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Speeches

T. Walsh: The Resurgence of Religion and Its Impact on International Relations

Speech at the UPF Interfaith Consultation on the Crisis in Syria
Amman, Jordan, October 11-13, 2013

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013


As we convene in Jordan, we are aware that the conflict in Syria has already cost the lives of more than 100,000 people and has led to the displacement of more than two million Syrians. Moreover, the conflict in contributing to widespread instability not only in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, but globally.

The August 21 massacre of more than 1,000 people with chemical weapons brought worldwide concern and condemnation, as well as a threat from the USA to intervene militarily. In response to the USA position, Russia stood in firm opposition. Eventually an agreement was reached between the USA and Russia and Syria that prevented military action; subsequently the Security Council called for the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles, and this process is now underway.

Despite the cooperation among Russia, the USA and the United Nations, the conflict, as a conventional civil war, continues unabated. No solution has been worked out, even though chemical weapons are no longer a threat. The loss of lives and the displacement of innocent people continue. The conflict remains stalemated.

We gather at this time, to explore the ways in which religion, religious institutions, religious believers, and religious leaders might engage more effectively in the search for a peaceful resolution of this, and indeed other conflicts around the world.

Are we at a stage in world history where religion may assert itself as an agent of peace, and deliver results that governments alone may not be able to achieve? Is the world ready? Are religions ready?

Nation states have traditions and protocols for diplomacy, negotiation and even a willingness to compromise and/or work things out with actors with whom they share neither genuine respect nor trust. Only shared interests, and recognition that the costs of non-cooperation and hostility outweigh the benefits of holding fast to one’s position.

But, whereas there are intergovernmental forums and traditions of negotiation for nation states, there are no formally recognized forums for religions. Why is this the case? Can such an official interreligious forum be established, on a global level?

The ideals of internationalism and cosmopolitanism, of federations, leagues and “internationals” built momentum in the 19th century, but the aspirations were seen as being fulfilled through governments or secular institutions.

And yes, the aspiration for universalism has also been evident in the sphere of religion. For example, when the 1893 Columbian Exposition was convened in Chicago, an assembly of religious leaders was included as part of that global gathering. This assembly was entitled the “Parliament of the World’s Religions,” indicating the perceived value and need for representatives of religions to interact, debate and compromise on significant issues, as is commonly done in a parliament.

Other interfaith organizations sprang up over time, including the World Congress of Faiths; once again, like a “parliament,” the word congress indicates the need for an official body of religions that would abide by certain protocols and rules of order that would lead to consensus. More recently, around 1990, the United Religions initiative was conceived as a kind of parallel to the United Nations.

UPF, too, has proposed a kind of parliament of the religions, suggesting that this parliament be established within the UN system itself.[[1]]

In this essay, I will raise issues about the role of religion in the 21st century. Two questions underlie my remarks: (1) Are we at a point in human history when the world is ready and religions are ready to fulfill the ideal of a UN council, parliament, league or congress of religions? and (2) Were such an entity to be established, how might it help in situations such as we find in Syria?

Religious resurgence

A vast body of literature on the topic of secularization, the state and the future of religion has been produced since the time when terms such as religion and state became commonplace as descriptive academic categorizations of major groupings of social identity, and social and territorial organization.[[2]]

Max Weber, for example, had predicted an increasing “disenchantment” of the world that would rise inevitably with the advance of rationality, and the demise of magic.[[3]] Sociologists, as well as scholars of international relations, affirmed this thesis, almost as if religion and the modern state were engaged in a zero-sum game, where one’s loss is necessarily the other’s gain.

The modern state system emerged in Europe, following the 16th and 17th century’s wars of religion, resulting in the Westphalian solution, granting sovereign authority to the nation state that was characterized by land, sovereignty [ability to secure borders and control domestic violence], rule of law, and a people/nation/citizenry. Religion continued to be important, but as a subsidiary, non-sovereign entity.

If we define secularization as a transfer of property, territory or authority from religion to a largely a-religious state, then it’s largely correct that modernization has largely been accompanied by secularization. On the other hand, if secularization is defined by a decline of religious affiliation or of the power of religion within society, culture, civilization and other social sectors, it’s not clear that predictions of increasing secularization are correct.

Whereas, on the one hand, secularization may be seen as evidence of a bias or even hostility to religion, on the other hand, it represents a collective, rational decision made on the basis of observed behavior and experience of religions, namely that religions and the believers are prone to engage in conflict. In any case, that was the experience of 16th and 17th century Europeans.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the secularization thesis has been increasingly challenged. For example, Roman Catholicism played a key role in opposition to communism in the USSR, as did Islamic believers in Afghanistan; the Iranian revolution in the 1970s was faith-based; religious fundamentalisms arose in many parts of the world; the “third world” experienced significant growth of religion; the rise of terrorism was in many cases linked to religious ideas; many conflicts around the world had a religious-cum-ethnicity factor at play [Balkans, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Nigeria, India/Pakistan, southern Thailand, Iraq/Iran, Lebanon, Myanmar, etc.]. Also, many social-political-economic issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, wealth-distribution, social justice, health-care, minority rights, etc., cannot be discussed in any open society without taking into account the religious factors, opinions and electoral power.

The resurgence of religion has not been entirely constructive and benign. To some extent the more recent rise of religious conflict was triggered by the end of the cold war which dominated the geopolitical landscape throughout much of the 20th century. In the post-cold war era, religious identity has stepped to the fore, as Huntington argued.[[4]] After all,

  1. Of the world’s billions of people, a large majority define themselves as religious, as Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Jews, Sikhs, indigenous believers, etc.
  2. Religious ideas continue to have impact on the worldviews and actions of people.
  3. Rationality has proven to be very strong when it comes to empirical science, but weak and unreliable when it comes to establishing a shared basis or secure foundation for morality and meaning.
  4. Secular ideas related to morality and meaning are often and largely indebted to religious predecessors.
  5. The concept and practice of secularization arose out of a Christian/religious civilization.
  6. Religious ideas or doctrines, rooted in special revelation, do not easily lend themselves to compromise or amendment.

Taking this a step further, we see also that in recent times there has been a rise of so-called non-state actors, some within states and some that are transnational, who demonstrate a wide range of powers and capacities to impact and transform societies. Examples include trans-national corporations, international NGOs and activists, intergovernmental organizations like the European Union or African Union or ASEAN, and, last but not least, religions.

It has become commonplace to hear of such developments as:

  1. Track-II or Track III diplomacy
  2. Transnational civil society initiatives
  3. Campaigns against vices or criminal activities that are aimed more at shaming and stigmatizing than punishing through the powers of the state
  4. Faith-based humanitarianism
  5. Faith-based insurgencies or terrorism

Moreover, there has been a growing awareness that our understanding of terms like development, security and peace must be conceived in a more comprehensive, holistic or multidimensional way. Hence, we now hear of terms like human security, which indicates not merely protection from invasion or domestic violence, but also air and water quality. Human development applies not only to economic aid and increase of GDP/PCID, but to a wide range of opportunities and capacities of the human being, such as education, political participation and liberty.

Moreover, solutions to problems are not only to be administered by the state. Already it is widely known that humanitarian services [hospitals, charities, shelters, schools, etc.] are provided by major faith-based organizations and even formerly faith based, or faith-inspired organizations. One thinks of entities like Caritas, World Vision, The Salvation Army, even the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and many more equally important organizations that are linked to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.

In other words, while the Westphalian system continues to dominate world affairs, the system is showing signs of wear. For example, it is no longer believed by many that state sovereignty provides license for states to exercise any kind of authority they may choose. Human rights violations cannot be hidden or justified by simple appeal to state sovereignty. This development has presented a challenge to the UN, which emerged in 1945 on the basis of the premise of the inviolability of state sovereignty, knowing that states would not join the UN if they feared interventionism on the part of that body; in other words, a potential for threats to their sovereignty. Today R2P, the responsibility to protect, is a common rallying cry that indicates that national sovereignty is not an utterly sacred taboo.

In short, we have two trends going on. One is a rising significance of non-state actors -private sector, civil society and faith-based organizations or religions. The other is the weakening of state sovereignty, particularly as bilateral and multi-lateral diplomacy becomes more widely accepted and linked to the perceived legitimacy of state actions.

Religion, global affairs and the United Nations

One outgrowth of this development is that there is increasing pressure on governments and intergovernmental organizations to share the platform of governance with other leading stakeholders, particularly, NGOs, the private sector, and, more recently, religions.

The UN has opened its doors to NGO and civil society inclusion, evidenced in the UN’s Department of Public Information and UNESCO’s inclusion of NGOs as associates and advisors, though still there is no formal, authoritative role for NGOs at the UN. We see the visibility of civil society initiatives such as the Clinton Global Initiative, the Gates Foundation, Amnesty International, and the UN Foundation.

Ten years ago the UN initiated the Global Compact as a way to enlist the capacities of business and the corporate private sector in the effort to promote development and bring an end to poverty. Businesses, each encouraged to build stronger corporate social responsibility components, are increasingly partnering with the UN under the framework of the Global Compact.

While the UN includes religious NGOs in the Department of Public Information and UNESCO roster, the inclusion of religion is rather weak in comparison to religion’s capacity as a potential partner and in terms of the human capital that it represents.

To its credit, the General Assembly in 2010 passed a resolution calling for an annual celebration of the World Interfaith Harmony Week. Jordan was a central catalyst for making this happen. The Philippine government has also been active in promoting interfaith dialogue as a needed aspect of the UN’s global agenda. Various progressive steps have been taken over the past 13 years.[[5]]

Since 2000, when Rev. Sun Myung Moon spoke at the UN about the establishment of an interfaith council, UPF has been actively encouraging member states to take interfaith dialogue and cooperation seriously and to work toward some institutional agency or organ within the UN that would provide a formal setting for religious voices to be represented.[[6]]

How does this relate to the crisis in Syria?

Along with bilateral and multilateral negotiations among UN member states and other entities such as the Arab League, the European Union, the Russian Federation, etc., there is a needed place for NGO stakeholders. This is especially true on the humanitarian level.

In addition to their capacities to provide humanitarian relief, religions have “soft power” capacities that are essential for peacebuilding efforts. While religions may not be effective in exercising the “hard power” instruments of coercion and deterrence, religions are able to move “hearts and minds.” Religions are able to offer moral and spiritual guidance and exhortation, alongside a capacity to bring shame to criminal and unprincipled actors.

However, just as unilateralism is increasingly stigmatized in world affairs, and alliances are more and more the standard in international relations, this is also true of the religions. That is, if religions are making various pronouncements from their silos, this has must less impact than if there are pronouncements that represent a broader voice of spiritual colleagues who share a common ground that crosses religious barriers, both those between religions and those within religions.

The legitimacy of a religion today, similar to the way we assess nation states, is related not only to its capacity to establish itself as a “superpower religion” that can act unilaterally, but relates to a religion’s capacity to work in partnership and common cause with those of other faiths.

In this respect, a crisis such as we find in Syria, as well as other crises facing this region [such as the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Sunni and Shia, Iranians and Saudis], would benefit from the presence of an interfaith council that could be included in the efforts to promote peace, and reconciliation.

The Westphalian system did not emerge simply on the foundation of idealism and altruism but is based on the experience of the horror of war and the lack of any viable alternative to mutual deterrence in a balance of power. Nation states gave up ambitions of hegemony in a trade off with relative security and stability, as long as their borders were respected.

Religions have yet to find a way to surrender “sovereignty” in a way that would allow them to collaborate for the sake of peace and human development. This is understandable, given that the claims of the nation state are not related to ultimate truth and salvation. Still, many nation states hold in reserve their ambitions to one day rise to hegemonic power but are deterred by a lack of capacity.

In conclusion, it seems not merely appropriate but necessary that we re-think the role and responsibility of religion in global affairs. By establishing an interreligious body, such as an “interfaith compact” within the UN System, the potential for “Track II” diplomacy can be underscored and enhanced. Religion’s unique capacities for peacebuilding may also be better utilized.

Such an innovation requires not merely that governments awaken to the value of religions as stakeholders and allies but also that religions awaken to their responsibilities not only to their adherents, but to the world and to each other.


[[1]] Marcus Braybrooke, Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue, Crossroad, NY, 1992.

[[2]] Peter L. Berger, Ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, Eerdmans, 1999; Scott Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations, Palgrave, 2005; Jack Snyder, Ed., Religion and International Relations Theory. Columbia, 2011; Jeffry Haynes, An Introduction to International Relations Theory and Religion, Pearswon, UK, 2007; Jurgen Habermas, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, Polity, UK, 2010.

[[3]] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Scribners, New York, 1958.

[[4]] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.

[[5]] In the first decade of the 21st century the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 59/23 to promote interreligious dialogue, and in 2006 a “tripartite forum on interfaith cooperation” was established as a partnership of UN Member States, UN Organs, and NGOs to consider the role of religion and interfaith dialogue; a “focal unit” was then established in 2007 with GA Resolution 61/221. In October 2010 the World Interfaith Harmony Week was established.

[[6]] Thomas G. Walsh, “Religion, Peace and the Post-Secular Public Sphere,” International Journal on World Peace, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 2012.