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Race and the study of religion: ’West’ and ‘East’, or White and non-White?

Date:18 December 2013
Author:Religion Factor
Race and the study of religion: ’West’ and ‘East’, or White and non-White?
Race and the study of religion: ’West’ and ‘East’, or White and non-White?

The Religion Factor post on 28 November 2013 – Religion and International Relations (IR) Theory  -posed a challenge to IR scholars to be more self-reflexive in their understanding of religion and secularism. Such self-reflexive thought challenges dominant categories of thinking in IR, like thinking of Europe as a secular space, or religion as a disruptive influence, for example. In today’s post Faiz Sheikh continues in this vein of self-reflexive thought, examining the ways in which we use race when invoking the categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’.

Erin Wilson’s previous post on Religion and International Relations Theory posited that we need to do more than point out that a ‘secularist bias’ exists in the field (1), but look to construct alternative conceptions of religion and secularism that have greater analytical purchase. Wilson’s post continues to outline major shortcomings in current IR debates on religion and secularism, yet there are other ways in which it reinforces the binary thinking that it aims to critique. In particular, I would like to trouble one pair of staple categories that appears in the post in question, in many other discussions of religion and IR, and indeed categories that feature frequently in discussions in various fields and in our everyday lives – those of ‘East’ and ‘West’.

The way in which race is used (or not) in the way we categorise ‘East’ and ‘West’ is related to the concept of Othering, which in essence is how we separate ‘us’ (the ‘in group’ or ‘the Self) from ‘them’ (the ‘out group’ or ‘the Other’). When we overlay this concept of defining the Self and the Other onto how religion is conceived in the international sphere, we can note that the Other is often identified by Middle Eastern Islam, South American Catholicism or African Pentecostalism, while the Self is often identified by Secular/Christian Europe, or Christian North America. But how do ‘East’ and ‘West’ relate to such religious conceptions of Self and Other? One can physically see the south of Spain from the north of Morocco, so what does it mean to invoke the term ‘West’ to describe Spain, and ‘East’ to describe Morocco? One might say that while not referring to geography, the terms ‘East’ and ‘West’ suffice as analytical terms to describe Christian and non-Christian ‘zones of influence’. Then again, Christian Venezuela is on approximately the same longitude as the East of the United States of America, but is Venezuela and the rest of South America considered part of the ‘West’? Perhaps instead, ‘East’ and ‘West’ “are constructs that are differentiated not by geography but either by a rationality/civilizational divide or a rationality/racial divide” (2). Rationality here is an amorphous term, which has at various times in history been invoked to hide racism in the distinction of Self and Other. However it has been used, what is constant is that the self is always ‘rational’, the carriers of European Enlightenment thinking and later secularism, while the Other is always irrational. The Other’s irrationality could be by virtue of insufficiently embracing the ideas of the European Enlightenment (a claim made of Islamic reformers at the fall of the Ottoman Empire) (3), or insufficiently embracing secularism (a claim made today about the leadership of Iran) (4). Invoking the term rationality was and sometimes still is a sterile way to refer to racial differentiation.

Returning to religion and the way in which, for example, the Christianity of South America or Africa is not constitutive of the Self, of ‘us’, in the same way the Christianity of Europe or North America is. Could it be in this example that it easier to explain ‘East’ and ‘West’ in reference to ‘White’ and ‘non-White’ peoples, rather than Christian/non-Christian, or economically more/less developed? In this way, Christian traditions in Jordan are constitutive of the ‘East’, while Jewish traditions in Israel are constitutive of the ‘West’, when in actuality these two countries are, geographically speaking, right next to each other.

That race is used in the distinction between Self and Other is not a new phenomenon. Orientalist study of the ‘East’ is characterised by the notion that the object of study is passive, unable to produce knowledge about itself, and in liberal justifications for colonialism, childlike and in need of guidance (5). Race was a driving factor in the international relations of states during the era of colonialism, granting legitimacy for colonial projects through talk of “superior” and “inferior” races (6) (recognising that this era precedes the advent of International Relations as a formal academic discipline). In contemporary scholarship however, race can be a silent partner in the distinctions we make between Self and Other. Indeed, the categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’ are sometimes only coherent terms when taking account of race.

Sometimes this racial distinction is explicit. One such example is Samuel Huntington’s claim that “Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny” (7). Granted, Huntington here refers to Muslims, not Arabs or some other racial group. Nonetheless, his use of the label is explicitly racist, since it is used not in a discussion over Christian-Muslim relations, but European-Muslim relations. Rather than refer to ‘the Middle East’ or ‘North Africa’, ‘Muslims’ becomes a catch-all term that, in this instance, is a sanitised reference to racial difference. In other words the language used, in this instance, to claim: ‘such-and-such a region of the world is violent because Muslims are violent’, has replaced the more explicitly racist language of ‘such-and-such a region of the world is violent because Blacks/Arabs/Asians are violent’.

Sometimes this racial distinction is more subtle, as with Adam Watson’s claim that Portuguese expansion across the globe from the 15th century onwards carried a degree of legitimacy among other European powers because of “[m]ore laudable purposes like spreading Christianity and combating the Turkish enemy” (8). Here Christianity is quietly put forward as a ‘civilising’ force, which undermines the value and worth of native (non-White) methods of worship and cultural association. The claim is not that non-White peoples are inherently regressive, as with Huntington’s example used earlier. Rather, the claim is that these non-White peoples could be improved by White peoples.

‘East’ and ‘West’ are constructed terms, sometimes overtly and other times covertly using racial distinctions (and indeed, sometimes not using race as a distinguishing characteristic at all). Regardless of what place racial distinctions have in our usage of the term, it is “produced by human beings” (9). So, how do the concepts of ‘East’ and ‘West’, and particularly their racial dimensions, relate to the study of religion in IR?

Secularism represents one of the ways IR theory creates a hierarchical dualism between civilised and uncivilised, enlightened and backwards, and as the terms ‘East’ and ‘West’ might reveal, between White and non-White (10). While scholars of religion in the ‘West’, answering Wilson’s call for greater reflexivity, will note the many ways in which religion continues to influence public life, troubling the Self/Other distinction that claims religious politics is a characteristic of the Other, specifically the Islamic Other, this is only a first step; it is still possible to maintain a Self/Other distinction while at the same time recognising that religion in the ‘West’ is only nominally secularised. This is achieved by giving the Other (Islam/non-Whiteness) a regressive agency (it has capacity, but by its efforts produces ‘negative’ ends due to its inherent inferiority), while the Self (Christianity/Whiteness) claims a progressive agency (again it has capacity, but achieves ‘positive’ results from its effort as a result of its inherent superiority) (11).

Habermas talks of the unbridgeable gap between secular and divine knowledge (12) and the language of this gap is used extensively when discussing secularism, religion and IR. There comes a time when unexamined usage of this distinction becomes another instance of constructing Self (secular) and Other (religious) along racial lines. While the gap between religious and secular knowledge should be based on exactly that, the invocation of transcendence or human rationality, it can also signal a racial distinction. When the subtlety and complexity of Habermas’ usage is lost, the divide between secular and divine knowledge can easily become a divide between White and non-White. For example, when philosophy and rationalism is thought to be a heritage belonging to Plato, Hobbes, Marx and Rawls (13), then whose heritage is it that invokes the religious in public life? Whether they are Arab, African or Chinese, the carriers of religion in politics are probably non-White, given such a construction of Self. Of course this is a fallacy, as continuing work into the post-secular turn in IR demonstrates (14). One might even say that a Eurocentric point of view (here an approximate term for Whiteness) is entirely reasonable in specific contexts and in relation to specific peoples (15). The issue arises when constructions of Self are universalised to the extent where being ‘European’ is synonymous with being ‘civilised’. Or, where being ‘secular’ is synonymous with being ‘White’. When the claims of one vantage point is universalised, whether it is secularism or Shari’a law, such doctrines become oppressive, and can obfuscate racism.

So, subverting secularist bias in IR is an important task if IR is to have greater relevance to the analysis of events and regions shaped by forces, like religion, not easily contained in the convenient state boxes that IR has leant on in the past. However, care must also be taken that while looking at itself the ‘West’ does not reproduce Self/Other depictions that serve to carry a colonial legacy of racialised difference into the future. Otherwise put, while troubling the depiction of Self is necessary if IR is to conceive of religion and secularism in more adequate terms, the relationship of this Self with the Other must also be reassessed, as consistent dismissal of the topic (16) has allowed race to become a silent partner of the categories of analysis we create for ourselves. Could it be that the claims of IR scholars, whether leaning on secular or divine knowledge, whether being self-reflexive or not, cannot apply at all times to all peoples without sneaking racism in the back door?

Faiz Sheikh recently received his PhD in Political Science from the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.

(1) Hurd, Elizabeth: The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p10

(2) Hobson, John: The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p23

(3) Ayubi, Nazih: Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World, (London: Routledge, 1991), p58

(4) Keddie, Nikki: “Secularism & Its Discontents” Deadalus, vol 132, no 3 (2003), p14

(5) Abdel Malek, Anouar “Orientalism in Crisis”, In Macfie, Alexander Lyon (ed): Orientalism: A Reader, pp47-56, (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p50

(6) Losurdo, Domenico: Liberalism: A Counter-History. Translated by Gregory Elliot, (London: Verso, 2011), p334

(7) Huntington, Samuel: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p256

(8) Watson, Adam: “European International Society and its Expansion”, In Bull, Hedley and Watson, Adam (eds): The Expansion of International Society, pp13-32, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p19

(9) Said, Edward: “Orientalism Reconsidered”, In Macfie, Alexander Lyon (ed): Orientalism: A Reader, pp345-361, (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p347

(10) Chakrabarty, Dipesh: Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p14

(11) Hobson, John: The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p9

(12) Dallmayr, John: “Post-secularity and (global) politics” Review of International Studies, vol 38, no 5 (2012), p69

(13) March, Andrew: “Islamic Foundations for a Social Contract in Non-Muslim Liberal Democracies”, American Political Science Review, vol 101, no 2, (2007), p235

(14) Dabashi, Hamid: “Can non-Europeans think?” Al Jazeera [Online], 15 January 2013 [Accessed 4 December 2013]. Available from:

(15) For example, see the many contributions to this special issue of Review of International Studies: Mavelli, Luca and Petito, Fabio with Hutchings Kimberly: “The postsecular in International Relations”, (Review of International Studies, Vol. 38, No. 5, 2012)

(16) Bhambra, Gurminder: Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), pp1-33


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