Religion and Diplomacy: Do Religious Actors Have to Conform to Secular Norms?

In this essay, the author explores whether religious (non-state) actors, must conform to secular norms in order to have influence in diplomacy. 


By Alireza Ahmadian, 30th July 2012

Azza Karam, the Senior Advisor on Culture at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), made the assertion at the roundtable discussion on Shared Sovereignty: Rights, Religion and the Problem of Authority (SSRRPA) at the School of Oriental and African Studies that religious actors have always played an important role in community-based projects all over the world: they invariably stay in areas of conflict even after secular organizations, such as the UN, withdraw their staff; and they provide between 40 to 70 percent of healthcare and education for the people. Karam also argued that with the financial crisis hitting all major donors to the UN, the religious actors that had not heavily relied on financial help from states and secular organizations would take over many projects that were traditionally implemented by secular UN agencies and other organizations. She was concerned that religious actors’ conservative stance on gender-related issues might jeopardize the attempts to promote gender equality in the world (2011).

The preceding examples illustrate the power of religious actors and how influential they are. This paper argues that the presumption that we live in a secularized world is false; therefore, the overwhelming majority of religious actors do not have to conform to secular norms. Moreover, since religion has remained an important factor in many people’s life, we have to facilitate religious actors and their religiosity in diplomacy. We start with a review of why religion has traditionally been marginalized in International Relations (IR) and diplomacy. After reviewing the concept of secularism, this paper addresses the prevalence of religion and religiosity. Thereafter, we investigate the assertion that religious actors must conform to secular norms. Finally, after problematizing the religion-secular binary, this paper illustrates how religion and religious actors can play pivotal roles in diplomacy.

A Secular World?

The idea of conformity to secular norms is not new in IR and diplomacy. From its inception, the discipline of IR has been defined by the Peace of Westphalia’s subordination of religion to the state—cuius regio eius religio (the ruler determines the religion of his realm). Therefore, in Daniel Philpott’s words, most scholars in the field have basically presumed the absence of religion in their analysis (In Farr 2008). IR theories, such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism have not traditionally dealt with the question of religion and its influence in IR (Snyder 2011, 1-2). This trend has changed by publication of a couple of new books (Snyder, 2011; Calhoun et al. 2011) that try to address the importance of religion in IR. Two factors have led to the IR theorists’ unwillingness to acknowledge the importance of religion. The first factor is fear. They consider religion to be historically a fundamental source of war, violence and conflict (Barnet 2011: 93-4). Because religious governments and groups operate on the basis of transcendental values and absolute claims, their politics is believed to be driven by different variables, which are incompatible with a culture of coexistence and compromise that presumes the imperfection of worldly arrangements and tries to accommodate them (Guilhot 2007).

The second factor is the significance of religion in IR. Even though religion is treated as a source of chaos, it is ironically considered at times of little causal importance; therefore, it is ignored (Barnet 2011: 93-4). Whereas religion is viewed to be irrational and emotive, secularism is conceived to be its antidote. Therefore, IR theorists have taken secularism to their heart. The fear of religion and questions about its causal significance have traditionally encouraged the IR theorists to believe in a secular international order and to ignore the significance of religion and religiosity.

Advocates of secularism have traditionally believed that religion was ephemeral and losing its relevance in a modern world. The rationalist theory of secularism argues that the Enlightenment initiated a rationalist worldview based of scientific and technological knowledge of phenomena. Rationalism would make fundamental claims of the religious institutions implausible in modern societies. Therefore, religion would lose its relevance. Moreover, the functionalist theory of secularism observes that in addition to a system of ideas and beliefs, religion is a system of actions involving symbolic ceremonies and formal rituals such as birth, marriage and death. Most societies are now characterized by functional differentiation, where specialized organizations and professionals carry out the tasks once conducted by religious institutions such as education, healthcare, and social control. Stripped of their main social purposes, religious institutions would gradually fade away (Norris and Inglehard 2004: 7-9). Sciences, technologies, and specialized institutions were expected to marginalize the role of religion, religious actors, and institutions.

IR theorists expected the world to move toward secularization. However, this has never been happened. With some exceptions, the world is “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever” (Berger 1999: 2). Religion transcends the unit boundaries of states. It is a compelling source of motivation, a driving force incomparable with many other sources in politics. Religion is older than the state and encompasses all of life, not only politics. It involves social norms; norms that are supercharged by divine authority, and are absolute, and irrefutable (Snyder, SSRRPA, 2011). This historical superiority, legitimizing capability, and transnational nature of religion, in Shah and Philpott’s words, “give[s] it the potential to make significant impacts on world politics” (In Cochran and Snyder 2011: 203). Religion has not lost its relevance at all. Shattuck contends that religious beliefs are thriving all over the world with a few exceptions (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2007) and Farr states that the world is “overflowing” with religious movements and communities, and there is little reason to believe this will change (2008). Religion drives the behavior of governments and people in significant ways. It can act as multiplier of both constructive and destructive behavior, with stronger results (Farr 2008). The premise that we live in a secular world is untrue. The preceding examples illustrate that religion, religiosity, and religious actors have remained as powerful as ever in most of the world.

Religious Actors and Conformity to Secular Norms:

Some religious actors prefer to hide their religiosity and use a secular discourse and identity. They purport to be secular for strategic reasons to be “consistent with the requirements of international order” (Barnet 2011: 109). Lynch argues that the Global War on Terror (GWT) and Liberal Market Practices encourage some religious NGOs to use a secular language to secure funds and reach out to more people who are in need of aid. The GWT has influenced the ways Muslim NGOs and Muslim aid workers identify themselves. In her interviews, the Iraqi, Somali and Palestinian NGO activists, predominantly identified themselves as secular and then Muslim. Lynch maintains that they may have refused to acknowledge Islamic principles as the driving force behind their humanitarian work because of anxieties about Islam in the global war on terror. Their secular identity can also help their appeal to their Western donors.

However, Christian NGO activists did not hide their religiosity. In particular, a Muslim representative on an interfaith Palestinian NGO that promoted nonviolence did not relate their activism to Islam, whereas a Christian leader of the group linked his work to Christianity and its interpretations of nonviolence and resistance to repression.

However, it is worthwhile to remember that most religious actors, as noted by Karam, do not rely on funds from secular organizations and operate based on their constituents’ financial donations or their business activities. Yet, those who do apply for funding from secular sources must learn a specific language that addresses issues such as “partnership,” “capacity-building,” and “training.” Results-oriented market discourse prioritizes efficiency, liberal progress, verifiable achievements, sustainability, accountability and success. Therefore, some religious actors have to adapt themselves to the required discourse if they want ongoing funding (2011: 210-7). These examples illustrate how some religious actors use a secular discourse as a strategy to facilitate the sustainability of their operations.

Most non-state actors do not have to hide their religiosity to be influential in the international arena or diplomacy. The International Islamic Relief Organizations (IIRO), a Saudi-run Wahhabi group, vividly linked the distribution of aid to proselytisation in the Iraqi province of Kudistan in the early 1990s. Women had to wear the veil and widows and orphans had to attend at the mosque. The group built hundred of mosques and their mullahs were financed by their new converts to Wahhabism. The group gave financial incentives to individuals who gave up membership of a secular political party. Burke argues the same people who were ideologically trained by IIRO were behind some of the extremist attacks against secular parties in Kurdistan that jeopardized the security of the region (Burke 2003: 201-2). Moreover, instead of using labor unions and other interests groups, Mozambique civil society expressed itself through religious communities and churches during the peace process to end its civil war. Churches played a “crucial” role in terminating the conflict (Bartoli 1999: 261-70). The preceding examples show that the majority of religious actors do not have to conform to secular norm and can still play a constructive or destructive role in international scene and therefore, influence, diplomacy.

Problematizing Secular- Religion Binary

We have to move beyond the binary between religious and secular. The secular versus religious approach distorts our understanding of how they might be related to one another. The religious and the secular is not a binary. One of the significant new revisions of the secular theory is the presumption that the religious and the secular are rivals for supremacy. They can actually be discursively related, co-institutive, and either one can create the other. Elizabeth Hurd’s distinction between the two trajectories of secularism, seperationist laicisim and accomodationist Judeo-Christian tradition, suggests that “the modern secular order rests on a religious foundation” (Barnet 2011: 102). Since the mixing of politics and religion is perilous and not rational, Laicists are committed to expelling religion from the public sphere.

Judeo-Christian secularists, on the other hand, do not try to expel religion from public sphere. Judeo-Christian characteristic disposition and cultural instincts are considered to have played a part in the unique Western achievement of separation of state and church. The separation of church and state softens sectarian divisions between Christian sects while retains the civilizational supremacy of Christianity (Hurd 2011: 5-6). Barnet maintains, that in this view, religion becomes either an ingredient of Western secularism or makes Western secularism feasible. According to this interpretation “the religious is part of the secular.” He goes on to maintain that many ‘secular’ global institutions have religious genesis and continue to retain religious significance for many different groups (2011: 103-9). The aforementioned examples show that it is not sound judgment to separate the religious from the secular to analyze how different actors influence IR and diplomacy because religion and secular is not a binary.

Rarely can you label something as purely secular or religious. Events, institutions and actions can have both religious and secular significance. For example, environmentalism can be seen as “stewardship of God’s creation” or in an entirely immanent frame (Calhoun et al. 2011: 20). However, IR theorists write about a liberal world order and equate liberalism with secularism. Charles Taylor argues that an immanent order was the great invention of Western culture. The immanent whose works could be systematically explicated and understood on its own terms, leaves open the question whether this order had a deeper importance. However, the immanent could never get rid of all the vestiges of the transcendental because people have a continuous need to relate to something bigger than themselves. It permits them to consider themselves connected to the world (In Barnet 2011: 103-4). The immanent and the transcendental could be together; therefore, it is difficult to label an actor solely a religious or secular actor. They coexist with each other.

Religion and Diplomacy:

Religion has direct effect on national and security interests of nation-states and can be used as a policy matter. Shattuck believes that religion is becoming a motivating factor in international relations, cultural, economic and political affairs. Therefore, it is “profoundly in our national interest, and our security interest, to come to grips with religion as a motivational force” (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2007). Echoing the same sentiment, Farr maintains that lack of knowledge about the sociology of religion creates a policy problem, the “national interest problem” (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2007). He believes that religion can be considered as a policy matter (Farr 2008). The importance of religion as a policy tool and a matter of security or national interest testify to the power of religion. Religious actors in turn are also very important because their activism is inspired by religion. States should acknowledge religious actors’ religiosity and engage them since they are inspired by religious ideas that are matters of national and security interests.

Religious actors and religion can and do play a major role in emergency relief, peacemaking and peacekeeping missions, and reconciliation processes. The interpretation of religious doctrines and sacred scriptures by militant leaders calling for war against the unfaithful is just one interpretation among others. All religions have a wealth of sources teaching the incompatibility of violence and faith, and asking for sacrifices for peace and respect for believers of other religions. In fact, Appleby argues that this civilizing dimension of the sacred should be facilitated in peace-building missions. He states “within each of [the] great traditions, notwithstanding their profound substantive differences, one can trace a moral trajectory challenging adherents to greater acts of compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation” (In Hasenclever and Rittberger 2000: 666-7). During the peace process for Mozambique to end its civil war, the international community learned that NGOs can contribute positively to the solution of conflicts, and under specific circumstances, they might be able to play the leading role in conflict resolution initiatives. NGOs can offer new possibilities for adversaries who are willing to compromise and genuinely sue for peace. The Community of Sant’Egidio, an international Roman Catholic association that, played an important role in bringing about peace in Mozambique. Moreover, before the beginning of the peace talk between the government and the opposition in Mozambique the religious leaders started to promote peace talks (Bartoli 1999: 255-7).

Moreover, humanitarianism and its hope to help people to progress have also been religious projects for many people. The desire to emulate Christ and push forward for progress remains significant in humanitarian actions today. Emergency relief and peacekeeping projects are still significant projects for religious people and organizations (as well as others), but they are sometimes structured “in terms of ministering to the needs of people in the secular world” (Calhoun et al. 2011: 14). Furthermore, VanAntwerpen stated that archbishop Desmund Tutu’s take on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in South Africa and its success was influenced by his religious beliefs. Tutu saw reconciliation from a theological perspective with its intimation of confession and forgiveness and its association with amnesty and impunity. Both Vinjamuri and VanAntwerpen emphasized that Tutu’s take is heterodox and international human rights lawyers are more concerned with the duty to prosecute, but the fact that South Africa succeeded in dealing with its history under Tutu’s leadership of TRC and Tutu’s continual presence in reconciliation conferences shows that religion plays an important role in IR and influences diplomacy. (SSRRPA: 2011).

In conclusion, it is inaccurate to assume that we live in a secular world and we can treat religious actors as secular. This dismissive attitude towards religion has prevented diplomats and politicians from facilitating the policy advantages, and the peace-keeping, peace-making and reconciliation-promoting potentials of religion. Once politicians and diplomats come to appreciate the presence of religion along with the secular, and do away with the notion of absolute secularism in international relations and diplomacy, they can come up with alternative policies that can be more successful as they become more comprehensive. The strength of our diplomacy depends on its correspondence to what is happening in the world. Religion and religious actors have remained important players; therefore, their presence must be welcomed and used to enact better policies and promote peace.


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Alireza Ahmadian is an Iranian Canadian writer living in London. Ahmadian holds a history BA from the University of British Columbia and is currently completing his postgraduate studies at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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1 comment
  1. We live in a Post Secular World now and in which Religious Racism is rampant. Religious actors as Mr Ahmadian refers to know that they are not supported by armies as they once were and thus have changed tactics to make their own armies via conversion and gain points via control and sympathy when control is not achievable. Mr. Karram’s assertion does not apply as the force for change at the local level is religion while globally players tend to marginalize the same players as not having the same agenda.

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