Freedom of Religion and International Politics

Freedom of Religion and International Politics

Religion is widely understood to be a powerful force in domestic and international politics in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Asian subcontinent, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. It is used by multinational groupings -- the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), for instance -- to justify international cooperation and by both political figures and terrorists to justify violence. Since the 1990s, religion has become so pervasive in international politics that it is almost impossible to imagine that it has not always attracted the attention that it now commands. In fact, however, the salient role of religion in contemporary international political affairs is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In retrospect, press coverage of the dramatic terrorist events associated with the Middle East in the 1970s -- Black September (1970), the Munich Olympics massacre (1972), the Entebbe hijacking (1976) -- is surprising for just how rarely the terms “Muslim,” “Islam,” or “religion” were included in the reporting on those events at the time. To the extent that religion was associated with violence or international affairs in the 1970s, it appeared in the context of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and not the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

That changed in 1979, beginning with the Islamic revolution and storming of the U.S. Embassy in Iran. Subsequent events, such as the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by hundreds of Saudi Arabian Sunni militants, reinforced the shift and fixed in American minds the dangers of a “radical Islam” that threatened American interests. Thereafter, Middle Eastern terrorists were increasingly described as “Muslims” rather than “Arabs” or “political extremists.” The term “Shiite,” which appeared in fewer than 300 New York Times articles from 1851 through 1978, has appeared in almost 10,500 since January 1979.

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