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The Brink

Religion and Politics in the Ultimate Election Year

Méadhbh McIvor, special projects editor, interviews Erin K. Wilson on her book Religion and World Politics: Connecting Theory with Practice. They discuss how her book “tries to move us away from this surface-level essentialist thinking about religion and provide people with a practical guide for how to incorporate religion into analysing world politics without over- or under-emphasising its importance.”

Erin K. Wilson is Professor of Politics and Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Her research sits at the interface of religious studies, international relations and philosophy. Professor Wilson was interviewed for The Brink by Méadhbh McIvor in April 2024.

Méadhbh McIvor: First off, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the Political Theology Network! We’re here to talk about your book, Religion and World Politics: Connecting Theory with Practice. To start, can you tell us how this book came about?

Erin K. Wilson: Thank you! It’s delightful to be here and be interviewed for Political Theology. In a way, the book represents about ten years of thinking on the relationship between religion and world politics. But it was also written out of a sense of frustration at how little progress we seem to be making, at least outside of a very niche area of academia, in terms of moving the conversation about religion beyond simply noting secular biases. In foreign policy circles, for example, we’re still stuck in the kind of all-or-nothing thinking where religion is either irrelevant or the core problem. In either case, it’s ignored because it’s not important or it’s too hard. I still hear diplomats exclaiming “religion is back!” Like they’ve discovered penicillin, as if it is a huge revelation that religion actually matters in world politics. For scholars who’ve been working on this topic for the last 20-30 years (at least), this is disheartening, to put it mildly.

The book tries to move us away from this surface-level essentialist thinking about religion and provide people with a practical guide for how to incorporate religion into analysing world politics without over- or under-emphasising its importance. The book talks about secular biases without going too much into secularism, because it’s designed for people who aren’t embedded in the scholarship: it’s for students, it’s for practitioners working in diplomacy, development, foreign policy, humanitarianism. It’s quite short, it’s only 50,000 words in total. It focuses on three case study areas—conflict, violence, and security; development and humanitarianism; and law and human rights—and it presents a three-step framework for analysing religion in a more nuanced, contextualised way. That was the thinking and the motivation behind the book.

MM: And it’s open access, so people outside the academy can read it.

EKW: Yes, exactly. That was also very important to me. Routledge received funding from an organisation called Knowledge Unlatched in order to make it available open access. People can still buy hard copies if they’d like to, but the electronic version is available open access.

MM: In the Preface, you write that “recognising that ‘religion’ is a category that holds different meanings for different people in different contexts across time and space is a recognition that we do not and cannot know what ‘religion’ is” (p. ix). Within religious studies, we almost take this as a truism, but of course, it’s not a given for most of the people we engage with. Why do you think that religious studies’ view of religion is so different from the “common sense” views of religion that we encounter when we discuss what we do with our friends, with family, oftentimes with students? Why is there such a disconnect?

EKW: I think this comes back to the inequality of systems of knowledge that we have in the world. In religious studies and related fields, we’re trained to start with context. This is particularly so for anthropologists working in religion (and the book is kind of a combination of anthropological and critical international relations approaches). I think that for most of the people we encounter, particularly those of us based in European, Australian, and North American institutions, the permeation of the secular worldview is near absolute. Everyone has this assumption that they know what religion is. That assumption is often based on a dominant Christian model of religion. Even when other religious traditions are acknowledged, the assumption is that those traditions will operate in a Christian mould, which is manifestly not the case. So I think part of it is the dominance of this secular worldview that we work in.

And particularly now that people in Euro-American contexts are becoming less personally religious, they struggle to see what the point is in understanding religion. Even to get people to a point of being curious about other religious traditions, let alone be curious about the possibility that religion means different things for different people in different places, can be an uphill battle. Many people have a very superficial understanding or idea about religion—or they just don’t really think about it all that much.

And I think that’s quite concerning, especially for understanding world politics. European and North American experiences of secularisation and privatisation of religion are the exception (and even there, we have to question the accepted wisdom on the “success” of these processes). Without an understanding of the nuance or diversity that exists within and across religious traditions in different places, you end up making erroneous assumptions about the relation between, say, religion and politics. And this can have really dramatic consequences for people’s lives.

MM: The book is written from your perspective as someone who is an academic, but also as someone who does a lot of public engagement and public policy work. Could you give us an example of a time when it became clear to you, in conversation with someone, that they had a more “bounded” view of religion than you did (as a scholar of religion)? What was the implication of their understanding of religion, in terms of their policy work?

EKW: There are a couple that I can think of. There’s one example that I recount in the book, where a policymaker from the UK Ministry of Defence told me that “defining religion is really only a question that’s relevant for academics.” He didn’t realise that policymakers define religion all the time—they just aren’t aware they’re doing it. In his mind, we all know what religion is, so endless debates about definition are not necessary or relevant.

Another that springs to mind is a recent conversation I had with a European-based defence forces officer. He had listened to a lecture I had given based on the book. Afterwards, he said to me something along the lines of: “I’m quite surprised at how cautious academia is about this. Academia is concerned with science and truth. Why is it so sensitive towards religion?” He followed up by saying, “If I had a book of fairy tales in my pocket and I said ‘here, you have to read this in order to understand my worldview,’ you’d think that was ridiculous [implying that religions are essentially fiction]. So why does academia take it seriously?”

In response, I said to him: “What I’m hearing is that you understand the world in a particular way. You think that there is a reality, that that’s a ‘scientific’ reality, and that religious ways of understanding the world are false. But there are lots of academic approaches that take a different starting point. For example, anthropologists don’t assume that there’s only one way of knowing the world, and they aren’t necessarily interested in finding out which of these ways is the ‘correct’ one. Rather, they’re interested in how people believe the world works. And studying that can help us to understand what motivates people, why they make particular decisions, why they respond to information in a particular way.” I was worried he would be offended by this response, but afterwards, he shook my hand and said it was so interesting and so helpful. So, the issue is often that people just think they know what religion is. The key is getting to a place where you can have a conversation about why things might be more complicated.

MM: 2024 is being referred to as the ultimate election year, in that approximately 50% of the world’s population have or will be asked to vote this year. There’s been a lot of discussion of the place of religion in these elections, oftentimes framed in terms of religious conflict or sectarianism. To take one example, we’re conducting this interview in April, during India’s ongoing elections, and much media coverage has focused on the relationship between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and India’s Muslim minority. I wondered if you could share what you see as the issues or problems involved in discussing elections in “religious” terms. What kind of simplifications or elisions are happening there?

EKW: A big part of the problem is that other factors that are shaping those relationships get missed. It misses the impact of economic factors and responsibilities outside of India for the current situation. It feeds into this narrative where “religion” is the cause of the problem, where “religion” is what causes hatred and discrimination, and it ignores the way that what the BJP is promoting is also a particular kind of nationalism. We often forget the damage that nationalism has done, historically. And that sometimes these kinds of religiously infused-nationalisms developed as a type of resistance against the influence of (former) colonial powers.

We did some research a few years ago on discrimination against Muslims in Gujarat, in particular looking at how local organisations address the right to freedom of religion and belief. But for the people we worked with, the concern wasn’t about restrictions on the right to practice and express their religion. It was about the right to employment, the right to housing, to education, clean water, and sanitation. Access to what these organisations called “the benefits of development” was being restricted on the basis of Muslim religious identity. This kind of discrimination does fall under Article 18, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the experience of the organisations in Gujarat was that emphasising the religious identity of the groups suffering this discrimination actually undermined efforts to protect their rights.  And so one of the recommendations that came out of that research was that instead of focusing on Article 18, the focus should be on Article 2, the right not to be discriminated against. By contrast, if you frame everything in terms of religion, religious minorities become more of a target, not less. This is particularly the case in India, where Islam is seen by some as a foreign religion. Global discourses about extremism—which is typically understood to mean religious extremism, and more specifically Islamist extremism—have also exacerbated these problems. Once you’ve defined a community as a security threat, it justifies all kinds of actions against that community.

So if you see things purely in religious terms, you don’t see any of those other dynamics that shape what’s going on. It just gets put down to ancient religious hatred. It gets presented as primordial and thus impossible to solve.

MM: Do you think that there is a better way of talking about the place of religion alongside political phenomena, like elections?

EKW: At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I think the framework that is set out in the book offers a pretty good model for that, because it encourages people to look at context first, rather than take the problematic concept of “religion” as the point of departure. Context isn’t just about the geography, it’s also about the culture, the history, and the discourses that are taking place—so, understanding what’s at stake in a particular context, and then understanding what “religion” is in that context.

It’s also about what Peter Mandaville describes as “right-sizing religion.” It’s not about saying religion is the core issue or saying religion is completely irrelevant, but looking at religion in relation to other issues, including gender, education, sexual orientation, all of these other aspects of identity and facets of human existence. We often use “religion” as a shorthand, but there are so many different aspects to what makes up religion as a socio-political phenomenon.

It’s about being more specific: what is it that we’re actually interested in? With politics, you’ve got the specific role of religious institutions and religious actors, like religious NGOs, but you’ve also got the way that religious identities map onto political identities, which may or may not shape the way people vote. In the book, I talk about the importance of religious narratives: how beliefs, stories, images, rituals from religion also feature in politics and permeate our political speech. We may not even recognise them as “religious,” but that’s how they’re understood or experienced elsewhere. In other words, religion and politics aren’t easily separable. Sometimes, positions that are attributed to religious identity also need to be understood in terms of or alongside political identity. For example, Robin Veldman talks about this in her book The Gospel of Climate Skepticism. There’s an assumption that evangelical Christians, at least in the US, don’t care about climate change because of their understanding of the End Times. But Veldman found that these climate beliefs are more driven by political affiliation.

MM: The book discusses the importance of unlearning what (we think) we know about religion, and instead focusing on the importance of context in any discussion of religion. You’re originally from Australia, but you’re now based in at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. The Netherlands is one of the founding members of the European Union. There are elections to the European Parliament coming up in June. I wondered if you could give us an example, from your base in the Netherlands, of how you could apply this context-specific understanding of what religion is and what place religion has in these upcoming elections.

EKW: If I think about Europe at the moment, there’s a very strong movement to the right. And a lot of that is couched in terms of defending Christianity, defending Europe’s “Christian heritage.” Hungary is maybe the classic example. The Netherlands is an interesting case because while religion matters in Dutch populism, it isn’t framed in terms of defending Christianity, but rather defending Dutch secular liberal values and tolerance against Islam. This isn’t across the board, but given the success of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid or PVV) in the last elections, this is a significant part of the political landscape.

Part of the issue is immigration. Not necessarily the actual consequences of immigration, but the perceived impact of immigration and perceived unfairness around the allocation of resources to refugees and asylum seekers. This gets linked to religion because the assumption is that people coming to the Netherlands are Muslim. This can be traced to the so-called “refugee crisis” of a few years ago, when many hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Northern Europe. The popular understanding was that all of these refugees were Muslim, and this was happening in a discursive context where Islam was increasingly being conflated with various forms of extremism. So, that’s the context in which specific references to religion and religious identity need to be understood. This example also highlights the damaging consequences of essentialising religion and not understanding it within the broader historical, socio-political, cultural, and economic context. Not all Syrians are Muslims, not all Muslims practice their religion in the same way, etc etc.

Populism is easy because it’s easy to make these kinds of simplistic statements (like refugee equals religious extremist). It’s much harder to cut through with a message of complexity. And it is complex. But that’s kind of our challenge, as scholars—to figure out ways to make what is complex clear and straightforward. That’s the challenge we’re facing right now.

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