In the aftermath of the tragic bombing in Boston, the headlines are once again filled with discussions of Islamic terrorism and extremism.  Scholars, practitioners and journalists are grappling with how to understand religion in the aftermath of a tragedy.  While this round of speculation and conjecture will eventually die down, what will not go away is the need for practitioners and scholars to understand more profoundly the comprehensive role of religion plays in the international landscape.  Not as a post-tragedy talking point, but as a salient factor in foreign policy analysis and practice.

Look at a number of the recent headlines and you will see that religion is a key factor in many of these cases.  The Syrian conflict, not initially a religiously-motivated struggle, is breaking along religious lines because of the Assad family’s preferential treatment of Alawites over Sunnis.  In addition, major players – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaeda – are supporting and arming those that advance their religious and power interests.  Fears of post-Assad religiously-based retaliation are already growing.  Burma, the international community’s hope for new democracy, could see its nascent democracy efforts jeopardized if it does not address the fact that its Muslim minority has been denied basic human rights and citizenship and has suffered significant violence with impunity.  Mali, once a darling of the international community for being a lower-income African country with a growing democracy, spiraled down quickly when religious actors took advantage of territorial discontent and internal power struggles.  Religion is not, by any means, the only issue at play in any of these situations but it is so central – and in Syria’s case, growing - that it cannot be underestimated or superficially analyzed.

For decades scholars and practitioners have assumed that religion would eventually fade away as modernization and development took hold.  The forces of globalization – increased access to information, mass movements of diverse groups of people, and vastly improved communication – were supposed to undermine religious communities and decrease their influence.  None of this has proven to be true.

Let's look at some statistics about religious believers and faith-based groups:

The majority of the world is religious, and this influences the domestic and foreign policies of many countries around the world.  Religious-based groups are significantly impacting the world for better and for worse.  It motivates countless numbers of people to serve selflessly and promote peace around the world; while also motivating others to violence.   How that is manifested is directly related to their ability to practice their faith freely.

And yet, although the world population is overwhelming religious in some sense, nearly 70 percent of the world's population live in countries in which there are high or very high restrictions on religion by state or non-state groups.  As we see in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Russia, and many other countries, the lack of religious freedom – the ability to practice freely one’s religion, to have no religion, and to change one’s religion - is one factor contributing significantly to religious-based violence.

The flipside of this bad news is provided by noted scholar Brian Grim, who has studied the impact of faith on the social and political development of countries.  A comprehensive study of over 100 countries has shown that religious freedom in a country “mathematically correlates with the presence of other fundamental, responsible freedoms (including civil and political liberty, press freedom, and economic freedom) and with the longevity of democracy.”  Individual believers and faith-based groups have been a significant stabilizing and productive part of many societies.

Scholars and practitioners can no longer afford to deal with religion as a tangential or boutique issue, or do a quick study only when religious issues become impossible to ignore.  Religion's influence on the international stage is far more complex and diverse that just religious terrorism.  Understanding the role of religion and the positive impact that religious freedom can play will be as essential to crafting strategies that will promote long-term stability and security throughout the world.