Beyond critique:

“After the Shipwreck”: Interpreting religion in international relations

posted by Gregorio Bettiza

Having been invited to reflect upon the themes of this forum, first raised during the European University Institute (EUI) workshop “Beyond Critique,” I hope the reader will not mind if I begin my essay with a story about shipwrecks.

In a now-famous talk, the Columbia University historian Carol Gluck suggestively argued that history finds itself, temporally and conceptually, “after the shipwreck.” The “shipwreck,” for Gluck, stands as a metaphor for the destruction of the major metanarratives (scientific objectivism, progress, modernity, chronological linearity, historical materialism, the nation) and paradigms (Marxism, Liberalism, Nationalism) that have underpinned much of modern historiography. The deconstruction of such metanarratives is inseparable from the scholarly turn to critical theory, post-structuralism, and post-colonial approaches to the study of history starting in the late 1980s.

Finding oneself in the shipwreck’s aftermath, Gluck explains, creates a sense of loss and helpless floating for the scholar, but it also represents a moment of great opportunity. In fact, living “in the land of paradigms lost,” in Gluck’s rendering, opens the door for dropping standard categories and constituting different ones, asking anew big and important questions, and drawing eclectically from multiple methodologies, rather than single orthodoxies, to investigate the social and political world.

Keeping Gluck’s words in mind, it is evident to me that most of us who participated in the EUI workshop, and now in this forum, are—in different ways and from different perspectives—trying to figure out how to move forward in the study of religion “after the shipwreck.” Indeed, the master narratives and concepts of religion and secularism/secularization have been, increasingly over the past decades, historically contextualized and their normative and ideological underpinnings denaturalized. The Enlightenment premises and Western-centric nature through which the category of religion has generally come to be defined in the social sciences (mostly as privately held, non-rational belief) have been exhaustively examined and questioned, and theories positing the teleological, universalizing, and homogenizing direction of secularizing processes and dynamics have been, for the most part, conceptually and empirically undermined.

Within this intellectual context, it is fascinating to observe how most of us participating in this debate are holding onto distinct theoretical floating devices, attempting to swim towards uncharted waters and safe havens in the shipwreck’s aftermath. This is palpable in the wide and eclectic range of research projects, methodologies, and conceptualizations of “the religious” and “the secular” put forward by all participants in the workshop. It is, indeed, a time of great innovation and excitement.

Some, like Nilüfer Göle, Katerina Dalacoura, and Markus Dressler, proceed by giving their own interpretations of the complex intertwining of the religious and the secular, whether in contemporary societies or in the specific case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish nationalist intellectuals. Veit Bader proposes a return to old certainties, seeking to provide an unbiased definition of religion (though I cannot stop asking myself whether such a project is tenable after the shipwreck). Manuel Vasquez seeks to abandon conventional definitions of religion as “belief,” proposing a materialist turn towards the study of objects, practices, and networks. (I find myself wondering, however, how Vasquez knows—once he forgoes any attempt at defining religion—that those materials he is researching are, in fact, religious.) Others, like Cécile Laborde and Lorenzo Zucca, pursue multiple political and legal philosophical avenues, seeking to broaden the liberal understanding of religion.

Given this dizzying array of projects, one can easily feel, as Gluck anticipated, disoriented. Finding myself in such a position during the workshop, I turned to Olivier Roy and asked, “What are we to make of the bewildering number of definitions and approaches to religion we heard in these days? How can we ever understand or define what religion is?” His reply was short and to the point: “You want to know what religion is? Ask the secularists.” These remarks aptly captured, and have since helped me make increasingly explicit, what I consider my own theoretical floating device in the study of religion and secularism in international relations (IR).

I generally embrace something like a Weberian-inspired analytical interpretivist approach (modernist constructivist in IR) to the study of religion. I seek to recover and unpack social and political actors’ culturally- and historically-situated ideas about the religious and the secular, how actors come to construct and endow these categories with meaning, and how, by structuring actions around these individually and collectively held meanings, actors causally influence international politics.

In my attempt to incorporate “critique” and move “beyond” it, to draw from the forum’s title, I do not seek to fix and define what “the religious” or “the secular are.” Yet I also do not give up on investigating the constitutive and causal power that such categories—when applied to certain beliefs, identities, communities, institutions, practices, or objects—have as social facts for certain actors, in certain places, at certain times. Put differently, I take an approach that combines what Philip Gorski has elsewhere labeled “sociopolitical” and “religiocultural” perspectives to explain the variations of religiosity, secularity, and religious-secular arrangements around the world and across history.

The focus then moves away from the scholar seeking to specify what is religious and what is secular, onto what social and political actors specify as religious or secular, and exploring what happens in world politics when they do so. Yet adopting the participants’ perspective does not mean we have to take their words and deeds uncritically. The scholar is always, in a more or less self-aware manner, engaged in interpretations of interpretations. I rely, then, on more abstract concepts, typologies, and taxonomies to help navigate and order the meanings and social-political reality I am investigating.

I use such a framework to make sense of a growing push towards the inclusion and operationalization of religion in American foreign policy. Just this past August, for instance, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the establishment of an Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives in the State Department, whose mission, he declared, is to “engage more closely with faith communities around the world, with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges.” This new office is only the latest installment in a growing foreign policy infrastructure concerned with religion. That infrastructure includes offices in the White House; the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), designed to advance faith-based solutions to conflict and poverty; a State Department Office and a federally-funded independent Commission assigned to monitoring and promoting international religious freedom; and the appointment of what are commonly seen as America’s “ambassadors” to Islam—a Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and a Special Representative to Muslim Communities.

Most of the debates surrounding the emergence of this religious foreign policy infrastructure—some of which are being played out on the pages of The Immanent Frame itself (see the discussions on religious freedom and the Department of State’s office)—have revolved around the need for, or perils associated with, these changes. My main interest, however, has been to explore why and how, within the space of less than two decades and three rather different presidencies (Clinton, Bush, Jr., and Obama’s), religion has progressively and unprecedentedly been brought into the making and implementation of American foreign policy. This has occurred, I argue, thanks to the development of a powerful narrative, one that broadly goes as follows: “American foreign policy is problematically ‘secular’ in a world where religions are still alive and well, if not resurging.” This narrative has been articulated by a disparate range of grassroots organizations, intellectual elites, and political leaders, enabling some of them to form coalitions and mobilize for bringing more religion into American national security, diplomatic, and development practices. These coalitions have successfully contested and renegotiated the boundaries between different conceptions of the secular and the religious, in favor of the latter.

I have conceptualized these changes as instances and processes of institutional, epistemic, ideological, and state-normative desecularization. These actors and coalitions have affected a range of foreign policy areas. First, they have created greater space for the institutionalization of offices and positions designed to include experts on religion, individuals associated with religious organizations, and religious figures and communities in the formulation and delivery of policy. Second, they have encouraged greater appreciation, at best, and reification, at worst, of international actors and dynamics understood as religious. Third, they have interpreted religion not solely as an overwhelming source of violence, but also as a source for the common good which ought to be employed in the pursuit of American foreign policy goals. Finally, they have enabled the redefinition of church-state separation norms in a less stringent and more accommodationist light when it comes to foreign policy practices.

These changes are having real ideational and material consequences for American foreign policy and international politics. In a previous era, individuals, movements, communities, norms, knowledge, institutions, practices, and objects which are labeled religious, itself a highly contingent and political process that implicates a hugely diverse range of actors and forces, were generally—though not consistently—ignored or avoided by American policy-makers and government institutions. Over the past few decades, however, agents and processes that are understood as religious have instead been actively and systematically sought after, being brought in, employed, reified, and transformed by American foreign policy.

In sum, navigating the shipwreck’s aftermath is no easy task, especially if one is to take both the category of religion and its critiques seriously in IR. It requires a delicate balancing act—as Cécile Laborde’s piece in this forum aptly captures—between “criticizing” and “upholding” religion. What I presented here is an interpretivist stance that seeks to navigate this tension and wishes to be more self-reflexive than the somewhat similar anthropological approach sketched in Laborde’s post. I adopt a framework that takes the participants’ perspectives seriously, but is simultaneously more aware of the meaning, power and politics involved in the labeling of something as religious or secular by political leaders, as well as scholars, ordinary citizens, or civil society organizations. My approach is also more sensitive to disaggregating what actors in world politics understand by, and do with, the categories of the religious and the secular in international relations.

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One Response to ““After the Shipwreck”: Interpreting religion in international relations”

  1. avatar Grace Song says:

    In a society where we are often taught to distinguish religion from politics, this article framing the discussion of religion and the secular within the context of international relations provides a refreshing perspective. As we wade through the “shipwreck” and move on from the Enlightenment premises of religion as non-rational and privately held, we find ourselves questioning what kind of a role religion plays as an increasingly important actor in the 21st century compared to decades ago. While we may be unable to uniformly agree on the exact definition of what the religion and secular implies, it is important to identify it as a global actor that may have a wide range of influences on foreign policy, international institutions and global movements. Religion plays a large role in international politics whether we realize it or not, and a brief glance at current news items regarding the MENA (middle east and north african) countries as well as European states such as Turkey demonstrates the relevance of religion to current issues.

    It is interesting to recognize the different forms of secularism in these various contexts as well. While the US, India and France may all identify as secular states, their legal regulations and cultural practices vary in large degrees and reflect a very different image of “the secular.” Because of the large cultural presence of religion in Indian history and traditions, it is much more difficult to disentangle religiosity from a country such as France, where religion plays a much less dominant role in society. Essentially it is important to recognize that whether it be governmental policies, UN decisions or a humanitarian organization’s intervention agenda, religion is an actor that must be addressed – indirectly, if not directly – and taken into account in today’s increasingly globalized context.

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