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Religion: The Missing Link

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.

Since the implementation of the first Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in Senegal in 1980, analyses of African countries has been overwhelmingly couched in terms of economic development. Heavily influenced by the vast body of literature produced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, scholars and policymakers came to understand the continent's problems through the economic vision of the SAPs. Hence, the conventional prescription has been that African states need to enact political reforms which, in turn, will create the public institutions capable of implementing the rational policies that favor stability and economic growth. Ironically, this paradigm is not all that different than ideas prevalent during the colonial period when administrators were motivated by a sense of their mission civilisatrice to build up modern, bureaucratic organs of state whose proper function was to force the implementation of policies for the ultimate benefit of the "backward" colonial subjects. While there is much truth in this analysis-there is no denying that the institutions of state have decayed in the decades since independence and, in some cases like Somalia and Liberia, have collapsed entirely in recent years-the picture present is hardly complete. Ellis and ten Haar step into this breach with their portrait of an Africa that, far from falling off the world map, is a dynamic religious center with a vibrant Christianity and an increasing Islamic activism, as well as a renewal of African traditional religions, arguing that:

In effect, many forms of religious revival challenge the very bases of legitimacy of states that operate through institutions and norms of governance originally created in colonial times. The rather sudden and radical political changes in Africa in the 1990s encouraged the eruption of spiritual movements into political space as people sought alternative sources of authority and at the same time were freed from institutional constraints previously imposed by single-party governments. Seen in this light, the reoccupation of public space by religious movements expresses in a spirit idiom a concern with poor governance.

It would not be much of a stretch to substitute, in the preceding paragraph, for the phrase "Africa in the 1990s" with "Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein" or "Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal" or any number of cases where, in post-conflict situations, people are reordering the systems by which power is acquired and distributed in their societies. Ellis and ten Haar argue where the state is either unable or unwilling to uphold its monopoly on the legitimate means of violence or the rule of law and where religious beliefs are strong, religion offers access to an alternative form of power-a state of affairs brought home to the CPA in Iraq when it was caught off-guard by the extent of popular support enjoyed by Muqtada al-Sadr whose organization delivered basic services to poor Shiites in the eponymous Sadr City section of Baghdad.

However, as Ellis and ten Haar point out, it would be erroneous to simplistically describe the phenomena to the utilitarian aspects of religious entities. Appealing to the perception-widespread certainly in most of the world outside of postmodern Europe and North America-that  "all power has its ultimate origin in the spirit world," the two scholars emphasize that religious thought and practice need to be studied seriously if politics are to be understood. One could fill volumes with examples from contemporary history in support of this simple proposition from the tensions between the dominant Catholic minority and the Buddhist majority in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War to the complex rivalries of the Maronite Catholic-Greek Orthodox-Sunni Muslim-Shia Muslim-Druse communities in the ongoing Lebanese conundrum to the radicalization of formerly pacific Muslim community in Chechnya by itinerant salafi preachers who fueled the ongoing conflict with Russia to the present poorly understood subtleties dividing Iraq's quietist Shiite ayatollahs from their counterparts in Iran who hold to the ideal of theocratic rule by the Islamic jurist (velayat-e faqih).

Nor is the religious dimension a matter of conceptual nuance bereft of practical import to statecraft and best left to theological scholars. For example, as I documented in my book on state failure in Liberia, as a diplomat in the West African country, I discovered that a key element of former President Charles Ghankay Taylor's popular influence with the masses could be found by taking as seriously as he did the two titles that appeared before his name on all government documents: "Dakhpannah" and "(Reverend) Doctor." Taylor asserted that he was the country's "supreme zo (witch doctor)," while the latter was his role-seemingly contradictory with the preceding one-as a Baptist preacher who conducted mass revivals with the likes of Bishop John Gimenez of the Rock Church International and the Reverend Pat Robertson. Of course, Taylor's chief opponent, Sekou Damante Conneh, commander of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) who helped forced Taylor out last year, had a religious card of his own to play that ultimately trumped those in the hand of the Liberian despot: his wife, Aisha Keita Conneh, is a renown seer who serves as Guinean President Lansana Conté's personal spiritual advisor and counselor. In the end, while Taylor's forces were hobbled by a United Nations arms embargo, his opponents have been consistently supplied by General Conté in a maneuver that, rationally speaking, was counterintuitive to his subregional geopolitical interests. I suspect that the Middle East is even more crisscrossed by such transnational religious networks operating below the radar screens of conventional diplomatic analysis, which generally confines itself to a sort of materialistic determinism that slights non-material motivations.