Religion and Soft Power redux

I got the following question from a student in Turkey, about a post I made some time ago about religion and “soft power”, and specifically why Joseph Nye seemed to ignore it. My reply is below.

“Hello. I am a student from Turkey. I have seen your piece entitled “The End is Nye: Religion and Soft Power”. I totally agree with your ideas in the piece. Yet, I would like to ask you how religion can be regarded as a soft power? Yes, religion as a social phenomenon is certainly increasing its effect but how can it be associated with Nye’s conception of soft power? What are its sources as a soft power and how can religious soft power be wielded? It would be great to read your ideas on the topic, which I have also been pondering on. Looking forward to your reply.”

My (slightly expanded) reply: thanks for your comment and question. I don’t have a complete answer but I can give a few examples:

– during the 17th-19th century colonial expansion of the European powers, Christianity was used as a very explicit ‘soft’ adjunct to ‘hard’ power in effectively controlling the territories occupied. And of course this has very long lasting effects, still with us today.

– the Ottoman empire and others have used Islam in a very similar way

In both the above cases, religion was  sometimes imposed and sometimes imported by persuasion – the latter approach usually having longer lasting effects.

Think, for example, if Christianity had not been spread across most of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America – how different would geo-politics look today? How different would the Middle-east and Maghreb be if Islam had not spread, but remained confined to what is now Saudi?

And by way counter example, think of those cases where colonial powers have not imported their religious beliefs – e.g. the early Viking invasions of southern Europe – in that case there was even a “reverse” import of Christianity into the Viking culture. But imagine if the northern British and Normans had all still been Odin-worshippers! Britain would now be a country dominated by the Norse gods culture, and we’d have exported that to Africa and elsewhere!

Why is this all important? Because of course religions embody specific sets of cultural values, beliefs and practices that affect countries profoundly. See, for example, R H Tawney’s classic “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism” (1926) and Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5)” which explored to what degree Protestant Christian values had facilitated the rise of capitalism in northern Europe whilst the more conservative Catholic Christianity of southern Europe initially inhibited it.

The modern radical jihadist movements obviously also rely on a combination of soft power – spreading their (per)version of Islam – and hard power in the form of terrorist acts. For example the radicalised young British muslims who have carried out terrorist acts here were clearly influenced by ‘soft power’ means.

These are complex issues, but they are surely a very important part of understanding “soft” power?



One thought on “Religion and Soft Power redux

  1. In “The Subject and Power”, Foucault defines power as soft, only. Power is not violence, but presupposes freedom in the sense that the subject could do otherwise that incited to do. Power is action up actions that incite, seduce, make easy or difficult, threaten, etc. As to religion, Foucault has made several analyses of how religion and techniques of power are mixed up: The confession and the discipline are both developed out of monastrial practices of power and have in contemporary societies become intergrated into a highly complex power devices. But, yes, there are also all the techniques of propagation of holy messages which the churches have used to excersice power over the mind of people. Again techniques that have been secularised and developed furhter.

    I think Foucault opened for much understanding of power by defining power as soft. Inversely, thinking of power in terms of hard power only confines one to a very narrow understanding of power and important processes.

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