This chapter introduces a new research program for understanding the politics of religion and secularism. It argues that a focus on the politics of religion and secularism offers a productive port of entry into the study of international politics. Following a brief introduction to religion and International Relations (IR), it offers a basic historical introduction to the concept of secularism (see Box 24.1), explains why the politics of secularism is significant to the study of global politics, and concludes with two short case studies of the politics of secularism in the Middle East and North Africa.
Religion and International Relations
The study of the global dimensions and implications of religion and secularism is relatively new to the discipline of IR (Falk 2001; Hurd 2008; Katzenstein and Byrnes 2006; Petito and Hatzopoulos 2003; Thomas 2005). The authority of different forms of secularism and the force they command in many parts of the world, within and between nation-states, has received little attention. There are a number of reasons for this lack of attention.
First and most significantly, questions of religion have been marginalised due to the sheer power and authority of secularism to define the terms of the debate in such a way that religion is understood (at best) as irrelevant to politics and (at worst) as an existential threat to rational public order. Although this consensus has begun to shift in recent years (Hurd 2015), it has been so powerful in IR and in the world that for many years even questioning it was considered nonsensical. The conviction that religion should be privatised – and that particular religions may threaten this process more than others – cuts to the core of modern political thought and practice. The privatisation of religion is ‘mandated ideologically by liberal categories of thought which permeate not only political ideologies and constitutional theories but the entire structure of modern Western thought’ (Casanova 1994: 215). As a foundational principle of modern politics, secularisation is often seen as having contributed to democratisation and liberalisation.