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The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power: How States Use Religion in Foreign Policy

January 8, 2024 at 2:22 pm

The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power: How States Use Religion in Foreign Policy
  • Book Editor(s): Peter Mandaville
  • Published Date: November 2023
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press  
  • Hardback: 320 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0197605806

Over the past several decades, there has been a growing body of literature on the role of religion in international relations, in a supposed post-religious, secular age. This has challenged a once-held theory of the predominance of a Western-led liberal world order and the “End of History” following the end of the Cold War. Contrary to this narrative, Samuel Huntington proposed in his Clash of Civilisations thesis that global conflicts would revolve primarily around civilisational identities, with religion playing a central role.

This was illustrated profoundly with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent conflicts with religion serving as a powerful mobilisation tool. The former also brought “religion to the forefront of international politics,” while major world powers have “increasingly turned to religion as a useful tool to use as part of their broader foreign policies.”

Despite the gradual recognition of the importance of religion in international affairs, it had largely been neglected by the dominant theories of international relations, particularly concerning the role of the state, notes the editor of The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power, Peter Mandaville.

Addressing the perceived academic gap, this collection of scholarly contributions adopts Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power”, defined as the “ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” The volume expands on the understanding that states engage in a competition for “attractiveness, legitimacy and credibility” by integrating the role of religion and religious outreach in their foreign policies. This form of soft power has also become more common as the world heads into a multipolar international order.

The US has long been considered the anomaly to the so-called secularisation thesis, due to the perceived high-level of religiosity in parts of the country, and the importance of religious identity in US presidential elections. It is, therefore, not surprising to read how, “The United States has used religion as a form of ‘religious soft power’ in its foreign policy,” particularly during the height of the Cold War with anti-Communist, religious outreach efforts extended not just to Christian societies in Europe, but also across the Middle East, East Asia and South-East Asia. This coincided with the global resurgence in religion, and since 9/11 has taken a more institutionalised form.

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Rival hegemons Russia and China also make use of religious soft power for their own interests. Moscow, for example, champions “traditional values” in opposition to the “ultra-liberalism” espoused by the West, while the Russian Orthodox Church has become more integrated with the state, such that it has “consistently enforced the Kremlin’s emphasis on sovereignty and multipolarity.” China, for its part, has sought to pursue its interests through culture rather than hard power through pushing Chinese Buddhism in Asian countries with significant Buddhist populations; the West where there is a growing interest in the faith; and among geopolitical rivals in Asia, which are perceived as “competing for global status in Buddhism”, such as India, Japan and Taiwan.

The scope of the book under review is vast, although, as probably expected, most chapters are dedicated to the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries as case studies. This perhaps underscores the potency, political relevancy and mobilising pull of the Islamic faith. We read of Iran’s “Shi’i Diplomacy”, for example, rooted in the notion of supporting the oppressed and seeking justice, which are “foundational in Iranian foreign policy”; and Turkiye’s transformation from a strictly secular state to one that has resorted to religious soft power over the past decade, although the state has been described as “sometimes rejecting and sometimes using its [Ottoman] legacy.”

And then there are the various hues of “moderate Islam” projected by diverse Muslim countries such as Morocco, Jordan and Indonesia, all of which have a localised and regional focus, as well as the more global-oriented, wealthy Gulf Arab states, which have been enabled to forge closer ties with the US, while enhancing their own respective soft powers amid the increased securitisation of Islam post-9/11.

The chapters dealing with the use by India and Israel of religious soft power are also revealing. Under the hard-line Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has moved away from its foundational commitment to civic nationalism, towards “a form of muscular, assertive ethnic nationalism based on a particular vision of Hinduism.” Yet, as part of India’s global outreach initiatives, it has drawn on the country’s diverse religious traditions, “as long as they do not involve Islam.” However, as the book contends, it remains to be seen whether this divisive, illiberal path taken by India will yield long-term strategic benefits.

Israel doesn’t actually rank high among states who use soft power in foreign policy; security is the primary foreign policy concern, which as national security is tied extensively to US interests. It is a given that the Zionist state places great emphasis on the Jewish American community and the Evangelical Christian right wing, many of whom are Zionists for religious and ideological reasons. It would have been interesting if the volume had been able to discuss the impact of the occupation state’s current genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza, and its failing propaganda campaign, especially among young Jewish Americans.

In its own words, The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power stands as a pioneering work, delving into the diverse strategies employed by states as they integrate religion and religious outreach into their external relations. While the book acknowledges certain limitations, such as the potential for a “reductive” view of religion and challenges in conceptualising soft power, it positions itself as laying the foundation towards understanding this crucial, understudied aspect of international relations, especially in the face of a post-secular, multipolar era.

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