Geopolitics of Religion: Manlio Graziano’s Holy Wars & Holy Alliance.


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Works Reviewed. Graziano, Manlio. Holy Wars and Holy Alliance: The Return of Religion to the Global Political Stage. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.



The theme of a return of religion, particularly a return of religion to the domain of politics, has been the subject of a great deal of attention over the past sixteen years in both the popular press and the critical attention of political theorists and other academic disciplines. The focus, in both popular and academic press, has been on the trinity of religion, politics, and violence, with an inordinate amount of attention placed on ‘political Islam.’

Indeed, after the September 11 attacks, it seemed that when one spoke about politics and religion it was more often than not a shorthand for Islam and politics. The phenomenon of the Religious Right in the USA, however, garnered its share of the discussion as well. Invariably discussions around religion and politics adopted a shrill tone,  as if the spectre of religion – long thought banished from the practice of politics had risen like some  ghastly undead creature to haunt the world with its bloody dreams of jihad, apocalypse and theocracy.

Religions have again, after a period of apparent invisibility and irrelevance, become significant forces in domestic and international politics. This is true, however,  not only of Islam and American Christianity, but of religions in the plural. This has, to some extent been recognized. Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God – a work which predates September 11, 2001 -examines religiously motivated violence in five of the major religious traditions. Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contends that a militant piety has emerged in every major world religion. William Cavanaugh, on the other hand, finds the contemporary discourse around religion largely incoherent and declares the religious/secular dichotomy an arbitrary one, which has been instrumental in Western political intervention abroad and in silencing certain voices domestically. (“Does Religion Cause Violence?“) Lurking in the background, for Cavanaugh, is Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the “Clash of Civilizations” which, while providing a wildly distorted view of the world, offers an extremely convenient political narrative. The religious other – in most cases Muslim – is caricatured as an absolutely irrational person and it is this caricature, rather than an actual assessment of historical experience that takes central stage. Declaring the immutable essence of “religions” the purveyors of the “clash of civilisations” thesis abandon acquaintance with  history and tradition in favour of a simplified version of the world in which actual knowledge of other customs,  religions, and people is deemed unnecessary.

Clearly then, the theme of a return of religion is an area that has great potential for misunderstanding, and requires a careful study with respect to how and in what sense religion has re-emerged as a major player on the global political stage. Manlio Graziano, in his recent book Holy Wars and Holy Alliance: The Return of Religion to the Global Political Stage – published by Columbia University Press – offers what I consider to be an even-handed and clear-sighted, though by no means exhaustive, assessment in the way religious discourse and organizations are involved, and often co-opted in domestic and international politics. The disciplinary field through which he approaches religion is that of their geopolitical impact, apprising what he calls their “uncommon political nature,” that is, the belief that faith carries a supernatural force and thereby provides a confidence that secular political forces are no longer able to muster.

Graziano begins with an account of the the rise of the secularization theory as an attempt to describe the world after the Treaty of Westphalia, and the increasingly apparent limitations of that theory to describe the actual trajectories of modern societies. While he does not directly address the conceptual difficulties of the religious/secular dichotomy, modernity is acknowledged as a contested space which carries elements of both secularization and desecularization within it.  (26) Perhaps most significantly Graziano draws attention to the capacity religious organizations offer to promote alliance and unification among peoples, rather than focussing strictly on their potential to incite division and sectarian violence.

Manlio Graziano is an Italian scholar who teaches in the area of geopolitics, particularly the geopolitics of religion. Noting that the events of recent decades have promoted some discussion on the relations between international politics and religion, he maintains that a geopolitics of religion has yet to be developed. Holy Wars and Holy Alliance is his attempt to enter into the work of building a geopolitical approach to analysing political and religious trends. “The aim of geopolitics,” writes Graziano, “is to study the constraints that restrict, condition, and orient the will of political actors.”(3) A geopolitical study of religion, therefore, does need to take into consideration the “superior motivation of religious actors,” given that the belief that their faith carries a supernatural force may grant religiously motivated actors a degree of confidence that secular politics can no longer galvanize or guarantee.

It should be noted that this claim of a superior motivation based on faith in a supernatural force is the closest Graziano comes to defining what he means by religion. From context one can infer that religions principally describe traditions that are typically regarded as religious, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, but not necessarily extending to Confucianism and Daoism. Graziano is well aware that the civil religion of states often borrows from or parodies elements of organized religions. Nevertheless, he wants to maintain a distinction between the new religion of the state and religion as it is more traditionally understood. The story Graziano intends to tell begins with a flagging confidence in, or even a metamorphoses of, the forces and political forms to which we have grown accustomed; chief among them the nation-state. His hypothesis is that some of the voids being left in the turmoil are being filled by traditional religion and religious groups. (1)

At the same time the geopolitical approach must entail a caution around exaggerating that force at the expense of a careful assessment of the institutional and organizational realities of religious bodies. Graziano is well aware that discerning a greater or lesser prominence of religious sentiment in a society is a difficult task. Changes in immaterial factors, like ideology and religion, are difficult to detect and for this reason the return of religion to the public stage in the 1970s went unnoticed until the September 11, 2001 attacks bludgeoned the fact of religiously motivated political action into popular consciousness.

Holy War and Holy Alliance is organized into four parts. The first, which opens with a provocatively enigmatic epitaph by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – The Church can in fact be modern by being anti-modern – traces the rise and fall of the secularization thesis which, in some ways mirrors the rise and fall of the notion of progress. Graziano builds on the work of Peter Berger who, though he had been instrumental in shaping the secularization theory that modernization leads to the decline of religion, had begun to see that modernization had also provoked powerful anti-secular currents. He offers a brief history of the rise of nationalism and capitalism, and the changes this effect with respect to explicitly religious organizations. It is in the nineteenth century that the state began to take on many of the roles traditionally prescribed to religious bodies.

The state, therefore, finds itself required to provide meaning and social services, and when it fails to do so its credibility is damaged, which may lead to a resurgence in religious bodies occupying important public roles. This phenomenon, argues Graziano, became visible in the 1970s, with the rise of theologies of prosperity which, at least in part, provided a vehicle for uprooted peasants struggling to find meaning and retain a sense of identity within the new contexts of urban society and access to wealth. Civil religions, as seen especially in the cult of Mao in the cultural revolution, failed to replace traditional religions over the long term.

Graziano then his readers through the resacralization of politics in the 1970s, anticipated by events in Indonesia in 1965, but really entering into center stage with the Islamization of the Iranian revolution, which Graziano points out, caught American foreign specialists almost entirely by surprise. The story here, it is worth noting, has many factors that are not especially religious in character. Graziano, quoting Vali Nasr, notes that ‘During the whirlwind years of 1978 and 1979, the revolution did not take on a particularly Islamic cast,” (71). The decisive factor, for the Islamization of the Iranian revolution lies, for Graziano, in the political capacity of part of the Shiite clergy to mobilize national resentment against foreign intervention precisely at a time of rapid economic development.  After an analysis of this phenomenon Graziano turns his attention to the “geopolitical reinvention of the Holy War” in Afghanistan. The central irony of this war, says Graziano, is that it is proclaimed by a Catholic American of Polish origin – Zbigniew Brzezinski – speaking to a group of mujahidin as they prepare to battle the soviet invaders. “Your cause is right,” said the national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, “God is on your side. The notion of Holy War is thus explicitly tied to a person who is Catholic, though not one who is acting in a Catholic capacity.

This provides the perfect set-up to introduce another Catholic of Polish origin, and one whose story will become central to second part of Graziano’s title: Holy Alliance. The election of Karol Wojytla is, for Graziano, the most significant religio-political event of the 1970s that contributed to the rise of religion in political life, and far outstrips the geopolitical significance of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Graziano dismisses the view that John Paul II contributed significantly to the fall of communism, a claim which he notes that the pope himself called ‘ridiculous.’ (98) The real strategic power of Wojytla’s election to the papacy lay in the direction he was to lead the church:

“He was also, above all, the pope who marginalized those in the heart of the church who dreamed of modernizing Catholocism, in order to resolutely follow the path of Catholicizing modernity.” (101)

This is the story that Graziano really wants to tell, the story of the desecularization of the world, led by the Catholic church, which would see the “future reunification of the Christian world and the establishment of stable, peaceul, and fruitful relations with the world’s other great religions, starting with Judaism and Islam.” (102)

In order to make that case as strong as possible, Graziano must first address the conventional perspective which tends to view the political agency of religion in terms of its ability to instigate violence, the “Holy Wars” of the book’s title. This section begins with an acknowledgement of the political utility of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, which pit the “Christian West” against the forces of ‘Islamic and Sinic’ civilizations. The idea was that the West needed to act against its own “moral decline, cultural suicide and politial disunity,” and assert itself against the claims of moral superiority of Muslim and Asian countries. Huntington provided clear demarcations between ‘civilizations,’ and these assertions found a ready market of people looking for stability, and a clear sense of self-identity. The problem, says Graziano, is that ‘while this representation was neat and clean and easily understandable it had one major flaw: it simply did not exist.” (108)

Graziano then proceeds to examine the internal inconsistencies with grand civilizational theories, noting that the West has roots not only in Judeo-Christian history but also in Byzantine-Muslim civilization and Judeo-Muslim civilization. Following Niall Ferguson he contends that conflict between powers now considered as Western has always been intracivilizational. Moreover Islam itself has a plural character and there is, within Islam, ‘no central religious authority able to rule decisively on theological or juridical questions.’ (127)

It is precisely this lack of a central religious authority which is true, not only of Islam, but oorf nearly all the world’s major religions that leave them open to be exploited for political and non-religious purposes. Sacred texts within Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism are commonly used to advocate peace or to justify resort to violence, and Graziano views the attempts to restrain violence on the basis of scriptures alone as inherently doomed since ‘one can find scriptural and theological arguments to refute these same arguments – and vice versa. The only way a religion can escape from this vicious circle is if it has a sole central authority, recognized and respected, which establishes which kind of beliefs can be seen as theologically true by the majority of the faithful at any given moment.” (132) Here, one tcan clearly see the important role that the Catholic Church plays in Graziano’s thought.

The emergence of religiously motivated political violence, or of political violence that exploits religious justifications arises out of particular historic and economic conditions. The case of the Iranian revolution had much to do with using the language and institutions of Islam to address people’s desires for social justice and economic well-being. However, if the religious institutions lack coherence, clear lines of authority, and the capacity for long-term strategy they are just as likely to be used as Mafia-like groups. This is true, argue Graziano, not only of Islamic terrorism but of any form of ‘religious terrorism.” He provides brief examples of various terrorist acts linked to religious bodies of one kind or another. ‘Christian terrorism,” he notes, “is primarily Protestant.” This is not because their are not self-identified Catholics who commit acts of terror, but because the Catholic church has the institutional authority and ability to distance itself from those actors and decidedly condemn those actions.

It is the Catholic church’s historical experience and institutional power that make it, argues Graziano in the book’s final section, uniquely situated to lead an alliance of the world’s religions. This he sees taking place through ecumenical and inter-faith relationships. The goal of this holy alliance is one that Graziano sums up in the words of Benedict XVI taken from Caritas in Veritate:

“The Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions.” (270)

The author makes a strong case for the way the Catholic Church has, especially since the Second Vatican Council, made alliance among the world’s religions a key part of its strategies, as well as how the historical experience of the Roman Catholic Church allows it to combine strategic rigidity in principles with flexibility in daily practice. (277) The book does not focus so much on the response of the other religious bodies to this outreaching by the Catholic Church, as his main efforts in describing other religious institutions are to point out their lack of central authority and the effects of this lack in the theatre of global politics. The very notion of a holy alliance, however, opens up the space for an important conversation as religious and secular institutions continue to come to terms with the desecularization of the world and the increasing role that religious bodies may come to occupy in the public realm. Graziano has written an important, and fascinating study of the role of religions in the political sphere.