New Global Affairs and Religion Network Merges Conversation between International Affairs and Religion

The partnership between the Elliott School and Department of Religion has grown into a University Seminar with student and faculty working groups.

November 16, 2021

Global Affairs and Religion Network

Elliott School of International Affairs Associate Professor Rollie Lal, left, and Department of Religion Associate Professor and Chair Irene Oh have spearheaded the Global Affairs and Religion Network at GW.

By Nick Erickson

Many geopolitical developments and outcomes—whether it’s the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the concerns of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan or the rise of QAnon and white nationalism in the United States—can be traced to some sort of religious significance. That’s true no matter who or what people worship—if they even affiliate with a religion at all.

As she taught more and more semesters, especially transnational security courses, George Washington University Associate Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs Rollie Lal knew she would have to go further than classroom readings to fully illustrate the link between religion and international affairs. Just prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Dr. Lal reached out to Irene Oh, associate professor and chair of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Department of Religion and former director of the Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution Program, about forming a partnership to increase the dialogue among students and faculty.

“Every topic that I was covering had some connection with religion, and it is something that we cannot just ignore anymore,” Dr. Lal said.

Dr. Oh was on board, and the Global Affairs and Religion Network (GARNET) was born. In just a year’s time, it has gone from an email exchange between two people to a University Seminar with separate student and faculty groups, as well as public events.

The official launch was on Sept. 17, as professor Paul Duff presented on Christianity within the Roman Empire in front of 50 in-person attendees and another 15 online. After hosting a Halloween event on Oct. 29 with associate professor Xiaofei Kang, Dr. Lal and Dr. Oh presenting on spirits and afterlife, GARNET is hosting “Women at Elliott and GW: Speaking up with Confidence” from 12:30-2 p.m. Nov. 18 in Room 212 at the Elliott School.

The faculty working group meets monthly to discuss a pertinent topic, while the student working group is for select graduate students meeting monthly to debate and present topics on religion and security.

Even though younger people are increasingly leaving affiliated religion, Dr. Oh argues that young people are spiritually present and are becoming increasingly aware of diverse cultures and religious traditions, as student participants of GARNET are proving.

International affairs graduate student Jared Shackelford, who plans to one day work in security at a government agency such as the Department of Defense or State Department, is a prime example. During one of the student group sessions, he presented on French secularism and how that separation from church and state, progressive in theory, can lead to cultural differences and missteps such as a 1989 instance when three Muslim girls in France were dismissed from school for wearing hijabs.

Having that understanding will only help prepare him for his future career, and he’s grateful to GARNET for providing that glimpse.

“If I don't understand where people are coming from, and why they act the way they do, then I'm not going to be a very good analyst of whatever topic that I'm trying to understand,” he said. “So, regardless of the fact of my personal beliefs, it is still a hugely important topic that affects millions of people around the world.”

Fellow international affairs graduate student Dikshita Venkatesh agreed and noted that the conversations in the student group are deep and engaging as they have covered a variety of religious topics from different practices all over the world. 

“There are a lot of decisions being based on religion whether we like it or not that are major forces in the world today,” said Ms. Venkatesh, an international student from India. "As students of international affairs, it's very important for us to study these religions better.”

Dr. Lal and Dr. Oh have both been impressed by the students discussing what can be controversial topics openly and respectfully.

While things have moved fast over the past year, Dr. Lal and Dr. Oh envision GARNET expanding with more public access and research opportunities for faculty and students. They have been pleased with what they call overwhelming interest from both undergraduate and graduate students. They are placing more and more content on the website so people can access the information—such as graduate student research papers—to use as resources.

With its reputation for developing future leaders in international affairs, policy and diplomacy, Dr. Lal and Dr. Oh believe GW is a place a program like GARNET can continue to flourish.

“The GW student population in general comes to school in Washington because they’re so engaged with current events and international affairs,” Dr. Oh said. “I think everyone knows that they need to be religiously literate in order to be active citizens.”