I am learning the disputes within International Relations theory for the first time in my class Islam in Global Affairs. I find myself agreeing strongly with my professor Muqtedar Khan’s positions, which makes me suspicious of my own conclusions since following the first line of thinking one encounters is a classic tendency when in a new field. With this proviso, what follows are my first ideas on IR theory as presented by Professor Khan in the opening chapter of his book Jihad for Jerusalem.
Pursuing the academic study of religion in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the United States, I encountered a primarily postmodern approach. The observation of Michel Foucault, that all thinkers were shaped by their relation to forms of power and powerlessness, was popular. I studied from what I believe our current readings describe as a sociological perspective. Authors I recall, and I may be wrong about how I am categorizing them, include William James, Thorsten Veblen, Clifford Geertz, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Mary Douglass. When contemporary politics did arise as a topic, we often made the point that political leaders did not take an understanding of peoples’ faith commitments sufficiently seriously. Teachers and students also often agreed that if there ever were a time when societies were clearly bounded, that time had long past. “They” not only live among “us” and “we” among “them,” they are now us and we are now them. I do not recall encountering rational choice theory of international relations except by implication of its weakness and failure. Later, while reading behavioral economics for fun, I did come across “homo economicus,” the rational actor who always make choices to maximize his own gains. Behavioral economists also presented this concept as the previous paradigm that we needed to overturn.
As someone who moves quickly because of my academic interests to the religious dimension when considering international politics, I agree with my intellectual upbringing – I am highly skeptical of the rationalist narrative that claims people only act from positions of narrow, especially strictly economic, self-interest. At the same time, I have always been and continue to be suspicious of assertions that our choices are totally subjective. This links in my mind to complete cultural relativism, which implies a pessimism about improving our lot as humans. If no approach to life is better than another, then we cannot find ways to improve and become more fulfilled. I want to believe that different societies in different ways have hit upon political, cultural, economic, philosophical and spiritual approaches to living, among others, that lead to greater happiness overall and can be copied successfully by other societies.
I am finding many of the terms used in our Voll reading and in Jihad for Jerusalem extremely helpful. The idea of agency in this context I find appealing – especially seeing the agent as interacting with his society in mutually influencing turns. As Khan writes, “Agents are to some extent rational and their rationality is circumscribed by their identity and structural constraints.” (Khan, Ch 1, Constructivism: A Middle Path, para. 14) Thus I find myself persuaded by Khan’s claim that “Constructivist approaches (as understood in the IR discipline) recognize the essential role of identity and normative/cultural values in the constitution of society, the individual subject, and in the decision processes that shape interactions.” (Preface, para. 3)
Toward the end of chapter 1, I was surprised to find the two terms frequently used in religion pop up: “moral” and “symbolic”. Khan contrasts the idea of morally motivated action to the concept of structurally motivated action. Khan argues that there are several responses an individual can make to structural forces: she can go along with the hegemony, thus following the rational actor model, she can challenge the hegemony because of her identities (moral action), or she can challenge the power in order to gain power – which he calls being counter-hegemonic. He uses the term symbol in a similar way. When political actors are not behaving strategically (in line with their material self-interest) they are behaving symbolically. Khan opens Jihad for Jerusalem by giving us language by which religious interests, among others, can be considered in the realm of international relations.