No Other Gods before Me: Spheres of Influence in the Relationship between Christianity and Islam

Article excerpt


The relationship between Christianity and Islam vaulted to great national importance following the September 11, 2001 attacks and the "war on terror" that the United States declared thereafter. Since the attacks, various commentators have attempted to contextualize the role that religion plays in this conflict. For example, Salman Rushdie, in a much-discussed New York Times op-ed, declared bluntly that the war in Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks was "about Islam." (1) On the other hand, the Toronto Star editorialized: "That the Sept. 11 hijackers were Arab Muslims says no more than that Timothy McVeigh was Christian or Baruch Goldstein was Jewish." (2) But regardless of these differences between commentators, virtually nobody would argue that religion is simply irrelevant to the war on terror. Whether it is expressed through fears that combat on Islamic soil will inflame the Muslim street (3) or concern about the influx of Christian missionaries that have tended to follow such military operations, (4) virtually all observers agree that religion is a significant factor in this conflict.

Without a proper appreciation of both Muslim religious sensibilities and the manner in which the West is perceived by that faith's adherents, policymakers do indeed risk exacerbating extant problems, by, for example, increasing public sympathy for terrorists within the Islamic world. Thus, this article describes a powerful strain of thought that has historically existed within both Christianity and Islam, and that continues to guide a significant number of both faiths' adherents today. This strain of thought holds that both religions possess distinct geographical "spheres of influence," in the same way that nation-states are thought to possess their own spheres of influence. (5) Thus, Christians whose worldviews are shaped by this concept will be very concerned about perceived encroachments into the "Christian West," while Muslims who share this perspective will be worried about the erosion of Islam's power within the "Islamic world."

The notion that Christianity and Islam possess distinct geographical spheres of influence is by no means universally held by Christians and Muslims. However, a large number of adherents to both faiths conceptualize their religion as possessing a geographical sphere of influence. Moreover, the believers who hold this view tend to wield disproportionate influence within both faiths. (6) This view thus merits our attention, since even small, committed groups of believers have often heavily influenced the course that Christianity and Islam have followed. (7) A framework for understanding the interactions between the Christian world and Muslim world that takes into account this perception of religious spheres of influence can thus help to reduce the potential for conflict between the two faiths.

The spheres of influence concept is usually identified with both realist and neorealist theories of international relations (IR), which argue that nation-states seek to maximize their power. (8) The perception of Christians and Muslims who believe that their faith possesses a geographic sphere of influence mirrors the predictions of realist IR theories; these adherents view their faith as operating in a manner similar to the nation-state, with the religion's power waxing or waning in relation to a variety of competitors. Indeed, they may view their religion as a more vital and more legitimate actor than the nation-state. (9) However, this article employs liberal IR theory to examine how this perception of religious spheres of influence affects the way that individuals and states behave internationally. In contrast to realism, the liberal theory of international relations places greater emphasis on state-society relations than on the structural relationship between nation-states. (10)

Although realist theory holds that spheres of influence are only one strategy among many that nation-states may employ to expand their power, Christians and Muslims who believe that their faith possesses a geographic component view spheres of influence as far more important to their religion than to nation-states. …