Religion and Global Politics


A lecture co-organised by IAIS Malaysia and JUST


Speaker: Professor Richard Falk

r_falkRichard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is chair of the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent books are The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after Iraq (2008) and Achieving Human Rights (2009). He is currently serving as Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the UN Human Rights Council.



Synopsis of the lecture

Until the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 the most influential writing on global politics totally ignored the relevance of religion. The prevailing post-Enlightenment style of thought, guided by a ‘religious’


faith in reason, science, and technology, acted as if religion as a potent force in human affairs had been superseded. Indeed, for many thinkers, modernity was post-religious in character whether it was conceived of as an evolutionary capitalism or as some form of Marxist emancipatory socialism. In either case, the dynamics of history ensured progress for society without any reliance on a religious framing of social and political reality. This confidence in the human future depended, in part, in excluding religion from the public sector, which for liberalism was a distraction and for Marxism an alienating
feature of the inevitable struggle for a just polity dedicated to human wellbeing.

Several developments undermined this securlarizing conception of history and global politics: 1) the carnage of the world wars, dramatically culminating in the use of the atomic bomb raised religious questions about human survival and made plausible an apocalyptic destiny for human civilization; 2) the combination of Auschwitz and Hiroshima revealed the extent to which spiritual alienation led modernity to nurture evil in a pure form; such a revelation was confirmed by the gulag and 1984 realities of the Soviet deformation of the socialist promise; 3) the mobilization of popular resistance to the Shah’s repressive regime in Iran was a reminder that religious commitments were a dormant, yet formidable, force in human experience despite the seeming globalization ‘the Davos consensus,’ being sometimes called the West ‘market-oriented constitutionalism;’ religion emerged as the most powerful form of post-colonial resistance to corporate globalization; 4) the authoritarian excesses of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic in Iran, as well as Western memories of the Crusades and Inquisition, disclosed the potential menace of religious politics from the perspective of achieving humane governance; 5) religion could clearly no longer be ignored in the study of global politics, but neither should religion be treated as the indispensable ground of humane global governance, nor demonized as the main obstacle to its achievement.

These past decades have reminded us that religion is an essential part of human experience, and needs to be carefully studied to identify the positive and negative sides of its reemergence. Significantly, this reemergence has been most notable in the non-Western civilizations of the world, particularly Islam, functioning in part as ideological resistance to post-colonial Western hegemony. What seems most promising is an understanding of religious and cultural differences as well as an affirmation of the possibility of a shared spiritual humanism, given concrete expression in the form of human rights and the quest for justice in global politics.



After introduction by Professor Mohammad Hashim Kamali (Founding Chairman & CEO of IAIS Malaysia), the eminent Professor of Princeton University Richard Falk provided a thought-provoking overview of current relations between Religion with global Politics. He stressed the urgency of the questions raised and the high cost of deferring a response in the context of worldwide religious resurgence and cultural collisions, as well as the new form of capitalist global imperialism. The chief questions he raised were:

1) The collision between antagonistic knowledge systems complicating efforts at collaborative work. A. Western dominant views have been anti-metaphysical in essence for several centuries ever since devaluation of religious texts by Enlightenment modernity. B. Yet the opposing knowledge system remains deeply rooted, wherein meaning is achieved through metaphysical acceptance of faith mediated by revelation. Is a consensus possible regarding the nature of the Real, and how may one interpret such metaphysical claims?


2) The degree to which human rights transcend the will of public opinion in affirming unrestricted freedom of expression in liberal societies — as against inherited behaviors impervious to democratization. This question includes the authoritarian merging of ethnicity + religious identity + political authority (in Israel, or Iran)’ as well as the confluence of power + nationalism (religious nationalism) for international powers. Is there a basis for acknowledging the contributions of religion for mobilizing society and fashioning ethical responses — without sacrificing the achievements of secularism, in order to shape political authority? Professor Falk gave the example of U.S. and Israel as militarist political cultures, which induce crises of democracy by engendering lawless international behavior. Reflecting on the United States government’s abuse of U.N. veto power, he stated: “geopolitics trumps legal rights and moral imperatives.”


3) The interplay between the modernity generated by the Enlightenment project, and the spiritual energy at the core of religious resurgence: can religion make space for religious diversity and for secular outlooks? & can secularism recognize Religion’s relevance for ethical polity and spiritual hunger? This question demands humans to exploit their political and moral imagination, and transcend differences while retaining one’s specific identity.


Professor Falk left his audience with more questions revolving around how human solidarity may be strengthened and constructive collaboration be achieved, and what benefit religion offers in solving our historical circumstances. His cogent penetrating remarks were met by many observations and questions from the rapt audience.

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