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Business and the resurgence of religion

IMD Professor Reacts: Jean-Pierre Lehmann on religion and business

IMD interviews geopolitics expert Jean-Pierre Lehmann about religion’s growing prominence and its relationship to business.

IMD: Is religion resurging and if so how and where?

Jean-Pierre Lehmann: In the 20th century religion was more of a spiritual and personal pursuit, but today it is more part of the global landscape than it has ever been, at least in my lifetime. Previously ideologies like capitalism, communism or fascism played a stronger role on the world stage than religion, for example.

The degree of religious revival throughout the world today is very surprising. It is a phenomenon that touches pretty much the entire globe, with the exception of Western Europe. Let’s take Latin America for example. It accounts for about 40% of Catholics worldwide. While Catholicism is somewhat on the decline in that part of the world, dedication to charismatic evangelism is on the rise. North America also has a strong religious tradition which spills out into the public domain. Devotion to religion has been surging in the former Soviet countries since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In India, there is a strong Hinduist revival. Then there is the spread of Islamism in the Middle East and beyond. Some turbulence is taking place with Islam but it is not only taking place with Islam.

These religious revivals are very often not just spiritual but also socio-political.

IMD: How does a religious revival affect business leaders and companies?

Jean-Pierre Lehmann: Religion can bring a lot to people when it stays in the private domain. Sometimes I think many CEOs and leaders should think more about the meaning of life. Most religions have components that lay out an ethical code and businesses definitely need codes of ethics today.

On the other hand, the fact that religion has become geopoliticized means that it could have a considerable impact on business and business leaders. If an organization is active in the global sphere, they must have what is happening in the religious domain on their radar screen. For example, there is more foreign direct investment going into India than any other place in the world right now. But, could it be jeopardized by sectarian and religiously-inspired violence? Maybe.

Right now Islamic related terrorism is wreaking havoc on the planet. And this is certainly bad for business, unless you’re selling arms. It is putting transparency, security and the business environment in jeopardy.

However when you talk about fundamentalism and fanaticism, most people think of Islam but it by no means has a monopoly. In India, a secular state, a Muslim man was killed recently because he ate beef, which is allowed by his religion.

Myanmar’s market is now opening up and is being hailed as a new mini El Dorado due to its untapped massive amount of consumers. But there Buddhists are persecuting the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group.

IMD: Parts of the Middle East are currently being torn apart by religious related conflict. Where do you see it going?

Jean-Pierre Lehmann: I think the region has deep divisions which are very difficult to understand. Europe had a similar episode in history, the 30 years’ war starting in 1618, when there was mass violence over schisms in Christianity. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself but as things stand it may very well take generations for the violence in the Middle East to be resolved.

It’s a highly unstable environment with deep hatred and contempt between Shia and Sunnis as well as between countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It goes beyond religious differences; it’s geopolitical, nationalistic and emotional.

IMD: Is the territory where the Islamic State is active a no man’s land for business?

Jean-Pierre Lehmann: The Islamic State is different from Al Qaeda for example because Al Qaeda was a non-state actor. The Islamic State has for all practical purposes achieved the status of being a state, albeit a rogue state. When the dust eventually settles, which won’t be any time soon, I and many other experts believe there will be a new country called the Islamic State formed of parts of Syria and Iraq.

This was possible in part due to the rottenness of the previous political systems in the area. Another one of the causes, in contrast to Europe, is that the Middle East has the youngest population in the world. 60% of the population in the region is below the age of 25. Youth unemployment ranges from around 30 to 50%. So there are many desperate young people who are joining radical movements in a sense because they have no other purpose. This is in turn affecting the rest of the world creating huge amounts of refugees and putting pressure on countries in Europe on beyond to come up with intelligent refugee policies, which they have been unable to do yet.

IMD: Is there a way out?

Jean-Pierre Lehmann: There is a vicious circle in the region right now. The extremely high levels of youth unemployment are dangerous. Investment would be a big step toward solving this problem but since parts of the region are so unstable, they are unattractive to investors.

So business could help save the conflict-torn parts of the Middle East but some of the region is so explosive right now that it is unlikely that companies will make the kind of investment that would solve its problems.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Founder of The Evian Group@IMD and Visiting Professor at the University of Hong Kong and NIIT University in India. He teaches at program. The next edition is in Singapore from 16-20 November 2015.

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