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"Toft: Why Religion Wields More Political Influence Today"

"Toft: Why Religion Wields More Political Influence Today"

Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Spring 2011

Author: Susan M. Lynch, Program Assistant, International Security Program; Web Manager, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program


Associate Professor of Public Policy Monica Duffy Toft, faculty director of the Belfer Cen­ter’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs, discusses her most recent publication, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics.

How did you become interested in writing God’s Century?

I am interested in what motivates people polit­ically, especially what motivates religious actors politically. Essentially, I am interested in dis­cerning whether religious actors behave differ­ently than secular actors. This research stems from work on large­scale political violence. Religion is an element in half of all active civil wars today and in most terrorism.

God’s Century deals with religiously­motivated actors who use violence (terror­ism, civil war)—and those who pursue agendas of human rights, peace settlements, and democratization. What accounts for such a difference?

The difference between those who use violence and those who do not is based on both the nature of the actors’ political theology and the degree and type of independence between reli­gion and state.

Religious actors have a bad reputation—and some deserve it—but religious actors, including political parties, have also played a major role in most of the movements that successfully strove toward more open political systems over the past forty years. Religious actors enjoy a far greater level of independence from political authority in both their self­governance and pursuits than they have at any time in the past. This is one rea­son why they wield more influence today than they have for centuries.

What are your recommendations for U.S. foreign policy?

The United States will most likely succeed in its foreign policy by encouraging regimes that treat religion neither as a prisoner nor courtier, but as a respected citizen, and by supporting reli­gious communities that struggle for such a regime. The U.S. should recognize that there is a strategic value in pursuing religious freedom.

Do you have concerns about the new role the Muslim Brotherhood might play in Egyptian government?

Although the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has its roots in Islam, there is no need to reflexively fear it. Not only was it politically active against a repressive regime in Egypt, but over time, it has moderated both its stance and role in Egyptian society. In order to govern, it needed to broaden its support. If the trends over the past forty years provide any guidance, the MB may very well continue to adopt a more demo­cratic orientation and represent the Egyptian polity more broadly.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Lynch, Susan M. "Toft: Why Religion Wields More Political Influence Today." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Spring 2011.

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