Webcast Recap

Revivals in religious identity worldwide have had varied and dramatic effects on domestic, regional, and international politics. André Laliberté, Full Professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Political Studies, discussed the relationship between organized religions and the ruling communist regime in China. Daniel Levine, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, spoke about religion and politics in Latin America. Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, discussed emerging trends in Muslim activism and their importance to revolutionary events in the Middle East. Roger Hardy, Public Policy Scholar with the Wilson Center and a former Middle East and Islamic Affairs Analyst for BBC World Service, discussed the appeal of the al-Qaeda message. José Casanova, Professor of Sociology and Senior Fellow at Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, commented on the presentations and highlighted key themes emerging from the discussion.

On February 14, 2011 the Asia Program, Kennan Institute, Latin American Program, and Middle East Program hosted a meeting on "Religious Revival in the 21st Century: What Impact on Politics" with Wright, Hardy, Laliberté, Levine, and Casanova. Robert Hathaway, Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

American and European studies of the political aspects of religion in China often focus on issues surrounding the freedom of religious practice. However, according to Laliberté, such a focus draws attention away from the relationship between officially sanctioned religions and social change, which he sees as more significant. China recognizes five distinct religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. Although Buddhism has been romanticized in the West as a universalistic and potentially reformist movement because of such figures as the Dalai Lama, Laliberté emphasized that Chinese Buddhism is thoroughly conservative and supportive of the state. Meanwhile, he mentioned that Taoism is too unorganized to be a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and that most Chinese regard Islam as a religion relegated to ethnic minorities. The CCP is wary, however, of Christian religious variants, especially Protestantism, because it is attracting more adherents in China and because of the role Christian organizations have played in encouraging democratic reform in other parts of Asia and in former communist countries in Europe. Thus the party encourages Buddhism and Taoism as "native" counterweights to the potential reformist tendencies of Christianity. Nevertheless, Laliberté warned against seeing Christianity as a necessarily reformist force in China, noting that there are many different churches whose motivations are hard to generalize.

Levine provided an overview of three key trends regarding the evolutionary relationship between religion and politics in Latin America. First, the religious landscape in the region has become further diversified and pluralized. The previous one church, one state history has been transformed in part through the adoption and utilization of novel media resources by certain religions. Second, religious groups have increasingly played a major role in regional social movements, advocating for and supporting local democratic transitions and the protection of human rights. Their involvement in reconciliation processes, the creation of truth commissions, and the mitigation of escalating violence, argued Levine, provides examples of the new political roles adopted by these organizations. Finally, as these groups look to the future, they will continue to seek out greater societal support in the face of decreasing political influence and an increasingly pluralistic environment.

Wright described the Middle East uprisings as one of the four most important political turning points in the past century—along with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the founding of Israel after World War II and the 1979 Iranian revolution. Arab nations—and the wider Islamic world—are now moving into a new "post-jihad phase" that uses civil disobedience rather than suicide bombs. Activists are increasingly fusing democratic goals with twenty-first century social media and technology. But the "soft revolution" in the Islamic world is also visible among the new Muslim comedians, rappers, feminists and YouTube televangelists who use cultural outlets to reject extremism. During transitions, Islam is more of a pillar to cling to rather than the goal for a new political state. Wright predicted that the world will become more Muslim demographically and more Islamic in expression, but distinctly less Islamist or militant over the next decade. In the post 9/11 world, she said the challenge for the West would be to understand the use of Islamic symbols without confusing it with Islamic militancy.

Hardy addressed the al-Qaeda narrative, which he described as having four key parts: humiliation, solidarity, violence, and globalized imagery. According to Hardy, this narrative rests on the idea that an aggressive, rapacious West has humiliated Muslims by declaring war on Islam and that the global Muslim community must band together and use violence to regain its pride and power. By disseminating powerful images through the Internet, al-Qaeda glorifies this struggle and counteracts the perceived humiliation inflicted by the West. Given the depth of grievances among many in the Muslim world, Hardy speculated that this message resonates with and garners at least the passive, if not the active, acceptance of many people. He also pointed out that al-Qaeda has shown two major vulnerabilities that could weaken its support base: first, al-Qaeda has killed a large number of innocent Muslims; second, it has been relegated to the position of passive bystander by the current wave of popular unrest in the Middle East.

In tying the presentations together, Casanova noted that each speaker raised interesting questions about theories of modern secularization and the role of religion in the field of International Relations. He spoke specifically about challenges posed to traditional theories of secularization by simultaneous processes of religious revival and secular democratic reform. He also posited that religious identities should be viewed as crucial factors when formulating international relations theories and religious groups should be recognized as important, de-territorialized communities with a stake in international politics.

By Abby Arganese, Middle East Program
Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program
Adam Drolet, Latin American Program