By Javad Heirannia

“I am not in favour of a religious theory of international relations”

May 8, 2019

TEHRAN - Dr. Fabio Petito, senior lecturer in International Relations at department of International Relations of University of Sussex says the ‘rejection’ of religion seems to be inscribed in the genetic code of the discipline of International Relations (IR). 

He also adds that “Arguably the main constitutive elements of the practice and theory of modern international relations were purposely established in early modern Europe to end the Wars of Religion.”

“I am not in favour of a religious theory of international relations, even if it can be interesting to explore and even expand on what the different worldwide religious tradition have to say on different aspects of international relations, especially as far as normative issues and ethical dilemmas are concerned,” Dr. Petito tells the Tehran Times.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: When have been the religious issues a matter of great interest in Theorizing of International Relations?

A: It was probably with the end of the Cold War. Following the end of the Cold war, however, the predominant academic (and public) discourse took a very specific theoretical leaning: the unexpected return of religion in international politics was primarily theorised in the form of a militant and violent-prone form of politics, almost as a God-sent plague or punishment on the earth, “the revenge of God” or as if there was only “terror in the mind of God” as some of the  titles of the first books focusing on this resurgence seemed to evoke (respectively, G. Kepel and M. Jurgensmeyer). For this approach the examples were many: the conflicts in Bosnia, Algeria, Kashmir, Palestine, Sudan; but also the raise of world-wide Islamism and Hindu Nationalism or the growing role of the Christian Right on America foreign policy or of Orthodoxy on the Russian state; and of course the events of September 11 came as a seal to unequivocally confirm such a worrying and destabilising trend. More generally, I think that there are three ways in which this resurgence of religion in international politics has been apprehended/read by the discipline of International Relations in this first wave of post-89 attention to religion in IR: 1) in the context of the so-called ‘new wars’ where political violence is often manifested within ‘failed’ states and driven by a politics of identity and irregular warfare designed along religious lines; 2) in the context of religious fundamentalism and international terrorism; 3) and within the context and fears of a forthcoming “clash of civilizations”.

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 a 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: It was against this first wave of research on religion in IR that in the year 2000, together with my colleague Pavlos Hatzopoulos, I put together a journal Special issue of Millennium: Journal of International Studies, which is one of the key outlet for publishing critical scholarship in IR theory.  The idea was to challenge what Scott Thomas called in the opening article of the special issue the “Westphalian presumption”, that is, the notion that religious pluralism cannot be accommodated in international society but must be privatized (or better confessionalised, that is, brought under the control of the state) or overcome by a cosmopolitan ethics, if there is to be international order. In other words, we wanted to move away from the assumption shared by most of the post-89 scholarship that the politicization of religion in international relations is always an inescapable threat to security, inimical to ‘modernity’ and to the resolution of conflicts, as the ‘new wars’ driven by the politics of identity and the terrorist attacks of religious fundamentalists would show. This view, which is very strong in western academia and political circles, we argued, it overlooks the positive role politicised religion (in a qualified way) can play to the modernisation, democratisation and even peace-building in many countries and societies.  In fact, we could say that our Special Issue and the following 2003 volume ‘Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile’ contributed to a second wave of more reflexive scholarship on religion in IR: scholars started to recognize that the above-mentioned understanding of the global resurgence of religion – by definition a threat to security, inimical to ‘modernity’ and to the resolution of conflicts – was based on a problematic set of assumptions. It was an ideological understanding more than a social-scientifically based and historically-grounded analysis, part of that very eurocentric idea that William Cavanaugh has defined as the ‘Myth of Religious Violence’. Our approach was suggesting to start from a different theoretical assumption, something captured effectively by the words of the pioneering book by Scott Appleby (The Ambivalence of the Sacred), that is, from the assumption that religion was politically ambivalent: on the one hand, it could promote political violence and conflict, but, on the other, also non-violent civic engagement, development, conflict-resolution and even reconciliation.

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 is not conflict with modernity, so can it be said that religion is not conflict with the International Relations theory stemming from modernity?

A: I have argued that the ‘rejection’ of religion seems to be inscribed in the genetic code of the discipline of International Relations (IR). Arguably the main constitutive elements of the practice and theory of modern international relations were purposely established in early modern Europe to end the Wars of Religion. At that point in history—paraphrasing the powerful words of Thomas Hobbes—God made space to the great Leviathan (the sovereign state), that mortal God to which the new modern man owes his peace and security, religion was privatized (or better, as I mentioned before, confessionalised and brought under the control of the state), and through the principle of the cuius regio eius religio (the ruler determines the religion of his realm) pluralism among states and noninterference were born and worshipped as the new sacred principles of the emerging Westphalian order: As a consequence, politics with reference to religion becomes the ultimate threat to order, security, and civility, and, must not inhabit both the practice of international relations and, subsequently, the discipline of study of International Relations (IR). There is, in other words, a way in which religion and European modernity entered in tension and this is summarized, in my view, by Carl Schmitt powerful statement that ‘all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts’. What gradually happened in modern Europe was a process that has been described by the historian John Bossy as the ‘migration of the holy’.
A second break, however, lies, it seems to me, in International Relations’ self-understanding as a party to the Enlightment project, in its self-conception as a social science that holds a privileged access to knowledge of social phenomena. Firstly, and more broadly, it should not come as a big revelation that religion and the Enlightenment have not always been on “very good terms” either theoretically or politically. Rather, the Enlightenment Project (MacIntyre) envisages as its central mission the supersession of those traditional religious-based worlds into a universal individually-based and rationally-justified modern world. Secondly, and more specifically, we have to remember that modern international law, arguably the predecessor of the discipline of International Relations, was born under the auspices of Alberico Gentili’s celebrated cry silete theologi in munere alieno!—let theologians keep silence about matters outside their province!—which symbolically marked the end of the scholastic world and the advent of a new epoch, the Westphalian era, in which international politics would be examined from a secular rather than a theological standpoint. We need to understand that the idea of religious violence was one of foundational legitimising myth of the liberal nation-state as it fought against the Church ( I mean mostly the Catholic Church) in the 19th century, in Germany, Italy and of course paradigmatically in France.  Of course, the fact that in 20th century IR as an academic discipline developed after WWII mostly as an ‘American Social Science’ with a strong positivist –rather than interpretivist-historical – methodologies further reinforced the rejection of phenomenon of  religion that would be difficult to measure and analysed though the frameworks of positivist and quantitative approaches.  

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

A: I am not in favour of a religious theory of international relations, even if it can be interesting to explore and even expand on what the different worldwide religious tradition have to say on different aspects of international relations, especially as far as normative issues and ethical dilemmas are concerned. This is part of what I would call the ‘prophetic’ vocation of religion in discerning the signs of time and pointing to a more just and peaceful world order;  What I have, however, argued for, in a work that I developed with Luca Mavelli, is that we need an intellectual move towards a postsecular international thinking as a self-conscious reflexive thematization of the fact that contrary what all social sciences believed, for most of the 20th century, secularisation is not the unavoidable narrative and inexorable implication of modernity and modernisation processes. This recognition or what Habermas called ‘change of consciousness’ has many important implications for a discipline of IR which was born and is embedded in a deep form of ‘secularism’ and thrives on implicit secular assumptions. To me IR theory needs not only to incorporate the resilience of religious traditions in modern life, an unexpected development of modernization which was wrongly believed to go hand in hand with the process of secularization, but also needs to respond much more to  the normative call to include – against the prescriptions of the political philosophy of secularism - religious and spiritual voices in the current discussions on the political and social challenges faced by our societies; finally in a more radical way, IR theorising must be open to the possibility that  values such as democracy, freedom, equality, inclusion, and justice may not necessarily be best pursued within an exclusively immanent secular framework. Quite the opposite, the secular may well be a potential site of isolation, domination, violence, and exclusion.

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 a 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: Of course, the development of new forms of  postsecular theorising would make more justice to the complex role that religions play in contemporary international politics, including right-sizing the role and impact of religion against an opposite tendency that sometimes seems to suggest that it’s all about religion (Think about certain recent scholarship on the role of religion in the contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts).   I want to suggest, however, that a focus on religion in international relations is also important in making sense of the ‘big picture’ of word order that is slowly emerging under our very own eyes. As recent scholarship in civilizational analysis (Eisenstadt and Katzenstein) has been showing the different religious traditions act as cultural sources for the enactment of different programmes of modernity. That’s why in a recent article I wrote on ‘Dialogue of Civilizations in a Multipolar World’  I argued that we need to develop a postsecular theorising capable of making sense of the new great alignment which will shape the 21st century world order—a new multipolar world in a context of civilizational politics and multiple modernities— as this has something to do also with religion even if all contemporary analyses emphasised only the economic and security dimensions of the new emerging multipolarity.
 

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