“The Myth” of Religion and Politics

Mubashar Hasan*

Brisbane, February 19, 2014 (Alochonaa):In academia and public debate, religion and politics obtains special attention. People passionately engage in debate when it comes to this topic. Across the nation states, they are divided in opinion about the role of religion shaping politics, or politics shaping religion.  But, what if, our understanding of religion and politics is a myth? What if our idea is shaped by a group of powerful institutions such as Universities, media, academics and populist writers? What if this binary of religion-politics is simply a part of a revenue generating system ?

That certainly is the argument of Professor Timothy Fitzgerald’s book, “Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth” (Continuum: London & New York, 2011, 224 pp., $39.95).  His book is  an unusual  critique about how the discipline of IR approaches religion.

Timothy Fitzgerald’s book, “Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth” (Continuum: London & New York, 2011, 224 pp - Google Images

Timothy Fitzgerald’s book, “Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth” (Continuum: London & New York, 2011, 224 pp – Google Images

The summary of Fitzgerald’s argument is that the liberal discourse is based on the assumption that it is a real discourse liberated from unreal religion, whereas the liberal discourse itself is based on the imagination where rhetoric construction of myth-makers transforms the imagination into reality as if the discourse exists. To put it simply, he questions the rationale of  rationality.

For example, he argues why after 9/11 secular IR theorists have used terms such as ‘violence’, ‘religious’, ‘barbaric’ when they write about certain groups which are known as Islamist, whereas ‘the massive violence of the secular US state and its intervention in areas of strategic interest and its support for several polities which have little or no democracy  at all are depicted for rational reasons as paragons of peace’.

He further questions why Marxism and capitalism are not termed as respective religions and yet why Christianity is termed as a religion. He argues by nature they are all similar because:

(a) They all offer a final resolution to the problems of human existence.

(b) They are all significantly founded on metaphysical beliefs that are not derivable from empirical observation.

(c) They can all be seen as soteriologies, based on acts of faith that can be regarded as doctrines of human liberation from a condition of ignorance, suffering or lack of  true freedom and self-realization.

Fitzgerald argues that by inventing a distinct, ideally privatized, sub-rational domain of religions based on belief in the ‘supernatural’, or in another unseen ‘spiritual’ dimension, we have simultaneously been able to invent an equally imaginary real world of natural reason which is assumed to underpin the material and factual domains of the state, politics and economics (p. 13).

In Fitzgerald’s view, the idea that all the practices and institutions of the world can be classified into this Anglophone (more widely Europhone) either or religion secular binary is an ‘astonishingly implausible idea’. He states, ‘these binaries so deeply underpin the dominant modern imaginaire of liberal capitalism that they have acquired the status of universal truths, and have been virtually removed from systematic critique’ (p. 13).

Fitzgerald argues that a group of elite myth-makers including media, universities and academics and populist writers are subconsciously transforming a collective imagination of mutually parasitic binary into existence.

Fitzgerald heavily criticizes secular universities and their salaried academics, which through various secular disciplines of social sciences, particularly through International Relations (IR), regenerate the myth of religion and politics. He further argues that this trend to ‘subterranean connection of religion as a classification with the naturalisation of capital and economic theory’ is an implication of universities acting as ideological state apparatuses; agencies for the relatively indirect and disguised legitimization of the state which has one of its most pressing functions as the management of corporate capital (p. 15).

He thinks such position of the universities is the root of the problem since, in his words:.

“valid knowledge is financed and legitimated by the secularity of the secular university. To critique religion as a category unsettles and makes problematic the legitimacy of secular reason. It is not so different from heresy, because it strikes at the roots of an entire system of meaning, and threatens to expose the myth of  secular reason as an entire ideological apparatus of power of modernity”. (p. 236)

In Fitzgerald’s opinion, the consequences of such world views culminated into producing a tiny but hugely wealthy group of world elites with huge access to capital in comparison to the massification of poverty in all countries (including the West) and this for Fitzgerald is the starting point of understanding the myth.

He further argues that ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ has been going on since the pre-colonial era and it is the sacrificial process of dispossession feeding capital interests, which creates imagined modern and mutually parasitic binaries.

The book has 11 chapters, in which Fitzgerald builds his argument based on critical reviews, conducted mainly by IR theorists. A major part of this 284-page book is devoted to analysing how IR theorists construct religion. This book is an interesting addition to the scholarly field in the sense that Fitzgerald challenges the whole system on which the liberal discourse is based. In this sense it is a rebellious book with a solid and intriguing argument.

However, the book’s major shortcoming is that it does not provide any anti-thesis to the myth. In my opinion, by failing to do so, Fitzgerald falls into his own trap. If one is too convinced by his argument that this mythical discourse is universalized with the help of modern myth-makers to serve capital interest, one needs to know what the alternative to this myth is.

His failure to produce an alternative discourse to the myth in a way makes a point, which says he himself inscribes what he calls the myth. Thus, his criticism criticizes the rhetoric not empiric construction of liberal discourse of religion while he himself uses rhetoric criticism of the discourse of religion without empiric evidence. The question remains – as his writing argues for the irrationality of what we know as rational – how  he will quantify his rational argument as rational if Fitzgerald is similarly criticised.

* Mubashar Hasan is a Doctoral Candidate, School of Government and IR, Griffith University. This is his personal opinion. A major part of this writing appeared in Politics, Religion and Ideology 14(1): 161-162 (Copyright: Routledge)

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