The relationship between religion and international politics has been often characterized by mutual suspicion and conceptual misunderstandings as a result of unsuccessful and flawed analyses about their interaction. However, accounting for religion as an intervening variable in world politics can not be entirely dismissed: from a sociological and constructivist standpoint, the field of faith can provide us with relevant and helpful insights for explaining the evolution of some political concepts.
As far as the three Abrahamic religions are concerned (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), historical and comparative analyses show us how religion might be a useful explanatory tool for grasping complex structural phenomena. In fact, far from suggesting any pretentious and inconsistent theory of “religion in world politics”, I will be focusing on monotheism as the basis for the exercise and theorization of sovereignty, social mobilization and civil society.
To begin with, according to Daniel Philpott, the so-called ‘Westphalian System’ of modern states, based in the modern conception of state sovereignty, was built on religious grounds in Europe. Before 1648, political Europe was characterized by deeply fragmented forms of sovereignty, although transcontinental institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, ruled this broad geopolitical arena through what John Sidel has called the interwoven area between “non-territorial” and material power (powers over land, taxation, and local officials). As a result, the Christian authority represented the embryonic stage of a complex state system, which was later institutionalized through the thirty-year experience of inter-religious conflicts, ending with the Treaty of Westphalia.
Previously, the 16th century had marked the rise of the Protestant Reformation within the Christian world. Calvinism, in association with the structural consequences unleashed by the interaction between transcontinental institutions and pre-existing and scattered forms of sovereignty, played a meaningful role in determining the rise of the state. As Philip Gorski cleverly points out, the Protestant Reformation laid the foundations of a “disciplinary revolution”, which made available the necessary discipline for political control. More importantly, in addition to this cultural feature, the Calvinist church provided the modern state thanks to its own power relation with local communities and government.
If Christianity, and related institutions, have played a substantial role within the development of sovereignty and the modern state-system, Islam has to be mentioned as mobilizing factors in world politics. Islam laid down its bases during the 18th and 19th century. Indeed, European colonialism stretched its arms over Muslim lands, such as in the Indian Ocean where the Portuguese, Dutch and British powers intensified forms of imperial and colonial control. In these lands, the aforementioned imperial powers applied the same political and organizational tenet: the extension of Christian extra-territorial sovereignty founded on the basis of religion.
In the 20th century two remarkable occurrences took place: the creation of new networks of Islamic intellectuals and activists on one hand; and the instrumental use of Islam in domestic and foreign policy against the colonial encroachment on the other. The interaction between these two political and social consequences strengthened the rally ‘round effect of religion in the international realm, especially since the rise of new media and the improvement of communication among Muslims. As a matter of fact, both the rise of Al Qa’ida in the last thirty years (as a counter-hegemonic force against the Soviet Union during the Cold war, and more recently the United States), and the state sponsorship of Islamic movements by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, confirm the political clout of Islam in international affairs.
Finally, an overlooked case deserves to be taken into account: Judaism. In his latest book, Michael Walzer stresses the constraining role of Judaism in managing political power: drawing from the philosophical work of Nietzsche, even Walzer identifies the Hebrew Bible as a text against the will of power, as turned by humans against one another. Generally speaking, the Hebrew Bible is concerned with the use, abuse and justification of power by governments. Moreover, Walzer enriches the analysis of Judaism by underlying its role in elaborating a successfully theory of society, conceived as a self-help structure: indeed, the Jews have been able to survive as a society, and without formal political institutions, over the course of history. For such a reason, this religious text continues to be compelling and relevant, and further studies should be provided in order to understand evolution and interaction between civilizations.
Far from being thorough and exhaustive, this article aims at suggesting a more serious account of the role of religion in international relations. As these few words have witnessed, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, along with their own institutions, have contributed to the shape of some important political concepts. All of them, in particular, can serve as “autonomous public spaces and as a countervailing power to state power”, by creating a “particular kind of civil society and associational life.”
Photo Credit: Ian Sane