to an Egyptian male Salafi for example. Belonging to the same religious tradition does not preclude stark and deep divisions.

A third and final truth to keep in mind is that divine scripture is not a guide to the impact of religion on social affairs, rather scripture acts as an anchoring point for individuals. Even a text such as the Qur'an, which is usually interpreted in classical Arabic alone and is generally agreed to be textually consistent across regions and time, leads to vastly different interpretations and readings.

Attempts to "understand" religion through the use of scripture in International Relations is therefore extremely problematic. The result will almost certainly be another reading of the text, this time from the perspective of the researcher or author, with little value in understanding any given situation or issue in the world today.

So, with all of these observed truths, how should we handle religion in politics and international relations?

There is a requirement, based on the second and third observed truths, to avoid talking about religion as if it represents a unified whole. To borrow a Platonic concept, there is no universal "form" of Islam for example, but there are multitude of lived Islams, all intertwined within the same religious tradition but with very different impacts and effects.

Studying the effect of religion on the status of women in Saudi Arabia therefore should have a focus on the the lived Islam of the modern Salafi strand that predominates the religious establishment and a segment of the population. This study is likely to yield only limited insights into the status of women in Malaysia, whose lived Islam can be traced from very different intellectual strands in history and a very different environment.

There is also a clear requirement to focus on contested interpretations of scripture rather than the scripture itself. If we wish to understand Israeli society and religious law for example, we will gain very little by examining the Torah ourselves. Rather we need to examine the different Jewish legal schools, their influence amongst segments of the Israeli society and their interpretations of the Torah, not ours.

Lastly, we must recognise the problematic nature of reducing complex motivations and aims to a simple matter of religious motivation. If we take ISIS (or Daesh/Islamic State) and reduce their motivation down to a simple reading of Islamic scripture, our understanding will be extremely shallow and misleading. We will miss environmental factors, the security situation, the historical context and the complex relationship between religious, political and social conditions. In short, we will fail to understand why this particular reading has arisen and which conditions are relevant, our subsequent analysis will likely be little use in either explanatory and predictive terms.

In conclusion it is clear that understanding the role of religion in politics and international relations is a difficult business. However, the world is a complex place and we must always attempt to be as precise and nuanced as possible in striving to make sense of it.


1 comment:

  1. This is such a useful and well written blog. I am a student in the States and these issues are not explained well in class. I will continue to use this resource! Thank you and keep posting!