Religion: The Missing Link

The U.S. must be prepared to commit to a long-term strategy of engaging the Middle East on religious terms by helping anti-Islamists in the Muslim community who seek to reconcile their religious faith with modernity.

While the American-led invasion of Iraq was a brilliant exercise in high-tech warfare at the operational level that set new standards for any large-scale operation in terms of effectiveness and economy, the management of post-war Iraq has been less felicitous; as Martin Sieff noted in these pages last week, "U.S. Iraqi policy has degenerated into a series of confusing flip-flops." The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been beset by missteps as it ambles its way to the upcoming transfer of power to a nominally sovereign Iraqi government. While critics of the U.S. policy have overly dissected what they perceive to be the military miscalculations, economic causalities and political implications of the operation, both they and the administration's defenders-who have been quick to explain shifting policies in terms of "flexibility" before changing events-have apparently agreed to gloss over the evidence that has accumulated in plain sight that religion has played and continues to play a large role in the conflict. Perhaps it was because both sides got it wrong before Operation Iraqi Freedom that they both decided to drop the matter. Critics of the military intervention had solemnly declared that it was inconceivable that Islamist jihadis would ever make common cause with Saddam Hussein's secular Ba‘athists; quagmire in Fallujah has put the stake through the heart of that delusion. Meanwhile, optimists aligned with the Bush administration were equally insistent in downplaying the support that militant Iranian-style theocracy enjoyed among Iraq's Shiite Muslims; the firebrand junior cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, although apparently still only backed by a minority, has rudely disabused observers of that bit of wishful thinking.

Despite this-and a chain of evidence stretching from Bangkok to Bagdad to Bangui-much of contemporary analysis of foreign affairs persists in disregarding the role of religion and religious institutions in the lives of individuals and societies, and the significance of religious motivations in explaining politics and conflicts. An observer might even be excused for wondering if policymakers were collectively trying to make the Enlightenment prejudice that progress and religion were mutually exclusive true by sheer force of willing it to be so. It is an error that is repeatedly committed not only by journalists working on a deadline and politicians in search of a simple sound-byte, but also by diplomats and scholars who should know better. And while the trend has been going on for sometime, there is perhaps no clearer example of this intellectual bias than Iraq, where almost every possible distinction between the various competing factions-ethnic (e.g., Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turcoman), economic (e.g., "well-off," "marginalized"), political (e.g., Ba‘athi socialists, constitutional monarchists), and even topological (e.g., "marsh Arabs," "highland Kurds")-is tossed about and pandered to, the religious factor is largely ignored in actual policy calculations. In fact, for example, when it has been necessary to distinguish between adherents of the Sunni and Shiite traditions of Islam, the religious differences have been reduced to the most superficial levels as mere correlates of more secular categories as in "well-off Sunni tribes" and "poor urban Shiites." This is not to say, of course, that the difficulties in post-Saddam Iraq are a purely religious phenomenon. However, realism requires the acknowledgement of a religious dimension to the tensions, regardless of an analyst's personal attitude towards and practice of religion - organized or otherwise.   

Stepping back from the controversies surrounding the management (or mismanagement) of the situation in Iraq by the CPA, some useful examples might be found in Africa, the continent that has provided the international community with a experimental testing station for virtually every fashionable theory about development that has come along since World War II. Recently, Stephen Ellis, director of the Africa Program of the International Crisis Group, teamed up with Gerrie ter Haar, a professor of religion at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague, to produce Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa. While the well-crafted volume concentrates on sub-Saharan Africa, the understanding that it advances of the relation between religion and politics is certainly applicable, not only to North Africa, but other parts of the world as well-not least of which is the Middle East where one ignores the impact of religious thought on political action at one's own peril.