Today, there is no doubt that religions are one of the factors that increasingly contribute to the shaping and conditioning of international relations. Accordingly, their role needs to be studied using the same tools and the same thoroughness usually devoted to other branches of political affairs.
Geopolitics is one of these tools. If we consider religions exclusively from a political point of view, i.e. as political tools among other political tools, we can roughly say that in order to understand international phenomena in which religions are involved, one must chiefly study geopolitics, not religions. This is of course a shortcut, because the specific nature of each individual religion makes it a different political tool, but it allows an order of priorities, methodologically speaking.
To better understand what we mean, we can take the example of the Middle East: if one wants to study the phenomenon of the so-called “Islamic State”, one has to study the proxy war between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar aimed at controlling Greater Syria and the role of the traditional great powers, not the Koran. In this conflict, the control of Greater Syria is the end, and the Koran is one of the means used in order to achieve this goal.
On the contrary, many have tried to explain Middle Eastern events through the allegedly irreconcilable, historic conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. However, in modern times, until the Iranian Revolution in 1979, there were no significant confrontations between Sunni and Shia communities. Until 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia were on the same side of the Cold War and their international roles prevented them from fighting against each other for hegemony in the region. After 1979, the best path the Saudis had to (attempt to) balance their uneven relations with Iran was to exploit Sunnism (which represents roughly 90% of the Muslim world) against Shiism (the remaining 10% or so).
Every religion everywhere is the object of political exploitation, for purposes that have nothing to do with the salvation of the soul. As Graham Fuller wrote: “Religion will always be invoked wherever it can to galvanize the public and to justify major campaigns, battles and wars,” but “the causes, campaigns, battles and wars are not about religions.” (A World Without Islam, 2010)
This is possible because holy texts can serve as very flexible political tools. With the holy texts of any religion it is in fact possible to support all theses and their opposites. During the ruthless debates about slavery in the United States in the 19th century, both pro- and anti-slavery forces made immense use of Biblical quotations to support their points of view. Jacques Berlinerblau, the Georgetown scholar who studied the exploitation of the Scriptures in American politics, stated that “the Bible can always be cited against itself, no matter what the issue… The Bible is to clear and coherent political deliberation as sleet, fog, hail and flash floods are to highway safety.” (Thumpin’ it: The Use and the Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics, 2008).
The Political Role of Religions
When it comes to the political role of religions, the most important distinction is between passive and active religions. Passive religions are those religions that cannot take any independent political initiative for at least three reasons: 1) they lack a unified leadership that is acknowledged by all faithful adherents; 2) they do not establish a clerical mediation between the faithful and God; 3) their holy texts do not have a unique authorized interpretation (which prevents them from being cited against themselves). Conversely, active religions present the opposite features: 1) they have a leadership that is acknowledged by all faithful adherents; 2) they have at their disposal a clerical mediation between the faithful and God; 3) their holy texts have a unique authorized interpretation. Only active religions can take independent political initiatives.
Sunnism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Evangelicalism – among others – are some examples of passive religions. None of them has a religious center or a religious leader acknowledged by all the faithful, and they allow each believer (or group of believers) to read and interpret the holy texts in a personal (or factional) way. When these religions become political tools, each believer can support all theses and their opposites, can support terrorism or the beheading of unbelievers or, following the very same holy text, can commit themselves to meekness and universal harmony among humankind. Their holy texts are “to clear and coherent political deliberation as sleet, fog, hail and flash floods are to highway safety.”
To some extent, Christian Orthodox Churches and other established Churches are also passive religious institutions, but for different reasons. Because they are intrinsically linked with – and subordinate to –political power, they are not allowed to take any independent political initiative.
In a nutshell, we can say that the only religious institution capable of an independent political initiative, the only active one, is the Roman Catholic Church. As an anonymous cardinal said in a long interview with a French journalist, “We unquestionably exert an influence on the world stage every time the opportunity arises… We are the only religious power to be able to do so. Only the Catholic Church has official embassies in almost all the countries of the world [as well as] an individual and centralized leadership. We are so accustomed to it that we often forget how very exceptional our condition is.” (Confession d’un cardinal, 2007). This description is correct, even though the network of embassies of the Holy See around the world is much more a consequence of its power than its source. Rather, its source lies in its history, in its organization, and above all in its multi-secular experience in human affairs, particularly in political affairs.
This experience dates back to the time of the partition of the Roman Empire. In its Eastern part, the central political power was strong and solid and therefore the Church was subordinated to, and an institution of, the Empire. The emperor himself was the actual leader of the Church, even in theological affairs; he exercised “supreme authority in ecclesiastic matters by virtue of his autonomous legitimacy” (this is how Max Weber, in his Economy and Society, describes “cesaropapism”). On the contrary, in the Western part of the Roman Empire, where political power (both central and local) was weak or nonexistent, the Church stood as the central authority and its network of dioceses replaced the crumbling imperial rule.
The Latin Church developed as a center of direct political power, an experience that it shares with different Buddhist communities (and it comes as no surprise that Buddhism and Latin Christianity are the only religious bodies that independently produced a theory of the “just war”). Only the differing histories of Southeast Asia and Western Europe explain why Buddhism eventually did not organize itself in a unique, centralized and hierarchical Church as the Catholic Church did: the latter was able to give birth to a theocracy, while the former was able to give birth to many theocracies. This fragmentation made them easy prey to secular political power.
The Resurgence of Religions
Religions returned to the public sphere in the 1970s. As Gilles Kepel noted as early as 1991, “Les années soixante-dix ont été une décennie-charnière pour les relations entre religion et politique » (La Revanche de Dieu, 1991). What happened in this decade? In the “developing” world, the industrialization of agriculture prompted massive rural flight and urbanization, and this social disruption coincided with the political crises of the postcolonial world. In the “developed” countries, the 1974-1975 recession put an end to the “Trente Glorieuses”, thirty years of almost uninterrupted economic growth after the Second World War, and opened a new era of free market principles in which the traditional “Westphalian” state’s decline accelerated.
In these “advanced” countries the return of religions has taken place at a rate inversely proportional to the credibility of the state (and of any ideology that promised progress and welfare). The less effective states become at offering their citizens both meaning and social services (and the latter are often the best guarantor of the former), the more religions tend to reoccupy the public stage.
In “developing” countries, the resurgence of religions was more sudden because the processes of industrialization (rural flight and urbanization) were extremely rapid and often had dreadful effects. For millions of urbanized peasants, keeping a living link with their rural traditions was – with their clan networks – often the only possibility of social survival. In the slums of the newly densely populated cities, new mosques were built with makeshift means. Religious charities tried to make up for at least a part of the infrastructural deficiencies and tried to offer residents access to some safe and controlled spaces. Governments saw these forms of “grassroots religiosity” as both a safeguard against the risks of social and political unrest and a solution to their inability to meet the elementary needs of the population.
In a nutshell: in the 1970s, the lives of the populations of “developed” countries and of the populations of “developing” countries were disrupted. When these two processes converged, political exploitation acted as detonator of a still latent desecularization. In the beginning, very few people were able to identify this new political role of religions; today, it is part of our daily landscape, and it is almost impossible to have a clear vision of current political life if one ignores the role of this powerful actor.