Lawrence Rubin on Islam and Ideational Balancing
Date: December 11th, 2016

Can the ideas proposed by one nation-state threaten another nation-state?  If so, how do the threatened nations respond?  We probe these questions with respect to Islam and the two Islamic political revolutions in Iran (1979) and Sudan (1989) with Prof. Lawrence Rubin, an associate professor of political science in Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.  Prof. Rubin reminisces about how he came to study the role of ideas in foreign policy, and then reviews the two dominant schools of thought in international relations theory — realism and constructivism.  The former perspective focuses on material resources and tangible threats made by various nations in the world order, whereas the latter brings the issue of ideas, ideologies, and (increasingly) theologies into the mix.  We explore the idea of “soft power,” and how religious ideas can become potentially threatening to the domestic security of a regime, and what governments can do in response.  To illustrate how this has played out in the Middle East over the past four decades, we use the cases of political revolutions in Iran and Sudan and how Saudi Arabia and Egypt responded.  Larry explains that despite a noticeable decline the military prowess of Iran following its revolution (and subsequent war with Iraq), the Islamic Republic of Iran presents a new ideational threat to the hegemony of Saudi Arabia, not only on sectarian grounds (Shia versus Sunni), but also on Iran’s ability to inspire religious-based social movements that could undermine the ruling government.  This was also of concern to Egypt, which had a more secular-based government but which had been seeking alliances with domestic religious actors throughout the 1970s and ’80s.  Prof. Rubin provides a few examples of how Egypt and Saudi Arabia sought to “ideationally counter-balance” this international threat.  We also bring up the similar challenge posed by the Sudanese Revolution of 1979, another example of a state that didn’t necessarily pose a significant military threat, but still had the potential of upsetting domestic politics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia with the spread of a radical theological message.  We finish off our podcast with some of Larry’s thoughts on the threat of ISIS to the region and what he has learned over time by taking the role of ideas seriously in the field of international relations.  Recorded: December 7, 2016.


Prof. Lawrence Rubin’s bio at the Sam Nunn School of International AffairsGeorgia Tech.

Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics, by Lawrence Rubin.

Terrorist Rehabilitation and Counter-Radicalisation: New Approaches to Counter-Terrorism, edited by Lawrence Rubin and Jolene Anne Jerrard.

Why the Islamic State Won’t Become a Normal State,” by Lawrence Rubin (over at WaPo Monkey Cage).


Ann Wainscott on Morocco’s Religious Foreign Policy.

Ann Wainscott on the Politics of Islam in Morocco.

Nile Green on Islam in Bombay and Beyond.

Clark Lombardi on Sharia Law.

David Patel on Religion and Social Order in Iraq.

Paul Kubicek on Islam, Political Islam, and Democracy.

Kevan Harris on Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Green Movement.

Ani Sarkissian on Politics and Religious Civil Society in Turkey.


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