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.

However, unlike political challenges that might be remedied by governmental reforms and socio-economic difficulties that, at least theoretically, respond to the appropriate stimuli, religion is, as Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it succinctly a few years ago, "an intractable force that can be quite unresponsive to all the normal instrumentalities of state power, let alone the instrumentalities of foreign policy." Nonetheless, at a time when religious figures play leading roles in some of the most conflicted regions of the world-e.g., Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, to cite the key to resolving the most pressing challenge for U.S. foreign policy-and when religiously motivated conflicts are ongoing in various parts of the globe-e.g., the communitarian violence that accompanied efforts to impose Islamic sharia law in several states of Nigeria, the role of radical clerics in fomenting discord among Muslim immigrant communities in Europe, the ongoing civil war between the Islamist government of Sudan and Christian and traditional religious tribes-American policymakers would be well advised not to perpetuate the error of discounting the religious dimension as a marginal factor or as merely a guise for some other factor in their calculations. While our Constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion at home, it does not mandate the ignoring of religion abroad. Perhaps the State Department ought to recruit and assign "religious attachés" to embassies in countries where religious figures and movements have a particular significance, the same way that defense attachés are assigned to keep tabs on foreign militaries and labor attachés are sent to liaison with labor unions in other countries. Intelligence organizations might also add religion to the categories that they analyze for useful indicators: in some places, the contents of an influential sheikh's fiery Friday sermon might actually be of more pressing significance for policy trends than the lackluster head of state's rambling parliamentary discourses. And, as Derk Kinnane eloquently points out in the spring 2004 issue of The National Interest, if religion is the vital essence of identity in the Islamists' war on regimes in the Middle East and on the West in general, then the U.S. must be prepared to commit to a long-term strategy of engaging it on those religious terms by helping anti-Islamists in the Muslim community who seek to reconcile their religious faith with modernity rather than return to the obscurity of the seventh century. Of course, the solution to the present impasse will necessarily be complex and adapted to particular circumstances, but some sort of change in outlook is clearly called for.

In his Apology, the early third century Latin patristic writer Tertullian once noted that "two kinds of blindness are frequently united, that which sees not what is, and that which thinks it sees what is not." It might be said that failing to take seriously the religious rhetoric in Iraq has been but the latest example of this malaise, a wishful-if not necessarily willful-blindness that, in today's globalized society, imperils all of us.        

Dr. J. Peter Pham, a former diplomat, is the author, most recently, of Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press). This book was reviewed in In the National Interest, at http://inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol3Issue5/Vol3Issue5BibliophilePFV.html.