TEHRAN, Dec. 27 (Press Shia Agency) – A professor of Georgetown University believes there has been an exaggeration of the role of religion in international relations theories.
In an interview, Professor Shireen Hunter told Vahid Pourtajrischi of Mehr News International Service that religion particularly Islam had been of much interest in its power to reshape the political movements across the region, which confronted established governments and in some cases toppled them. Religion matters in the Islamic world, since it plays a role in the politics of the region, and thus would be subject to research in the academia, she believed.
The role of religion in international relations has been subject of much research during recent decades. Works of Jack Snyder, the great thinker of defensive realism on this ground should provide some telling example. What is the cause for the popularity of the issue?
The main reasons why in the last two decades and, especially in the last ten years, the role of religion in international relations has attracted more attention are the following: first, the role of religion in domestic politics of most Muslim majority countries has increased. This trend first began in the mid-1970s, when various Islamist groups in places like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Iran began to use religion as a tool to challenge the existing governments and their political philosophies.
Some of these groups, such as variety of splinter groups from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt resorted to violent acts, including assassinations, such as the killing of Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, the president of Egypt. In Algeria in the 1990s, the Islamists waged a civil war against the Algerian government. Meanwhile, in Iran, a combination of Islamists and both secular and religious leftists brought down the monarchy. Where the Islamists triumphed, as in Iran, they fundamentally changed the country’s foreign policy and in this way influenced the dynamics of regional and even international political relations, and the pattern of regional friendships and enmities.
As a result scholars had to pay more attention to religion as a determinant of state behavior; second, Muslim countries and non-state actors have increasingly used religion as a tool of advancing their other ambitions. In this respect, Saudi Arabia’s use of Wahhabi Islam has been especially significant, by among other things giving rise to violent non-state actors such as the Taliban, various Salafi groups in the Middle East and the Caucasus and even the Balkans and finally DAESH. It is not so much these actors actions is actually determined by their religious beliefs, but that they have found religion a powerful tool for mobilizing people and advancing their more parochial interests. For example, Saudi policy in Iraq is as much about preventing a Shia government form succeeding as about containing Iran’s regional influence. It is more about power politics than religion. But religion is a convenient tool. However, irrespective of its role as motivator or justifier, religion has become an important variable in international relations; third, religions, especially Islam, have mutated into full-blown and, often totalitarian, ideologies which are completely different from traditional religion. Ali Sahriati in Iran and Seyyed Muhammad Qutb in Egypt greatly contributed to this phenomenon. In fact, in some places, especially in the Muslim Middle East, religion has replaced secular ideologies as basis of state legitimacy and as justifier of political action.
Basically, why the mainstream approaches including realism and liberalism, have been careless about the role of religion in international relations?
The principal schools of international relations theory have reflected the realities of the international system and relations as they existed. For three hundred years, religion did not affect the behavior of principal actors either directly or significantly. However, all schools considered the role of such factors as ideational systems of countries, their cultural traits and the impact of national identities. Religion is an important component of all three of these factors. Only did they not factor in religion as an independent variable. Even today, religion’s influence is most felt by the virtue of its being part of states’ identities and cultures and by its use as an instrument of policy. Policies are made as a result of a combination of motives. Religion is only one of them.
Have the post-Constructivist theories paid enough attention to the role of religion in international relations?
I believe, we have gone from underestimating the role of religion in determining the behavior of state and non-state actors to exaggerating its role. Today, too much emphasis is put on religion. The best way to understand religion’s relative role is to examine the interaction of various factors, such as security, economic advantage, prestige, power, ambition ideals that determines international actors’ behavior. The case studies used in the book ‘God on Our Side’ show under what circumstances religion plays a very important role and when its impact is only secondary.
Shireen Hunter is a Research professor at the School of Foreign Service and affiliated with the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Interview by: Vahid Pourtajrischi