From Awakening to War

From Awakening to War

Mini Teaser: Without quick mediation, the politicization of religion could lead to conflict.

by Author(s): Robert F. Ellsworth

A Looming Disaster?

We were told that American boots firmly planted in the soil of the Islamic resurgence would bring about seismic change in the Middle East, creating a new set of pro-American democracies throughout the Arab and Islamic world.

The United States tried to export the Bush Administration's version of freedom and democracy to Iraq. So far, what has happened is that we have given Iraq's Shi'a the freedom to vote for pro-Iranian religious parties that seek to create an Islamic republic modeled on Iran. Even today, without having to make a constitutional decision, the Shi'a south can apply Islamic law, as it is now doing. A similar process is underway in Afghanistan: Lauded as an emerging democracy, its judicial system was prepared to condemn a convert to Christianity to death. Indeed, the principal beneficiaries of the democratic opening elsewhere in the Middle East have been the Islamist parties, not the secular democrats. We are in uncharted territory. We are witnessing how national political disputes are increasingly being transformed into religious conflicts. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been largely transformed from a problem of working out the details of a two-state solution into a clash between Islam and the West, a tendency accelerated by Hamas's victory at the polls.

Meanwhile, Sunni insurgents are doing their best not only to force the United States to withdraw, but to provoke a sectarian civil war in Iraq. This raises pressure in Washington, particularly in the U.S. Army, to draw down our military deployment. The argument is put forward that our military presence has added to motivations for the violence, that our footprint in Iraq is much too big. But religiously motivated violence would likely spiral out of control if the United States were to withdraw precipitously, since Iraqi security forces are far from ready to operate on their own.

This would also raise the question whether our withdrawal will be perceived as a forced retreat rather than part of a prudent and carefully planned strategy designed to enhance international security. A withdrawal from Iraq that could allow the Sunni insurgency to claim a victory akin to that of Afghanistan's mujaheddin against the USSR would be catastrophic for U.S. interests. It would mark a turning point for America's role in the world.

If the United States leaves behind in Iraq either a failed state or some version of an Islamic republic, then the main geopolitical beneficiary of the U.S. war on Iraq could well be an Iran that now seems determined to acquire nuclear weapons. The very prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran casts a long shadow over the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Certainly, Israel's national security would be imperiled. And while the Iraqi Shi'a do not necessarily see themselves as geopolitical allies of Iran, they do accept both spiritual and material aid from Tehran. The ground could be laid for an arc of Shi'a domination stretching from Tehran to Baghdad and into Saudi Arabia's eastern provinces (the center of its oil industry) and the Gulf emirates.

Neither President Bush nor his evangelical Christian and neoconservative cheering sections intended any of this to happen. But this is the situation we have to deal with today in 2006. And we are in no position to be able to walk away from the Middle East or the Islamic world that is arguably now much more unsettled and unstable as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Suffice it to say that, for the foreseeable future, oil will remain the lifeblood of the global economy. Iraqi oil production under Saddam was greater than it is today--and the global risk premium is costing the world a pretty penny. Surging demand not only in the United States but in India and China means that, despite all the rhetoric about energy security, we shall become more and more dependent on the volatile Middle East and our task will be managing our energy insecurity. Fears that the region is once again standing on the brink of war is driving oil prices to record heights--and imperiling the global economy and political stability everywhere.

Stepping Back from the Abyss

In the midst of the Fifth Crusade, St. Francis of Assisi attempted to start a dialogue between Christians and Muslims when he visited Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. While Francis's mission of peace failed, the groundwork was laid for one of the more remarkable incidents of the Crusades--the peace treaty Al-Kamil reached with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick, an arrangement that balanced the competing claims of Christians and Muslims to the Holy Land (but, significantly, was denounced by religious extremists on both sides). Moderates on both sides have to back away from maximalist claims about the superiority or eventual triumph of either the civilizational model derived from Western Christianity or the restored caliphate promised by the Islamists.

It is therefore encouraging that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, took a step toward accommodation between civilizations--as defined by their religions--when he hosted the inaugural meeting and formal launch of the Christian-Muslim Forum in London on January 24 of this year. The forum will meet three times a year. Funding for the project has come from a mix of sources, including grants from Christian and Muslim bodies, other trusts, and a start-up grant from the British government. From the outset, Dr. Williams has warned against assuming two particular stances when engaging in inter-religious dialogue: One is making exclusive claims to truth, while the other is a "slip into a world-view that assumes every religion is as good as another", which can cause a loss of confidence in one's faith. In other words, we can respect differences without having to abandon our own core beliefs in the process.

Why do these dialogues matter? "How many divisions", in Stalin's words, does the Archbishop of Canterbury have to deploy in Iraq? Why engage moderates in the Islamic world? Because, as President Bush himself noted in his remarks to the UN in September 2005, the struggle against extremism and terrorism "will not be won by force of arms alone. We must defeat the terrorists on the battlefield, and we must also defeat them in the battle of ideas."

Many in the Middle East are very aware--especially after the release of the UN's Arab Development Report--of the deficiencies and shortcomings of their societies. Throughout the region, from Turkey to Jordan, from Morocco to Qatar, there are ongoing experiments to try to develop democratic solutions that are authentically Islamic. What they are not prepared to accept is the recommendation that the solution to their ills is for the United States to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity"--and to prevent that from happening, most Muslims of the Middle East would throw their lot in with Al-Qaeda, even if, as polls indicate, very few would want the creation of a Taliban-style Islamic government.

The crusading spirit was alien to American leaders like John Adams, George Kennan and Ronald Reagan. None of them questioned that the United States of America and its experiment in republican democracy was a shining city on a hill, a light unto the world, an inspiration to other nations. They never believed that Americans should not be prepared to offer assistance and guidance. But they never advocated Americans going forth to impose ourselves and our institutions on others in the world.

We have given in to the temptation to use our overwhelming military technology and tactical arts without equivalent policy direction. American power can serve moral purposes, but the unique American national interest seems a surer guide than a religious claim to the exclusive possession of the truth.

Both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said that a "generational commitment" by Americans is necessary to advance freedom in the Middle East. Ironically, the president's invocation of religion to gain domestic American support for his geopolitical efforts--but without sufficient follow-up on the political dimension of the intensely religious Middle East as a whole--has split the United States politically in ways that make a generational commitment quite unlikely. Today, our only viable option seems to be to rally Arab and non-Arab Muslim support--and American political support--for a major military and political effort in the region--but with the more circumscribed goals of securing the new regime in Baghdad and blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The ancient Greeks said the Owl of Minerva rises only at dusk. This describes the almost universal practice of waking up too late to the events of the day, or as the New Testament would put it, the signs of the times. Billy Graham, preaching in New York City this past June, said: "Almost everyone today understands that we're approaching a climactic moment in history. There's going to come an end to the world. Not the earth, but the world system in which we live." I would add my voice to that of Billy Graham and find hope in the wisdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

1. The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

2. This contemporary religious enthusiasm for the Iraq War contrasts dramatically with the restrained pronouncements of evangelists such as Billy Graham on the geopolitics of three or four decades ago. I do not recall Dr. Graham ever mentioning the Vietnam War or the Soviet nuclear threat when I heard him preach in a football stadium in Tennessee during the 1968 presidential campaign, nor during Sunday services at the Nixon White House in early 1969.

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