Skip to main content

How International Relations Got Religion, And Got it Wrong

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on July 9, 2015.

By Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Twenty years ago, most scholars of international relations viewed religion as private and irrelevant to global politics. Today, that has profoundly changed. Everyone seems to be measuring, analyzing and alternately promoting and constraining religion in all manner of forms. Policymakers seek out representatives of moderate religion to create peaceable partnerships, while co-opting or sidelining their rivals. Scholars and advocacy networks model relations between religion and democracy, religion and peacebuilding, and religion and economic growth.

This new attention to religion is, at its base, predominantly about Islam. From 9/11 to the rise of the Islamic State, the “problem” that Islam is said to represent has led to a moral panic in Western democracies.

Islam is portrayed as the religion that is most recalcitrant and most resistant to Western-style modernity. It is seen as an agent that — like other religions, only more so — needs careful management to prevent it from igniting into violence.

Scholars and experts in the United States and abroad have built careers around reiterating the mantra that Islam must be reformed in the interest of world peace.

Islam is also seen as its own potential solution, as long as moderation is institutionalized, extremists marginalized and the tradition’s benevolent tendencies harnessed for the public good. “Good” forms of Islam are celebrated as sources of morality, community and discipline, while “bad” ones are criticized as the root of all global instability and insecurity. As Andrew Shyrock puts it, “Muslims and particular forms of Islam are understood, with varying degrees of anxiety and affection, as problems that must be solved, or as solutions to problems.”

Efforts by scholars to engage with the public discourse surrounding Islam have proven frustrating. As Jillian Schwedler observed earlier this year, the perceived need to defend the “moderation” of Islam in the public policy debate can leave scholars trapped within unsophisticated and corrosive categories. The sterility of debates such as whether inclusion of Islamists moderates them or whether the Islamic State is truly Islamic, led Schwedler to argue for the need to “make explicit the ways in which certain categories have dominated our analyses and think through whether or not there is more insight to be gained by refining or by abandoning them.” The same stance should now be adopted by those engaged with the public arguments over religious freedom and calls to reform Islam.

Religious freedom, particularly with regard to Islam, has evolved into a major policy arena. In the United States, this logic is institutionalized in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, with a supporting cast of nongovernmental initiatives, memos and conferences dedicated to supporting moderation, religious freedom, and toleration while countering violent extremism at home and abroad. The latter is especially prevalent since the rise of the Islamic State.

Last week, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) introduced the Countering Violent Extremism Act to create a federal Office of Coordination for Countering Violent Extremism at the Department of Homeland Security. The bill defines violent extremism as “ideologically motivated terrorist activities.”

This agenda is also intensifying in Canada and in Europe, reflecting a growing global consensus that extremist “bad” religion is the problem and moderate “good” religion the solution. President François Hollande announced an increase in defense spending of nearly 4 billion euros between 2016 and 2020 to confront extremist threats at home and overseas. The European Parliament and the Canadian government have created offices—such as the Canadian Office of International Religious Freedom and the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance — to conduct outreach to religious leaders, protect religious minorities, promote tolerant religion and counter extremism.

The problem is that the understanding of religion underlying these efforts is deeply flawed. Religion, law and politics have always intermingled — and it cannot be otherwise. As Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar argues in this series, religious interpretations are often an outcome of politics. Religion cannot be disembedded and isolated from the broader social and political fields in which it is entangled. It also cannot be divided between good and bad. There are no untouched religions waiting to be recovered from political irrelevance or reformed into peaceable governing partners.

Religions, including Islam, do not cause violence. Nor do they cause peace. Religion is better understood as are other intersected categories such as gender, race and class: it is deeply enmeshed with legal forms of collective governance in complex and context-specific formations. The religious-secular opposition is itself unstable, shaped by social forces, institutions and practices that cannot be reduced to either of the two sides of the binary. Religion occupies different spaces under modern regimes of governance, some of which are often described as “secular.”

My new book, “Beyond Religious Freedom,” proposes a new vocabulary for the study of religion and governance. Distinguishing between “expert religion,” “official religion,” and “lived religion,” it disaggregates religion in order to access a richer field of religio-political realities. Taking Islam as an example, “lived” Islam would refer to the practices of ordinary Muslims as they interact with religious authorities, rituals, texts and institutions as they seek to navigate and make sense of their lives, connections with others and place in the world. It identifies a diverse field of human activity, relations, investments and beliefs that may or may not be captured in the set of human goings-on identified as “Islamic” for the purposes of law and governance. “Governed” or “official” Islam, on the other hand, is religion as construed by those in positions of political and religious power, including the state and various forms of law. Examples include the official Islam of state institutions — such as the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the Turkish Diyanet, the French foreign ministry, and the Egyptian state—as well as the official Islams of various supranational institutions — including the International Criminal Court, the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Finally, “expert” Islam refers to Islam as construed by those who generate knowledge about Islam including scholars, policy experts, religious authorities and government officials.

Disaggregating Islam into these three categories reveals that expert and official construals of Islam do not and cannot exhaust the field of contemporary Muslim religiosities. Lived Islam does not align with an understanding of Islam as a singular, bounded cause of political behavior. It often diverges from Islam as construed by the Turkish, Egyptian, French, Saudi — or American — state. The practices and traditions of lived Islam often dissent from orthodox, elite or official understandings of what Islam is or should be.

Neither “Islam” nor “Muslim political actors” are singular, agentive forces that can be analyzed, quantified, engaged, celebrated, condemned, or divided between good and bad. References to “Muslim political behavior” should be met with skepticism. To rely for policy purposes on the category of an Islamic actor or Islamic state, as does the U.S. initiative on Countering Violent Extremism, mistakenly presumes a form of actor-ship motivated by Islam. This is sociologically untenable.

There is no singular Islam, just as there is no single Christianity or Hinduism. As anthropologist Samuli Schielke explains, “Islam, like any major faith, is not simply something – it is a part of people’s lives, thoughts, acts, societies, histories and more. Consequently, it can be many different things – a moral idiom, a practice of self-care, a discursive tradition, an aesthetic sensibility, a political ideology, a mystical quest, a source of hope, a cause of anxiety, an identity, an enemy – you name it.”

Singling out Islam as a cause of political behavior and a platform for conducting foreign policy obscures the broader and always entangled economic, historical, geographic, political and religious contexts in which discrimination, violence and coexistence occur. We lose sight of the bigger picture. Social tensions and conflicts that have roots in multiple contributing factors are depoliticized, their causes explained away through reference to intolerant theologies.

The recent debate over whether the Islamic State is Islamic is one example. As Anver Emon explains, the moral panic surrounding the Islamic State arises out of a context in which the “Islamic” is being rendered as an ideology to respond to a broader history of political, economic and social frustration and dispossession. Emon posits: “suppose instead of asking whether ISIS is Islamic, we were to say that ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of broken promises at the end of the British and French mandates; ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of the American interventions in Iraq; ISIS’s brutality is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of Black Americans was Christian, both Islam and Christianity having been used to justify violent brutality.”

Disaggregating religion highlights the gaps between the constructs of religious governance — such as religious freedom, religious outreach and interfaith dialogue — authorized by experts, states and other authorities, and the lived experiences of the individuals and communities they aspire to govern.

Differentiating between expert, governed and lived religion also highlights a dangerous trend of tying “expert religion” to state power in the age of the so-called war on extremism.

Today, on a scale not seen since the height of the Cold War, expert religion is being mobilized in the service of governed religion — and the aims of the state. A new partnership between the State Department and the American Academy of Religion (AAR), for example, announces that State is “keenly interested in drawing upon the insight of scholars of religion to help formulate and implement US foreign policy. In support of this vital effort, … [t]hese fellowships provide a wonderful opportunity to offer your expertise toward reducing violent conflict, improving regional security and protecting human rights.”

Experts who study religion have an important role to play in educating students and informing the public. Informed public engagement and writing on these issues is critical inside Washington and beyond. However, there is an important distinction to be made here. Peddling scholarly wares in the service of the state is not equivalent to writing and speaking in an effort to inform public debates. The former, as in the AAR-State partnership, inevitably involves pressing that power’s case. The latter, as in Schwedler’s analysis mentioned earlier, does not. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Charles King wrote that “democratic societies depend on having a cadre of informed professionals outside government—people in universities, think tanks, museums, and research institutes who cultivate expertise protected from the pressures of the state.” Nowhere is restraint, reflection and understanding protected from the immediate interests of the state more urgently needed today than at the intersection of religion and global politics.

From academic institutions to government bureaucracies, our understandings of law, politics, history and more need to pay careful attention to religion, but it cannot be imagined as a variable, or as an agent segregated from other dimensions of human sociality.

Bureaucracies do not need independent offices predicated on the notion that religions are entities set apart from the world requiring special treatment. To presume that religion is a stable category of law and governance decreases our capacity to understand complex conflicts. It favors forms of religion authorized by those in power, and it excludes other ways of being and belonging.

- Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University

Editor's Picks

Back to top