Religious Discrimination: A World Survey

By Fox, Jonathan | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Religious Discrimination: A World Survey


Fox, Jonathan, Journal of International Affairs


Religious discrimination is a phenomenon that has existed for millennia but has recently been receiving increasing attention for two reasons. (1) First, a re-examination of secularization theory in the last two decades of the 20th century and the impact of the September 11 attacks compelled theorists to turn their attention to the issue of religion in international affairs. More specifically, religion is a topic that had been marginalized by the social sciences for most of the 20th century. (2) In fact, in a body of theory known alternatively as modernization and secularization theory, many social scientists predicted the demise, or at least a weakening, of religion as a significant social and political force. This often included expectations that religion would move from the public sphere to the private sphere. Mainstream social scientists, especially political scientists and sociologists, began to seriously question this set of assumptions only in the last two decades of the 20th century. (3)

Mainstream international relations theory went even further. Rather than developing a body of theory that predicted religion's decline, it simply did not address the topic of religion. Some would even argue that the post-Westphalian state system and the discipline of international relations were founded on the belief that the era of religion causing international wars had ended. (4) While this argument may be extreme, it is clear that articles written before September 11 in major international relations journals rarely addressed religion as a significant factor in international relations. (5) Also, when religion was addressed in 20th century international relations theory, it was generally addressed as a sub-category of some other secular phenomenon such as terrorism, culture or civilizations. (6)

Clearly September 11 was not the sole cause of the reevaluation of the role of religion in international relations. Some international relations theorists began to grapple with religion before September 11. (7) It is even likely that had September 11th not occurred, the growing evidence of religion's influence in international relations, combined with the increasing attention given to the issue by other branches of the social sciences, would have eventually resulted in the issue becoming more mainstream. However, September 11 certainly served as a catalyst that spurred a speedy and dramatic surge in research on the role of religion in international relations. (8) This surge was not limited to issues directly related to September 11, such as the threat of radical Islam and the religious causes of terrorism, violence and conflict. Rather, September 11 facilitated a paradigm shift that removed the taboo of openly relating religion to international relations, and opened the floodgates to research on diverse aspects of religion's influence in international relations. This includes issues such as the role of religion on diplomacy, economic development, globalization, voting on foreign policy issues in the U.S. Congress, as well as the religious origins of secularism in Europe. (9) It also spurred attempts to adopt major international relations theories to accommodate religion. (10)

The second reason for the increasing attention given to religious discrimination is the changes in the nature of sovereignty in the past few decades. While at one time a state's domestic policy was considered only an internal matter, aspects of domestic policy are now part of the international agenda. In fact, mistreatment of minorities is becoming a justification for international intervention in a state's affairs. (11) While currently this generally includes only the worst human rights violations, this reflects a concrete change in international norms that makes discrimination against minorities, including religious discrimination, an international issue.

The increasing attention given to issues of religion, including religious discrimination, is reflected in the recent appearance of efforts to monitor religious discrimination on an international basis. …

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