The Contemporary Ambiguities of Religions as a Source of Civilisational Identity

By Fabio Petito, E-International Relations, Septemer 25, 2015

Against the prediction of the theorists of modernisation on the inescapable withering away of religion, it is back at the centre stage of international politics. Furthermore, this return appears to be antagonistic and does not seem to be for the (common) good. But how can we explain this visible resurgence of religion in world politics in the post-Cold War era? What can we say about the logic—if there is just one—by which religions interact, infuse or even ‘sacralise’ international politics today? These are questions of great topicality, especially in the light of how religion and politics have been recently interacting in both the Islamic and the Western world as well as in their precarious relationship. In this chapter, my starting point is that the resurgence of religion as a central factor in contemporary international relations is linked to the renewed visibility of the concept of civilisation in post-Cold War political discourses. More specifically, drawing on Johann P. Arnason’s recent work—and in this regard Samuel Huntington’s argument retains part of its validity—I want to argue that the resurgence of religions in world politics has to be read in the context of civilisations, defined in a fundamentally culturalist sense, reasserting themselves as strategic frames of references, not as direct protagonists, of international politics. This development also has to be read as part of a longer-term process of challenge to Western dominance that has intensified since the Second World War and which Hedley Bull called the ‘cultural revolt against the West’.

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