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Faith, Doubt, and U.S. Foreign Policy

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

To the degree that Obama believes in promoting democracy, his efforts will flounder if they continue to lack moral realism: a deep sense of religion’s corruptibility.

One of the premises of America’s foreign policy establishment, entrenched in the State Department for at least a generation, is that faith is the enemy of rational diplomacy. Under this assumption, religious belief must be tightly controlled or rendered irrelevant: It can play no constructive part in foreign policy objectives. The attacks of 9/11, of course, seemed to validate this view. Religious orthodoxy, of any variety, came to be seen as the source of xenophopia, extremism, and violence. So did the faith-based presidency of George W. Bush. In the overheated imaginations of his critics, Bush was a Christian “fanatic” whose crusading foreign policy threatened global peace and security.

A year and a half into his own presidency, Barack Obama has done little to challenge this secular narrative of American diplomacy. His gestures toward religion—the recent decision to fill a diplomatic post promoting religious freedom, for example—exhibit only the Obama penchant for style over substance. The rise of Islamist radicalism should have launched a transformation in strategic thinking about the role of faith in driving political and cultural change. It did not. The problem, as recent studies suggest, is that American foreign policy is impoverished by an “uncompromising Western secularism” which makes the danger of religious extremism more likely.

‘Despite a world abuzz with religious fervor, the U.S. government has been slow to respond effectively to situations where religion plays a global role.’

That’s the explicit conclusion of a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, released earlier this year. The council’s 32-member task force, composed of government officials and scholars representing diverse faith traditions, agreed that religious ideals and institutions can no longer be marginalized from U.S. diplomatic efforts. Their report observes that religious belief is “pivotal to the fate” of nations such as Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen—all of which are vital to America’s national security interests. Nevertheless, assumptions persist that political reforms must be based on purely secular appeals. “Despite a world abuzz with religious fervor,” the authors complain, “the U.S. government has been slow to respond effectively to situations where religion plays a global role.”

Team Obama boasts incessantly of a more sophisticated diplomatic strategy than its predecessor. The president’s speech in Cairo last June, in which he appealed to Muslims around the world for mutual respect, got rave reviews from left-leaning academics and journalists. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen reported, somewhat rhapsodically, that the president’s address instantly and dramatically softened the anti-American mood among Muslims worldwide. “What Obama has already done for the United States in the Muslim world is unbelievable,” a professor in Tehran told Cohen. “It is not easy for anyone here to attack him.” The supposed truce lasted less than 24 hours.

What the White House regards as a “nuanced” approach to religion looks more like a bow to political correctness. The president has called for a “partnership between America and Islam,” as if the U.S. government signs treaties with religious entities. He has insisted that “Islam is not part of the problem” of violent extremism, as if suicide bombers recited the Boy Scout oath before blowing themselves up. These dangerous and airy abstractions are no substitute for hard thinking about the spiritual roots of terrorist violence. Likewise, the appointment of a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group that flagrantly supports terrorist activity, is a naive gambit. Ali Alyami, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, warns that this brand of outreach “strengthens and legitimizes” religious extremism.

Religious belief is ‘pivotal to the fate’ of nations such as Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen—all of which are vital to America’s national security interests, the report observes.

Meanwhile, the White House has picked a New York mega-pastor, Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook, as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The position, created by Congress in 1998, is an effort to put near the center of U.S. diplomacy a basic tenet of liberal democracy: religious liberty lays the foundation for stable, moderate, and reform-minded governments. An effective ambassador should bring to the job meaningful diplomatic experience and a reputation for defending religious freedom. Reverend Cook, a motivational speaker who likes to be called “Dr. Sujay,” has neither. This all but guarantees she will be marginalized by State Department bureaucrats not inclined to rock the boat over trifles such as apostasy laws, religious persecution, or the negation of basic human rights for religious minorities.

Foreign policy “realists”—many of whom despised Bush’s democracy agenda and are now advising President Obama—seem unwilling to face at least one prickly reality: despotism, especially in Muslim-majority countries, has nourished Islamist extremism. Without exception, every regime that foments religious radicalism also denies religious freedom to individuals and groups it considers a threat to its monopoly on power.

This fact is confirmed by the results of an important study from the Pew Research Center, released in December 2009. The report,” Global Restrictions on Religion,” draws on findings from numerous human-rights groups and government agencies to offer the first quantitative study of how political regimes and private actors repress religious freedom. Covering 198 countries over a two-year period, the study found that 64 states severely restrict religious expression, either as a result of government policies or cultural hostilities. “Looking at how these restrictions play out across the world,” says senior researcher Brian Grim, “the region of the world with the highest level of restrictions is the Middle East and North Africa.”

The White House has left vacant a diplomatic post that could actually help address the problem, that of the ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

Pew researchers declined to mention the embarrassing truth that many of the worst offenders are Muslim-majority states, all of which subsidize terrorist organizations. Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which brutally enforce Islamic law, are cited as the two most restrictive governments in the Pew study. It bears remembering that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, and that, despite official denials, it remains the chief exporter of the violent Wahhabi ideology. Not to be outdone, the Iranian government is justly called “the central banker of terrorism,” overtly supporting groups such as Hizballah and Hamas, as well as stoking terrorist violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The regimes in Tehran and Riyadh are poster children for the linkage between political tyranny, Islamist extremism, and terrorist rage.

A final study supporting this connection, “Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.,” examined how individuals become radicalized from within Western nations. Released last year by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it offers an empirical look at 117 homegrown “jihadist” terrorists. Lead researcher Daveed Gartenstein-Ross describes several common manifestations of radicalization, all of which are closely tied to religious conviction. They include the adoption of legalistic forms of Islam, a low tolerance for theological deviance, and a heavy reliance on select religious authorities. The study finds that one in five homegrown terrorists had a “spiritual mentor”—a Muslim teacher who provided guidance—and nearly 40 percent explicitly claimed a religious rationale for their actions. The report concludes that theological ideas are “a relatively strong factor” in the radicalization process.

For all its protests to the contrary, team Obama is duplicating a major blunder by the Bush administration: denying, in practice, the religious-ideological component to terrorism.

None of this should be news to anyone with a shred of rational thought about religious belief and its relationship to Islamist extremism. Yet the Obama administration’s response to recent terrorist incidents—the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, the Christmas Day airline bomb plot, the failed car-bomb attempt in New York’s Times Square—was anything but enlightened. In each case, the White House initially treated the perpetrators as lone, disturbed vigilantes with no connection to Islamist ideology, al Qaeda, or its vast terrorist network. In each case, the secular political reflex proved dead wrong.

Thus, for all its protests to the contrary, team Obama is duplicating a major blunder the occurred during much of the Bush administration: denying, in practice, the religious-ideological component to terrorism. It was not until Bush’s second term—four years after the 9/11 attacks—that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice initiated a “strategic dialogue” with high-level Saudi officials. None of the working groups involved in the talks confronted the problem of religious extremism. In the months following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the White House failed to build relationships with leading moderate clerics in Iraq; extremists filled the vacuum. Entities such as the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the National Endowment for Democracy—all supposedly involved in a war of ideas—too often failed to show up for the fight. It was as though religious belief played no meaningful role in Bush’s “war on terror.”

Hence the paradox: One of America’s most religious presidents failed to take religion seriously while confronting a national security threat manifestly rooted in faith commitment. Obama and company have drawn exactly the wrong lesson from the Bush administration. Far from being too religious, the Bush White House was not religious enough.

There are countless Muslim reformers, living under despotic regimes, who cannot imagine a just society without a spiritual foundation. Many non-Muslim minorities in these nations are prepared to work with them.

The Obama administration, steeped in Enlightenment myths about democracy and international politics, is deepening the problem. The White House has released a new National Security Strategy, for example, that deletes any references to Islam or Islamist extremism to describe the terrorist threat. Attorney General Eric Holder, with Orwellian audacity, pretended in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee that Islam had virtually nothing to do with the recent terrorist plots in the United States: “There are a variety of reasons why people do these things.” President Obama recently signed into law the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, honoring the Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted and beheaded in 2002 in Pakistan. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the September 11 attacks, confessed to Pearl’s murder and is awaiting trial in New York. Yet, in explaining the importance of the bill, Obama did not whisper a word about the role of al Qaeda or Islamist radicalism in Pearl’s death.

The Obama administration, like the liberal base of its party, clings to a secular vision of global affairs with the discipline of a Benedictine monk. Tom Farr, a former State Department official and visiting professor at Georgetown University, argues that the United States is thus failing to advance practical alternatives to militant Islam. “If we have learned anything in Iraq,” he writes, “it should have been that religion drives culture, for good or ill, that we did not fully comprehend that reality, and that we still have not absorbed its implications for the democracy project.”

To the degree that Obama believes in promoting democracy, his efforts will flounder if they continue to lack moral realism: a deep sense of the corruptibility of religion. “The fine flower of unholiness,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy.”

Nevertheless, just as religion can be a source of radicalism, it also can inspire political reform. If the goal is to win hearts and minds, then the religious ideals which move many hearts and minds around the world must be taken into account. There are countless Muslim reformers, living under despotic regimes, who cannot imagine a just society without a spiritual foundation. There are many non-Muslim minorities in these nations—Christians, Jews, Bahá'ís, and others—who are prepared to work with them, if only they enjoyed the same political rights as their Muslim neighbors. Neither the militant secularist nor the political realist has anything to say to them.

It is time for American diplomacy to shake off its doubts. The danger for U.S. diplomats now is not the start of a holy war, but a secular retreat that allows the fanatics to win.

Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at the King’s College in New York City who writes widely about religion and international affairs. He is a contributing editor to THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Loconte also gave “Two Cheers for American Exceptionalism,” discussed “Obama Contra Niebuhr,” and highlighted “Economic Prosperity: A Step of Faith.” He also explained "Entrepreneurship and American 'Soft Power,'" while Michael Barone says“Obama Needs to Brush Up on Middle East History.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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