Religion and International Security

  • Published

Religion and International Security by Lee Marsden. Polity Press, 2019, 270 pp.

Lee Marsden, professor of faith and global politics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, offers those interested in the impact of religion on the international security scene keen insight from a multitude of perspectives. The work is an analytical look at whether religion is inherently violent or peaceful, asking whether religion is “the cause of violence in the world as so many claim [or] . . . an antidote to constrain violence.” Marsden tackles the complex relationship between religion and security while considering the multifaceted nature of religion as a source of violence, conflict, and insecurity on the one hand and a channel of peace, goodwill, and security on the other.

Marsden succeeds in producing a roadmap to assist others in navigating the sometimes complex world of religion as it relates to international security issues. His clear thesis is that we must look beyond religion as a good or bad dichotomy. We must see the discussion as requiring “greater nuance than religion as good/bad or violent/pacific binaries” (2). In short, he states, “Religion is neither inherently violent nor inherently peaceful but what we make of it” (214). To back up this thesis, Marsden first tackles theories of religion and security to lay a foundation and then moves to analyzing sacred violence, just war and jihad, religion as peacemaker, faith-based initiatives for increased security, and common ground in religion to avoid death and violence. The book is arrayed in two parts: the first half considers religion and violence while the second half evaluates the peacemaking value of religion.

One of the greatest strengths of the book is Marsden’s conclusion at the end of each chapter that succinctly captures the most significant information for the reader. These recaps serve to pull the reader from the details to thinking about key concepts and real-world implications. Another strength supporting Marsden’s thesis is that he has compiled many experts, theories, and perspectives on the topic, providing the reader a variety of thought on the subject in one volume. Religion and International Security gives readers valuable resources and references for further exploration on the topic. Due to this fact, I find it an ideal starting point for reading on the subject of modern religion and security.

One glaring limiting factor, though, is that Marsden—residing in the UK—is himself a part of the Western world and therefore writes from the perspective of a Westerner concerning all things religious. It is worth noting that while Western, he does present a largely unbiased view of religion and security on behalf of Eastern/Middle Eastern faiths such as Islam and Hinduism. The two faiths most compared and contrasted in the book regarding security considerations are Christianity and Islam. He reviews their contributions to violence, including Christianity’s just war theory and Islam’s jihad, as well as their peacemaking initiatives.

Possibly one of the greatest offerings of the book is Marsden’s address of the religious actor’s place in the international relations community. From the onset, he claims that “there is an increased recognition and acknowledgement, for good or ill, of the role religion plays in international affairs, as not only scholars and commentators but also governments turn their attention to encouraging religious literacy, diplomacy, faith-based diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and conflict resolution. The public square, once denied religious actors, has become more inclusive as a post-secular space” (3). The clear implication is that as religion becomes more prevalent in culture, there should be a greater place given at the international relations table for religious actors. This harkens to another profound aspect found in the concept of “post-secularism” that Marsden brings out. He notes that several social philosophers are now stating that we live in a post-secular world where the secular experiment has been tried by humanity and found wanting. The prominence of religion as a lived experience for large sections of humanity worldwide is growing, according to Marsden, and requires attention by policy makers and diplomats in the pursuit of security solutions in the international arena.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the presence or lack of religious liberty or religious freedom worldwide is considered. Marsden explores those countries that pose a human security rights threat due to their suppression of religious practices and describes the use of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the Marrakesh Declaration, and Charter for Compassion as a means for combating said threats.

This book is an excellent read for those interested in the influence of religion on international security issues. Furthermore, it is helpful to the student who desires to learn more about the potential role religion and religious leaders can have in policy, politics, and peacemaking in this post-secular world in which we live. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in investigating the potential positive effect religion can have in the spheres of diplomacy, specifically the power of faith-based initiatives for good. This concise analysis on a complex topic can be a great resource for relevant issues surrounding religion and international security.

Ch, Capt Brian A. Harris, USAF




"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."