By Javad Heirannia

Religion is not in conflict with IR theory: Prof.Askari

January 21, 2019

TEHRAN – Professor Hossein Askari, an expert on Saudi Arabia who also teaches international business at the George Washington University, believes that “I agree wholeheartedly that religion is not in conflict with international relations theory.”

 “Religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal dimensions of international relations have become increasingly important and these dimensions have to be integrated into any universal theory,” Hossein Askari, who served as special advisor to Saudi finance minister, tells the Tehran Times.

He adds that “Introduction of religious and sectarian variables can explain many facets of international relations that traditional theories cannot.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: When did the religious issues become a matter of great significance in Theorizing of International Relations?

A: To the best of my knowledge, as I am an economist, the study of international relations as a separate field of study emerged after WWI. Theories of international relations emerged about two decades later. It all depends what you mean by a field of study. There are some who trace go as far back as Aristotle, Cicero, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Rousseau or Kant. When did religion enter the field is tough to answer also. If you mean into formal theories, then we are talking in the last fifty or so years. There is an excellent edited volume (Religion and International Relations Theory) by Jack Snyder (2011) which answers your question more precisely. But to my mind, Rousseau, Kant, and Adam Smith were the precursors of all of this, especially Smith with his devotion to a theocentric world as in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There are some developments since WWII that have sort of brought religion more directly into international relations theory from the backdoor. For instance after the birth of Israel, books written on the Jewish lobby in the United States; the rise of religious extremism; the rise of sectarianism; and the Iranian Revolution.

Q: Some argue that if the theory of International Relations means a constitutive and critical theory, then bringing religion into International Relations is possible, but if the theory of International Relations is an explanatory-empirical theory, the theorizing religion in International Relations is not possible and, in fact, there is not theological positivism theory in International Relations. What is your opinion?

A: Again, as an economist, I look at these things from a different lens. In today’s world, nation-states no longer provide an unchallenged lens for assessing all dimensions of international relations. For me, tribalism and religious (and sectarian) divisions are becoming increasingly important and have to be incorporated into any meaningful theory. But please let me be clear, these divisions are becoming more important because rulers, politicians are using them to divide, get support and stay in power. For instance, the Al-Sauds use the Shia-Sunni dispute going back to the passing away of the Prophet Mohammad (sawa) to isolate and demonize their own Shia Muslims and by extension all Shia Muslims, to brainwash Sunnis that Shia are a threat and must be discriminated against in order to keep opportunities and wealth for the Sunni. This is not propagated only within Saudi Arabia but is at the heart of Al-Saud international relations policy in order to win international support for the Al-Saud in the Muslim World and beyond.

Q: Some scholars such as “Michael Allen Gillespie” in the book “The Theological Origins of Modernity” believe that modernity was not initially against religion, and in later years, as a result of social, cultural and political conditions, it has led to secularism. So Based on this conception, religion does not conflict with modernity, so can it be said that religion does not conflict with the International Relations theory stemming from modernity?

A: I agree that religion is not in conflict with modernity. It all depends on how the religion is perceived. Without dogma and if free debate and discussion is encouraged or at least tolerated. I agree wholeheartedly that religion is not in conflict with international relations theory. As I have just said, it is at the heart of Saudi international relations and as such, it is a reality that must be integrated into a widely applicable theory.

Q: Some argue that the current International Relations theory cannot explain some of the current phenomena of international relations and we need a religious theory of International Relations, especially with regard to religious issues. What is your opinion? In general, theorizing Religion in International Relations is feasible?

A: Clearly many actions of state and non-state actors cannot be explained within the confines of prevailing and prominent theories of international relations. Religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal dimensions of international relations have become increasingly important. These dimensions have to be integrated into any universal theory.

Q: If theorizing Religion in International Relations is possible, can a religious theory in International Relations explain all the unresolved issues and problems? 

A: Nothing can explain ALL unresolved issues. But I believe that the introduction of religious and sectarian variables can explain many facets of international relations that traditional theories cannot. Just look at the international relations and policies of Muslim countries. Or those of the United States, Israel and non-state actors such as ISIS. Religious and sectarian divides are embedded in their policies.

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