In this excerpt from a recent paper, John Fahy and Jeffrey Haynes consider the apparent re-emergence, and previous marginalisation, of religion in international relations (IR). Events in recent decades, most notably 9/11, have demonstrated the need to better understand how religion influences IR. Yet some scholars caution that religion need not be incorporated into IR frameworks, and that doing so can be counter-productive.

UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré, Flickr, Creative Commons

The challenges—both theoretical and practical—of integrating religion into international relations have received a lot of attention in recent years. Scholars looking to account for the ‘return’ or ‘resurgence’ of religion in international relations all agree that 9/11 marked a watershed moment. For some, it delineated a “new era in world politics”. 9/11 has become a universal point of departure across the various attempts to explain the importance of religion in world affairs, which typically engage with broader historical processes such as globalization, modernization, and secularization (and desecularization). Aside from 9/11, other popular examples include the 1979 Iranian revolution, conflict in Northern Ireland, or the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan. Lebanon, Sri Lanka, the Balkans, and the Middle East broadly speaking are also often put forward to exemplify the need to better understand the various ways in which religion influences international relations today.

Across a now sprawling body of literature that seeks to integrate religion into international relations (IR) theory, a general consensus has emerged as to what are the historical processes that explain its marginalization. Secularization theory in social science (or the broader category of modernization theory in political science) is often presented as the main culprit. That religion was widely conceived as a “primordial remnant that was fading away”, and was therefore no longer taken seriously in either academic or political circles, is often attributed to secularization theory. While secularization theory, at least in its simplest evolutionary form, is today widely discredited, IR theory, it is claimed, is still heavily informed by “dogmatic secularism” at the expense of religion. Timothy Shah and Daniel Philpott, for example, argue that IR theory “is secular in good part because it reflects the profoundly secularizing historical transformation that established modern international relations itself”. Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler similarly suggest that “the discipline of IR is a microcosm of the Western social sciences, which for most of the twentieth century ignored religion”. 9/11 has apparently signaled a profound, if not necessarily paradigmatic, shift. “Although there is a long way to go before the international system realigns itself to accommodate religion’s increasing role,” write Douglas Johnston and Brian Cox, “the slavish devotion to secularism and to the rational-actor model of the past is clearly on the wane”.

Not everybody, however, agrees. In her recent book God on Our Side: Religion in International Affairs, Shireen Hunter casts doubt on the narrative of the ‘return’ of religion. Hunter argues against the facile tendency to reverse the script on secularization, highlighting that despite its Western origins, secularization has been a dominant discourse in societies around the world. Hunter notes that “the inescapable reality is that for three centuries religion’s influence in the lives of societies was in decline, albeit to varying degrees and at varying speeds in different parts of the world”. Hunter goes on to suggest that despite the ubiquitous insistence that IR theorists need to find ways to accommodate religion into their theoretical frameworks, the examples that are offered as evidence for its importance often do not in fact belong in the field of IR at all. A lot of the case studies presented, Hunter correctly points out, deal with domestic rather than necessarily international issues. She concludes that “most works proclaim how important religion’s role is in international affairs, but fail to demonstrate why and how”. Religion, Hunter summarizes, “influences international affairs more by being used as an instrument to advance various actors’ policy goals than by playing a key role in their formulation”.

Elizabeth Hurd has recently argued that what she calls the “restorative narrative” of de-secularization should be understood as an ideological as much as an empirical commitment, much like the secularization thesis it aims to dethrone. Hurd warns of the need for analytical distance from the restorative narrative that “proponents must work feverishly, uphill, and against the odds to recover and reincorporate religion into a cold and desiccated secularist field of global theory and practice from which religion had been unjustly excluded”. Those proclaiming the ‘return’ of religion, in other words, are as invested in their own moral narrative, as they argue secularists are in theirs. Notwithstanding ongoing debates about the place of religion in international affairs, discourses and developments around the theme have garnered a lot of attention beyond academic circles.

Note: The full paper, Introduction: Interfaith on the World Stage, can be found here with full references. The paper is part of a special edition of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

About the authors

John Fahy is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University, Qatar and the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, where he leads a comparative project that focuses on interfaith initiatives in Delhi, Doha and London.

Jeffrey Haynes is emeritus professor of politics at London Metropolitan University. He is the author or editor of 45 books, 80 peer reviewed articles and 120 chapters in edited books. His most recent book is The United Nations Alliance of Civilisations and the Pursuit of Global Justice: Overcoming Western versus Muslim Conflict and the Creation of a Just World Order, New York and Lampeter, Edwin Mellen Press, 2018.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.