Lech Walesa, the electric leader of Solidarity that confronted Polish communism with a moral discourse of human rights grounded in human dignity and equality, recently declared that under President Obama the United States of America no longer leads with moral clarity. “There was the hope, whenever something was going wrong, one could count on the United States,” he said, but “today we have lost that hope.” Obama’s faltering moral leadership is not from a deficit of words—as his speech in Cairo last year testifies—but a fading focus from policies advancing standards of liberal governance abroad, and particularly in the Middle East. This next year is an opportunity to reevaluate the political theory of American foreign policy, and the president should begin to repair the confident moral discourse that began in democratization’s “Third Wave,” but that has been recently hushed in the Middle East. The streets of Tehran seemed prepared for a Persian Tiananmen Square in 2009, but the voice of America stuttered. Additionally, President Obama must emphasize the inverse relation between state capacity and liberal governance in the Arab world and Islamic terrorism (exhibit A, Yemen), and link muscular, liberal international order with American interest. A renewed debate on this point is needed because the decisions made by President Bush in “structuring the problem” of the Middle East and defining success need correction. For several years commentators offered alternatives to Bush’s putative “democratic idealism.” The common denominator was a plea for U.S. foreign policy to be grounded in reality rather than ideality, in the world as it is, not as we wish it was. A new realism was desired because U.S. policy for the Middle East—promoting Muslim democracy—was considered unrealistic. The critique was correct. Democracy is too abstract an objective to pursue as a consistent matter of policy. So, we should take reality into account and propose more concrete intermediary objectives.
Here is an empirical fact we must all face: the world is far more religious than secular, and to a vast global majority, religion is a realistic way of living in the world [Statistical extrapolations suggest that only 15% of the world’s population is “non-religious” while Christians, Muslims, and Hindus compose 66% of the world’s population. See Johnson and Barrett, 2001.] The United States is itself an overwhelmingly religious nation, as sociologist Peter Berger confirmed with the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey published by the Pew Forum in 2008. Consequently, any new realism must take religion seriously. The U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy, however, does not take religion as seriously as it might; Civil and Foreign Service professionals still exist who regard religion as epiphenomenal, emotive, a source only of conflict, and in the least, irrational. The disconnection between the views of U.S. foreign policymakers and their Arab Muslim counterparts on religious life is an enormous problem.
The success of U.S. democracy promotion in the Middle East hangs on the credibility of American policymakers to empathetically engage Islamic culture. Empathy, in this case, means taking the worldview of the religious Arab public seriously. Consequently, one foreign policy reform should be to integrate religious expertise into the analytical framework of our foreign policy establishment by elevating the Office of International Religious Liberty in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the State Department. Lasting political settlement in religious environments requires American diplomacy to prescind the materialist preoccupations of modern political science (at least, politics according to Harold Lasswell: “deciding who gets what, when, and how”), and base decisions on higher-order values. In short, religious liberty should be the moral center of our diplomacy in the Middle East. The strategic objective of our Middle East policy should accordingly shift away from democracy promotion and toward the promotion of religious liberty. By insisting on religious liberty rather than a wholesale transformation toward democratic government the U.S. can lower the stakes for regimes it seeks to change. Democracy is supposed to secure liberties such as freedom of religion—they are the substantive ends which democracy is a means to protect.
The Logic of Religious Liberty as an Objective
There is a logic, a challenge, and a promise to making religious liberty a moral center for American diplomacy in the Middle East. The logic is that religious freedom is a compound liberty, that is, there are other liberties bound within it. Allowing the freedom of religion entails allowing the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the liberty of conscience. If a regime accepts religious freedom, a multiplier effect naturally develops and pressures the regime toward further reforms. As such, religious liberty limits government (it is a “liberty” after all) by protecting society from the state. Social pluralism can develop because religious minorities are protected. And the prospect of pluralism in the Middle East is especially enticing as it potentially combats the spread of Islamic radicalization.
Currently, most Arab countries suffer from what Os Guinness (2007) calls “the sacred public square,” or the domination of the common-political by the sectarian-religious. The ideology of Islamism, like communism before it, is philosophically monist because it asserts a single totalizing doctrine for all society (granted, Islamism is a religious monism while communism was a secular monism). Monisms of all stripes totalize life and tend toward social uniformity, but a shield against their totalitarianism is a complex society. Since the pluralism which naturally grows under religious liberty enables a “civil public square” to develop—a public square open to the ideological contributions of diverse comprehensive doctrines—a society enjoying religious freedom will eventually become politically complex. As Islamism stems sociologically from authoritarian repression (in Egypt) and institutionally from state establishment (in Saudi Arabia and Iran), promoting religious liberty could undermine such negative statuses-quo by offering non-sectarian protections for the repressed and for dissenting voices in state establishments. Religious liberty would help society grow so complex that no totalizing ideology, no philosophical monism, could feasibly dominate the public square, because no single ideology would accurately reflect social reality.
The Challenge of Religious Liberty as an Objective
America’s foreign policy establishment will be challenged if religious liberty is made the moral center of our diplomacy. American diplomats and foreign policy experts tend to see religion as a driver of conflict, not as a constructive social force. According to Thomas Farr (2008, 114), “Most analysts lack the vocabulary and the imagination to fashion remedies that draw on religion, a shortcoming common to all major schools of foreign policy.” Modern realists, Farr argues, view religion as simply another instrument of power; liberal internationalists are suspicious of religion in public life, considering it too divisive; and neoconservatives have a utilitarian assessment of religion as a source of nationalism. In a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one government official reported that “many good civil servants, fearing political incorrectness, are uncomfortable openly assessing foreign cultures on the basis of religious or cultural beliefs.” The study notes that in one project undertaken by the National Intelligence Council, an attempt to analyze trends in religion was disapproved “out of concern that such analysis might be considered insensitive and unintentionally generate ill will toward the United States” (Danan and Hunt 2007, 41).
It may not be an exaggeration to describe foreign policy elites as functionally Marxian regarding religion: religion is a “false consciousness” behind which lie the real motivations for behavior, either economic need or the libido dominandi. For example, as Reuel Marc Gerecht (2008) writes, “In the nine years (1985-1994) that I spent in the Central Intelligence Agency working on Middle Eastern issues, especially on the “Iranian target,” I cannot recall a single serious conversation about Islam as a faith.” In the writings of establishment figures like Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, for another example, the words “Islam” and “Muslim” seldom appear, and Brzezinski “prefers to see contemporary ‘Islamism’ as a movement ‘led by secular intellectuals,’ which combines ‘militant populism with a religious gloss’” (Gerecht 2008).
Clearly, the U.S. foreign policy establishment needs to become more serious about and more versed in religious concepts. For the sake of empathy, which would considerably improve the communication of America’s agenda, American diplomacy must assume that religious motivations are sincere and that simple religious conviction adequately explains behavior. Otherwise the U.S. will commit absurdities like playing Britney Spears over Radio Sawa in the thinly veiled belief that Arabs are Muslim only because they are not modern. Are they really willing to blow up strip malls because they have not had the joy to shop at their blowout discount prices? Our secular message sounds to their spiritual ears like: we’ll approve of you once you become as bad as we. Meanwhile, polls in the Muslim world find that when asked how America can best change Muslim attitudes toward itself, the most frequent answer is “to show respect to people of faith” (Danan and Hunt 2007, 17).
The Promise of Religious Liberty as an Objective
The problem with America’s image is that we are not seen as metaphysically serious. All the caricatures of an arrogant, decadent culture are self-fulfilled by our secular foreign policy establishment trying to communicate with a religious culture. However, if our agenda becomes the promotion of religious liberty—in other words, of expanded theological and philosophical debate, inquiry, and religious life—we can hope to be seen as metaphysically serious. That is the promise of making religious liberty the moral center of our diplomacy. If our policy becomes the protection of religious minorities, the promotion of theological study and philosophical inquiry, then those “moderate Muslims” (who are so ill-defined that they probably include the vast middle majority of Muslims who are serious, devoted, and pious people) can for once respectably make common cause with America because America will be treating their worldview with respect. The U.S. may then find friends in unexpected places because there will be stakeholders—Muslim clerics, theologians, and ethnic minorities—in a policy promoting freedom of religion. As such, American influence over authoritarian Arab regimes will grow because top-down pressure for reform will be augmented by bottom-up desire for concrete liberty.
Promoting religious liberty is at once less complex than democracy promotion and more to the point of America’s agenda. Middle Eastern regimes can make concessions to religious freedom without committing to elections that will disturb their ruling elites. As a moral center for American diplomacy, the call to religious liberty is a mutually inclusive value because it draws on the best of European, American, and Islamic history. Structuring the overall problem of the Middle East as a lack of a particular liberty rather than systemically flawed governments lowers the stakes for possible reform and improvement. Presenting religious liberty as the solution gives potential friends of America a more compelling moral reason to join her cause, and consequently opens a way to rehabilitate her badly entrenched reputation.
Nathan Hitchen is a 2007 John Jay Institute Fellow and is currently completing an M.A. at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, with concentrations in Middle East Studies and International Economics.
The CJS Forum seeks to promote an open exchange of ideas about the relationship between faith, culture, law and public policy. While all the articles are original and written especially for the CJS Forum, they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for a Just Society.
Chollet, D. and Tod Lindberg. 2008. A Moral Core for U.S. Foreign Policy. Policy Review No. 146, (December 2007/January 2008).
Danan, L. and Alice Hunt. 2007. Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press. http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/070820_religion.pdf (last accessed 7/3/08). Farr, T. 2008. Diplomacy in an Age of Faith: Religious Freedom and National Security. Foreign Affairs Volume 87 No. 2, (March/April).
Gerecht, R. M. 2008. Mirror-Imaging the Mullahs: Our Islamic Interlocutors. World Affairs (Winter 2008). http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/winter-2008/abstract- mirror-imaging.html (last accessed 7/3/08).
Guinness, Os. 2007. Islam and the Challenge of a Civil Public Square: Living with our Deepest Differences when the Differences are Absolute. Lecture presented at the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society, and Law. Colorado Springs, CO. 1 March 2007.
Johnson, T. and David Barrett. 2001. World Christian Trends AD 30—AD 2200: Interpreting the Annual Christian Mega-census. Pasadena: William Carey Library Publishers.
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