One of the most pressing questions related to our study is whether religious and cultural actors and agendas have more of a positive or negative effect on global affairs. As we have seen above, these elements relate to some of the deepest levels of human experience, both individually and internationally. Should policymakers try to release the powerful energy of religio-cultural identity for the sake of a better world, or should they try to ‘keep a lid on it’ for fear of unleashing forces that might damage our capacity to get along with others?
The value of a ‘both/and’ approach
The study of international relations shows that the answer may be to draw on both strategies, since religio-cultural identity inhabits a space somewhere between the problems of conflict and the possibilities of cooperation. This approach can be seen as an adaptation of Appleby’s influential idea of the ‘ambivalence of the sacred’ (2000) in which the elements of religio-cultural politics we have explored above carry simultaneously the potential for both violence and peace. The usefulness of this approach is that it helps us to break free from the restrictions of an ‘either/or’ logic about religion and culture (i.e. either conflict or cooperation). Instead, we can focus on a ‘both/and’ analysis which allows individual and international examples of each (i.e. both conflict and cooperation) to inform us about the politics of religion and culture at the global level. The influential scholar Martin E. Marty (2003) would add that such an approach helps us to deepen our understanding of world politics as it really is.
Therefore, with a ‘both/and’ logic in mind, we consider comparative examples of religio-cultural identity in world politics that emphasise conflict and cooperation respectively. The number of alternative examples in IR is potentially unlimited – so as you read on, keep in mind other instances where the elements of religion and culture contribute to violence and peacemaking.
Religion and culture create a ‘clash of civilisations’
When Soviet Communism finally collapsed in 1991, US president George H. W. Bush heralded the beginning of a ‘new world order’. In many ways this was an accurate description because the conflict between the Soviet Union and the West had shaped the dynamics of global affairs for half a century. But, what would this new order look like? One answer was offered by Samuel P. Huntington (1993), who suggested that world politics would no longer be shaped by a clash of ideologies (e.g. capitalism and communism) but rather by a ‘clash of civilizations’. With this hypothesis, Huntington still assumed that global politics would be shaped by conflict as much as the Cold War before it had been. The significant shift in thinking was the prominence that religious and cultural identity would play in shaping the conflict. For Huntington, a civilisation was understood as ‘a cultural entity … defined both by common objective elements such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people’ (1993, 23–24). Significantly, the descriptors Huntington gives to the major civilisations have a cultural or religious link: ‘Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu and SlavicOrthodox, Latin American and possibly African’ (1993, 25).
Thus, the central tenet to Huntington’s controversial idea is that those elements of culture and religion that we have studied in this chapter contribute to fundamental differences across the globe. This creates fault lines between individuals and peoples who will inevitably fall into serious conflict over these deep and abiding differences. Not surprisingly, Huntington’s ideas have been both criticised and embraced. The phrase ‘clash of civilisations’ came to popular prominence in 2001 as a way to interpret the 9/11 attacks as a conflict between Islam and the West. Although it is worth noting that the administration of George W. Bush did not apply the notion in the way Huntington proposed, scholars were using the phrase well prior to 9/11 and today its applications vary considerably, from commentary on Turkish politics to describing the tension of multicultural policy in Western regional cities. Whatever the merits of these examples (and hundreds like them) they illustrate how Huntington’s thesis has become a way for politicians, commentators and academics to frame conflicts in a changing global landscape. Religion and culture are central to this framing.
Religion and culture create a dialogue of civilisations
At the end of the Cold War, rather than assuming the continuation of a conflict-driven world as Huntington did, some saw the new world order as an opportunity to redesign the way international affairs was conducted. What would such a politics look like? Some policymakers imagined a world where multiple actors – not just powerful states – could contribute to a collective process of stability and accountability. Religio-cultural voices were increasingly considered an important part of this conversation.
Accordingly, an alternative approach to that of Huntington came from a United Nations consultative group known as the World Public Forum, which began an initiative in 2002 called the Dialogue of Civilizations. Influenced by a 1997 proposal from Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, the objective of the Dialogue is to ‘combine the efforts of the international community in protecting humanity’s spiritual and cultural values … bringing the spirit of cooperation and understanding into the daily lives of people from different cultures’. Thus, in stark contrast to the clash of civilisations assumption that religion and culture are causes of conflict, the Dialogue of Civilizations deploys the same broad elements as resources for building bridges between individuals and peoples in the development of sustainable peace and cooperation.
What is the value of such a change? The ‘clash’ emphasises religion and culture as an extension of politics based on power, and one of the abiding problems of world politics is that some states are (much) more powerful than others. The Dialogue of Civilizations potentially offers a more equalising approach, whereby religion and culture become an extension of politics based on shared interests. Noting that religio-cultural communities are often transnational rather than state-based, the Dialogue’s emphasis on ‘spiritual and cultural values’ helps to create an open-ended space for international cooperation beyond the defensive power interests of states.
The importance of precise thinking
Which framework makes more sense to you? Does the rise of religion and culture in international affairs encourage clash or a dialogue? Do religious and cultural elements of politics enable us to live together in cooperation or do they disconnect us in ways that lead to conflict? Applying the logic that we introduced at the start of this section, one answer is that elements of religion and culture contribute to both clash and dialogue, to both conflict and cooperation.
The benefit of this approach is twofold. First, it encourages us to look closely at specific elements of religion and culture – as we have done in this chapter – instead of forcing such complex phenomena into a singular assumption about conflict or cooperation. As Reza Aslan once commented, ‘Islam is not a religion of peace and it is not a religion of war. It is just a religion’ (PBS, 2009). This kind of ambivalent outlook allows us to consider how the precise elements of religion and culture are used in violent and peaceful ways.
Second, applying a ‘both/and’ logic requires us to consider specific examples of international relations – as we have attempted throughout the chapter – without stereotyping religious and cultural traditions by pinning them to singular events. When the shortcomings of religion were once brought to the attention of the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, he remarked that ‘Religion is like a cow. It kicks, but it also gives milk’ (Tyndale 2006, xiv). For every cultural symbol of hate, we see as many cultural symbols of healing and peace. For every religious movement of violence, we see as many religious movements for reconciliation.
This ‘both/and’ understanding of religion and culture has become influential among policymakers working with individuals, local communities, and national, regional and international organisations, marking a significant shift in our understanding of world politics as a whole. Beyond the issue of peace versus violence, it has also helped us understand the need for particular consideration about the extent of religious and cultural influence on politics throughout the world. For example, on religion, Jonathan Fox (2008, 7) writes:
A fuller picture of the world’s religious economy would show secularisation – the reduction of religion’s influence in society – occurring in some parts of the religious economy, and sacralisation – the increase of religion’s influence in society – occurring in other parts.
Cultural factors are similarly dynamic, both in influence and in the forms they take. As James Clifford wrote, ‘“cultures” do not hold still for their portraits’ (1986, 10), and as such the influence of culture on individual and global politics requires precise thinking.