Engaging Religion or Domesticating Religion? An Interview with Atalia Omer

At conferences dealing with religion and international affairs it’s common to hear references to “religious engagement,” “religious literacy,” and “building the capacity” of faith-based organizations as self-evidently positive things for governments to pursue. Atalia Omer isn’t so sure. Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, Omer argues that much of government engagement with religion rests on faulty understandings and leads to a sort of domestication of religion, negating is prophetic potential.

In the June 2020 issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs Omer publish an article entitled “Prophets versus Religiocrats.” In this interview we ask Omer to expand on several themes she raised in that article, starting with her contention that policymakers too often operate with a diminished understanding of “the ambivalence of the sacred.”

This interviewed was conducted via email by Judd Birdsall, editor of Religion & Diplomacy.


Religion & Diplomacy: Many practitioners in the field of religion and diplomacy are familiar with Scott Appleby’s famous phrase “the ambivalence of sacred” and take it to simply mean that religion can be a positive or negative force in the world. You argue this is a “diminished” understanding of the phrase. Why is that?

Atalia Omer is professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and at the Keough School of Global Affairs at Notre Dame. [Photo credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame]

Atalia Omer: Appleby’s thesis has been field shaping. It challenged secularist approaches to religion and global politics by highlighting that religion is not only a dependent but also an independent variable. Thus religion is also a cause rather than only an effect that can be theorized away as somehow “not real” with the really real causes always interpreted in economic, political, and other more material terms.

The “ambivalence” thesis has also been field shaping for not only arguing that religion and religious actors can be interpreted as causal in the world but also for their potential to act violently and non-violently. Appleby uses the notion of “militancy” to refer to such actors that act transformatively in the world, locating them along a spectrum from nonviolent to violent militancy.

This elegant thesis has been field shaping also because in many respects it could be operationalized and turned into a myriad of policies for the so-called global engagement with religion. Operationalizing this thesis has manifested in policies of “containment” of “bad” religion through a security apparatus and policies of “harnessing” of “good” religion through investment in development and peacebuilding programming and cultivating a network of religious actors and institutions conducive to such harnessing.

This securitizing bad religion and harnessing good religion clearly corresponds with one surface level read of Appleby’s thesis, namely that religious actors can act in violent and nonviolent militant ways with an implication that policies need to then be attentive to how to minimize violence and enhance nonviolent capacities of religious actors and institutions (including the traditional role of religious actors as service providers and their accompanying of the poor and marginalized).

I argue that this operationalizing diminishes the depth of the thesis because it extracts it from Appleby’s reading of religious traditions as historically embodied and embedded—and thus not ahistorically fixated as a list of prescriptions but rather changing and internally plural and contested. More critically, this operationalizing of the “ambivalence” thesis departs from Appleby’s reading of the prophetic as a potentially disruptive (and hence militant) force. Instead, the operationalizing of religion along the binary and simplified read of Appleby’s work encourages more “priestly” or status quo affirming actors and institutions. This also has to do with the neoliberal logic that turns the “good” or at least “useful” religious impulses, institutions, networks, actors into NGOs. This is deeply ironic because it is precisely the prophetic dimensions of religious actors that Appleby highlights as transformational peacebuilding forces and yet the operationalizing of his thesis results in turning prophetic impulses, occasionally, into a bureaucracy concerned with its own organizational sustainability.

R&D: I have often heard policymakers, especially development professionals, talk about the importance of engaging with the “faith sector.” You argue that “sectoralization” of religion amounts to the domestication of religion. What do you mean?

My critical account of what I call the sectoralization of religion highlights the persistent securalist assumptions underpinning the fixation of the religious variable into a distinct sector. In now conventional narratives about the global engagement with religion, various policy actors and development professionals as you said, recognize their supposed earlier blindspots and thus engage the “religious sector” through the good/bad binary I suggested earlier as the upshot of operationalizing the “ambivalence” thesis. Put simply, to promote policy and development agendas, people working in this area need to securitize “bad” religion and other spoilers and harness useful religion. This may be labeled a “post-secular” turn in policy and development practice but it may be just as utilitarian and secularist as the earlier rendering of the “religious factor” as merely epiphenomenal or not “really real” and relevant to policy. Relegating the “religious” to a distinct sector, in my view, de-politicizes religion (and thus deflates prophetic possibilities) and extracts religious traditions from their complex embeddedness in historical, political, social, and yes apparently secular ideological formations.

So engaging the “religious sector” in order to more effectively deliver aid, for example, without also engaging how religion relates to global political and structural violence highlights how the turn to an “engagement with the religious sector” which means “harnessing” the “good” and “containing” the “bad” domesticates this “sector.” It also activates this “sector” for its utility even if such apparent utility also comes at the price of sanctioning those same “good” actors’ own endorsement of other forms of violence especially along the spectrum of gender and sexual rights.

I develop this tension between knowing and doing much further in my manuscript We Cannot Eat Peace: Tweeter Prophets and the Harmony Business (in progress). To me “religious literacy” on the part of the professional fields of policy and development does not adequately develop “literacy” in marginalized interpretations of religiosity and spirituality. As a result, the engagement with the “religious sector,” more often than not, entrenches rather than disrupts the status quo and with it patriarchal norms and traditional (priestly) authorities.

R&D: You express concern that government engagement with religion forces a sort of bureaucratization and NGO-ization of religious actors. However, governments may simply view that process as building the capacity of religious groups to develop the structures and the vocabulary to more effectively partner with governments on areas of shared interest. What’s your concern with NGO-ization? 

Omer: In addition to the points I have already mentioned in my previous responses regarding the utilitarian logic and its privileging of capacities to advance certain “secular” agenda by all means necessary, the post-secular bureaucratization and NGOization of (certain) religious actors is problematic once again for its emphasis on doing rather than knowing, resulting in the diminishment of what concretely it means to be a “religious actor” and with it what and who may possess religious authority.

Indeed, my research suggests that the turn to the global engagement with religion and the so-called religious actor created a class of “religiocrats” whose religious authority depends not necessarily on fluency with traditions as ongoing methodologies of learning, historically embedded conversations over centuries. Instead, more often than not, “authoritative” religious actors are those who know how to navigate the NGO world. This seemed to me the case even when I met religious leaders such as learned sheikhs in Malindi, Kenya who partake in a multisectoral effort to reduce the epidemic of child marriage. The depth of their learning took a backseat to their NGO speech. Further, religious authorities or representatives of the “religion sectors” more and more are those who head various global and national organizations tasked with the mandate of “engagement.” It points to the changing dynamics of the meaning of religious authority. It also points to the flattening of religious learnings into easily disseminated brands and manuals.

Azza Karam who is one of the key pioneers in the field, and someone who is deeply religious, likewise challenged the growing class of “religion experts” for their utilitarian logic coupled with “religious illiteracy” which she understands in terms of a disconnect between expertise and the concrete and embedded religiosity of actual people who are faithful. Accordingly, she underscored the importance of policy and development actors to partner with those religious actors who are also committed to human rights across the spectrum. For her, it is not a secular litmus test but rather relates to a sense that religious traditions, in their authenticity, simply cannot be harmful to all people, including LGBTQI. I agree with her rejection of the cherry-picking approach for “cultivating” partners within the so-called religious sector thereby subordinating women rights, for example, in order to achieve other desirable goals.

Unlike Karam, however, I think that the argument that religion, at its kernel is about peace and justice and thus entirely consistent with human rights discourse and/or the framing of the Sustainable Development Goals, flirts with what I call a “discourse of authenticity” that once again forecloses the horizons of the religious imagination, the possibility of change and innovation, and hermeneutics (or interpretation) from the margins of religious communities. I am thinking of feminist religious interpretations, for example. The human rights discourse itself constitutes a tradition of interpretations, contestations over time. The issue is that the “business” aspect of the global engagement with religion thrives on fixating religious traditions in space and time as unchanged truths and prescriptions.

Indeed, I find highly problematic any account of religion that deploys a language of authenticity as in ‘real religion is about x or y’ types of statements.  Such a discourse of authenticity is consistent with my above critical analysis of the ways in which the “ambivalence” thesis has been operationalized. With this in mind, I think it is important to challenge the premise of the question that assumes “partnership” and “cultivating capacities” of “religious actors” as something desirable. All those terms surrounded by scare quotes need to be challenged. The partnership frame indeed constitutes a form of subcontracting to “local actors” who can more effectively securitize bad religion (itself an expression, in part, of historical injustices and legitimate grievances) and harness the good in ways that will further enable the entrenchment of neoliberal devolutionary policies. By this I mean that “cultivating capacities” of “local religious actors” help people’s resiliency to ever deepening inequalities and exploitative policies.

Here, I find the conversation between Paul Farmer, the renowned public health scholar-practitioner, and Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the pivotal shapers of liberation theology, profoundly instructive in their challenge to a partnership and developmentalist model in favor of a global social justice lens that also brings to the forefront questions regarding complicity of various governments in the very predicaments of war, violence, and “underdevelopment.”

R&D: Given the many possible conceptual and practical pitfalls in government engagement with religion, some officials may feel inclined to avoid this field altogether. What advice would you give them?

I think that gaining a complex understanding of religion is absolutely critical for policy actors. However, “engagement with religion” in my view needs to proceed through an intersectional analytic lens. By “intersectional” I first gesture to the need to centralize a global justice approach that links the conditions of marginalization and acute poverty in one place to the wealth and domination in another place. Rather than some sort of a natural condition to be fixed, this intersectional prism illuminates such conditions of marginality as the upshot of long histories of exploitation, colonialism, and neocolonialism.

Too often governments deeply implicated in human rights’ violations and abuses invest in the “global engagement with religion” in ways that both deploy religion as “soft power” but also cover up their own crimes. Because of the “discourse of authenticity” that operates with a fixed, unchanged, and ahistorical approach to what is “real” religion and/or how to contain/harness religion’s ambivalent manifestations, many religiocrats who populate research and policy spaces enable such cover ups for they too benefit from such investments even if they often come with good and constructive intentions to make things happen on the ground.

This feedback loop points to the importance of scrutinizing how a discourse about religion has consolidated with a reference to the important relation between power and the production of knowledge as examined in a specifically relevant manner by Edward Said. Said’s work on orientalism is particularly relevant to the analysis of the “global engagement with religion” because the latter “industry” is persistently blind to its orientalist underpinnings by which I mean the marking of Islam as the “other” of Europe, with Europe denoting an ideological and intellectual project rather than a geography. As Talal Asad has argued, this project constructed the entwined concepts of the “secular” and the “religious,” relying on a narrative of the secular and thus “real” supposed emancipation from the “religious” shackles. This is of course not an empirical statement but modernity’s mythology. A proliferation of “evidence-based research” to confirm the assumptions undergirding the “global engagement with religion” business unfortunately but unsurprisingly exemplifies the relation between power and the production of knowledge.

An intersectional approach, therefore, secondly would mean that what is “religious” is not necessarily always obvious and contained within the so-called distinct “religious sector.” Indeed, policy analysts and practitioners who, to offer just one example, do not see how religion is also racialized and gendered realities for postcolonial Muslim subjects in Europe and how such racialization also links to the formation of the global “war on terror” miss fundamental aspects of the story.

Another problem relates back to the operationalization of the “ambivalence” thesis. While above I argue that turning Appleby’s thesis into policies diminished the prophetic potential of religion, this operationalization nonetheless still locates the engine of change or the “theory of change” in the lingua franca of the policy/development/NGO universe as residing in individuals. Those may no longer be the robust prophets anymore but rather “social influencers” whose skills are gained, for example, in various workshops and “tech camps” where they learn how to promote good messages about religion to counter bad messages. The point, however, is that the global engagement with religion nevertheless continues to focus on individual change makers as the “seeds of peace” who, in the aggregate, maybe will change the social and political structures. This approach, to me, is absolutely non-intersectional and designed, regardless of its rhetoric about scaling up, to entrench the structures.

Therefore, my recommendation would be to start thinking in intersectional ways about religion and sociopolitical and economic transformation by destabilizing the “seed of peace” metaphor and the infrastructures of religiocrats and others who perpetuate it in such a way that detracts us from attending to structural change. Instead, “engagement” operates with culturalist rather than systemic and historical explanatory frames and blame people’s cultural and religious trappings for their conditions of poverty, insecurity, and need.