The Role of Religion in Security Studies
December 18, 2012
Why is religion an important component of international security analysis?
In order to answer this question, we need to inspect what exactly we mean by “security analysis.” The topic of security has been one of the primary interests in the study of international relations for the past 60 years. The political connotations for security were colossal during this time as is evidenced by how the Cold War was shaped by the subject of security: Two superpowers and their allies contested spaces, communities, and ideologies, and these contested issues had ramifications for war and peace, a balance of power, an arms race, and arms control.
As the Cold War evolved, security on an international level became a dominant focus. The most accepted concept of international security during this time was called realist hegemony where security experts thought that the international level would be the most stable when a single nation, or hegemon, was in power. However, once the Cold War ended and the United States was left as the solitary superpower, it became evident that our concepts of international security were inadequate.
Events like September 11th showcased that a broader approach to security analysis was needed, because the traditional concepts ignored non-state actors and the issues that were important to them. Understanding security no longer means understanding a state’s military strength against the military power of other states. While the state remains important in the contemporary world, a state is ultimately limited by its boundaries or the boundaries of its allies. Non-state actors, on the other hand, have no such limitations. The nature of the “enemy” has changed; consequently, the nature of international conflict is understood differently.
International security is now understood as a complex arrangement of political, economic, and social factors under which military power can accomplish only limited security objectives.
Religion is an important component of the social factors that affect international security. Religion can both prevent and provoke various forms of conflict, and religious factors are related to ethnic group identity, territory, politics, language, and economics. Religious factors are therefore an essential element for effective conflict management as well as an important component in security analysis.
The scholar Bruce Lincoln has noted that “[d]epending on circumstances, religion can provide a prime source of national identity…connect insurgent groups with coreligionary supporters… or define an internal cleavage that needs to be overcome by stressing other sources of unity within the borders of a pluralistic state” (Lincoln 2006). Ultimately, broadening the analysis of security to include a religious dimension encourages a more holistic mind-set that I would argue is essential since populations and communities are crucially affected by a wide range of issues.
The scholar Mark Juergensmeyer takes this argument a step further by saying the moral leadership of the secular state was:
“increasingly challenged in the last decade of the twentieth century following the end of the Cold War and the rise of a global economy. The Cold War provided contesting models for moral politics–communism and democracy–that have been replaced by a global market that has weakened national sovereignty and is conspicuously devoid of political ideals. The global economy became characterized by transnational business accountable to no single governmental authority and with no clear ideological or moral standards of behavior… American and European music, videos, and films were beamed across national boundaries, where they threatened to obliterate local and traditional forms of artistic expression“ (Juergensmeyer 2003).
Juergensmeyer asks, is a rise in “religious” terrorism related to these global changes? Are groups like al-Qaeda simply a reactionary campaign against modernity and globalism? Juergensmeyer rightly points out that both violence and religion have “emerged” onto the world stage at times when authority is in question, because violence and religion are both ways of challenging and replacing authority.
But it is important that we take what Juergensmeyer is saying as part of our “broad approach” to security analysis. Scholars such as Robert Pape and James Feldman have pointed out time and time again that non-state actors such as suicide bombers, one of the groups that we most associate with “religious” terrorism, are equally affected by older state-centric issues in international relations (such as foreign military occupation) as they are by “religious” motivations.
There is no simplistic roadmap to security analysis. Ask yourself, what, if any, are the differences between the terrors inflicted by state armies and the terrors inflicted by insurgents? How can we use those differences to manage future conflicts? Has Juergensmeyer’s new global marketplace allowed for human lives to have a differential exchange value? How do different populations use the tools of this global marketplace to construct boundaries or a hierarchical global order, and how do they go about labeling within that order who they deem to be “civilized” and who they deem to be “uncivilized”? The uncivilized in this case having a lower perceived value attached to their lives. How does a group’s shared mythology shape their understanding of who they are and who their enemies are? These are all complicated questions that can only be understood as a complex arrangement of political, economic, and social factors. When one leaves out the component of religion from the equation, one cannot get a complete picture of what is going on in international relations today.
For more on the phenomena of suicide bombers, read my post on the subject here: