Monica Toft: Researching How Religion Gets Into Politics and Why the Mix Turns Violent

July 20, 2010

Monica Duffy Toft is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Belfer Center Board of Directors. Toft is director of the Belfer Center's Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, which was established with a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. 

In December, Monica Toft found herself in Khartoum, Sudan, meeting with a local imam. They sat for hours in the mosque talking about religion and its role in Sudan's politics, and at the end of their conversation, he invited her to take part in evening prayers. Unlike many academics, who tend to shun Sudan's North because it has been labeled a rogue regime, Toft tries to speak to both sides. During her eight days in Sudan, she conducted dozens of interviews, including with local business leaders, people in Sudan's Islamic movement, and members of its Justice Department.

The research is part of Toft's ongoing efforts to understand how religion gets into politics and why this mix so often turns violent, and it marks a significant turn in her already remarkable career. Toft's work has long challenged academic convention: When she first started graduate school, the international relations field was dominated by those who studied great power wars and conflicts between states.

But Toft decided to look at violence inside of states instead. Her path breaking idea: Smaller scale, regional, and minor powers can destabilize the entire international system. The idea gained even more currency after the Balkans crises of the 1990s and especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, as policymakers began to come to grips with the fact that a failing state – Afghanistan – had hosted the perpetrators of the biggest attack on the American homeland since Pearl Harbor.

"Since the 1990s, the field has broken wide open," Toft said. "We have no choice but to engage the fact that peace is not breaking out everywhere."

Toft's work also broke new ground in understanding civil wars. For years, those who looked at civil wars focused primarily on the difficulties of negotiating peace settlements. But Toft realized that negotiated settlements represented only 25 percent of the endings of civil wars (most end when one side wins). She also discovered something striking: Negotiated settlements, despite their good intentions, are far more likely to restart than civil wars which end in military victory. Her newest book, "Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars," provides a comprehensive theory explaining why this is so.

At Harvard, Toft's research has explored the global resurgence of religion, its role in politics, and the instances in which it results in violence. When she first arrived at Harvard, prominent political scientist Samuel Huntington invited her to participate in his religion project as a postdoctoral fellow. Now an associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Toft runs the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at the Belfer Center. She just finished her third manuscript – God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics – on the global resurgence of religion, which she and co-authors Dan Philpott and Tim Shah link to broader transnational trends dating back some four decades. 

Read full article in the Belfer Center Newsletter.

Monica Toft

"We have no choice but to engage the fact that peace is not breaking out everywhere." 

—Monica Toft

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