Solutions to Violent Conflict

Obama in Cairo: Policy Implications

In Religion and Conflict on May 18, 2010 at 1:28 pm

woman outside mosque

Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The mosque is the largest in the U.A.E. and the eighth largest in the world. Photo by Dave Cobb (Flickr)

R. Scott Appleby
This post includes video content. (6:01)

In a major foreign policy speech in Cairo last June, President Barack Obama addressed not another state or group of nations but a religion:  Islam, which many Americans continue to view (erroneously) as an enemy to the American state.

The president announced that he came to seek a new beginning “between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” He promised that the U.S. “will expand partnerships with Muslim communities, engaging citizens and governments; community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.” 1

Remarkable! The United States — a “nation with the soul of a church,” as G. K. Chesterton called it — for the first time in its history, was proposing an across-the-board partnership with a global religious community, and not a Christian one, at that.

Why would the United States acknowledge and engage any religious community beyond its borders? The U.S. government is acting, as it should, in America’s own self-interest. President Obama recognizes — along with a growing chorus of leaders in American business, education, diplomacy, and security — that religion is a major player in global politics, economic growth, human rights, the environment, education, war, and peace.2

GLOBAL RELIGION AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Experts estimate that up to 60 percent of health care in sub-Saharan Africa is delivered by Christian or Muslim organizations. In planning and implementing development projects in South and Southeast Asia as well as in Africa, international agencies such as OXFAM and the United Nations Development Programme could not function without consulting and involving religious leaders. The U.S. Agency for International Development has to do so tentatively and “under the radar,” until U.S. government policy is clarified.3

In the struggle against global terrorism, experts agree that the strongest allies in any successful effort to isolate the Taliban, al-Qaida, and other extremist groups will be their peace-loving, moderate co-religionists.

From Nigeria to Pakistan, from India to Indonesia, the struggle for equal access to education and employment for women is being contested on religious grounds and in religious circles. In the struggle against global terrorism, experts agree that the strongest allies in any successful effort to isolate the Taliban, al-Qaida, and other extremist groups will be their peace-loving, moderate co-religionists.

AN OPEN PALM, NOT A CLENCHED FIST

The religious communities around the world that exercise extraordinary influence across business, educational, cultural, and government sectors are internally plural. They include virulent and sometimes vicious, anti-American rabble-rousers, but also devout, nonviolent “militants for peace and justice.” 4 In the broad middle are millions of believers who would welcome an open palm rather than a clenched fist.

Engaging influential moderate and progressive Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish leaders and communities in strategically sensitive regions will require greater religious sensitivity and, especially, religious literacy from U.S. diplomats, ambassadors of human rights and religious freedom, and other government officials. This also will be required from U.S. corporations, universities, the media, and other transnational American players.

The potential consequences of greater U.S. engagement with religious parties, movements, and leaders are far-reaching.

Many key U.S. allies and adversaries prefer to stifle or control their religious majorities and minorities, not empower or engage them. (Consider Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia; China, Myanmar and North Korea; Algeria, Nigeria and Sudan.) Religiously homogenous or near-homogenous states such as Iran, Pakistan, and Israel pose their own challenges to U.S. interests. And most sovereign states resent any U.S. outreach to their religious leaders or civil society groups who might become promoters of American-style liberal democracy.

Who can doubt that Hamas is a major player in Palestinian politics, Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, or the Religious Zionists (including the radical Jewish settlers) in Israel — and that each of these religious parties will continue to influence the direction of the Middle East conflict? Turkey’s experiment in integrating moderate Islamist parties and perspectives within a secular constitutional framework may be pivotal to the fate of key parts of Europe and Asia as well as the Middle East. Sinologists anticipate that by 2050 the world’s largest Christian and Muslim populations could live in China. Will the United States be ahead of the curve, or lagging far behind it?

DANGER AND OPPORTUNITY

The potential consequences of greater U.S. engagement with religious parties, movements, and leaders are far-reaching. Such engagement would likely put on prominent display the internal diversity and vitality in religious communities—including the influential Christian and Jewish communities in the United States. Clearly, not every U.S. Christian is an evangelical, and not every evangelical is an uncritical, apocalyptically minded supporter of Israel’s expansionist policies. (Indeed, only a minority of evangelical Christians, and a handful of Catholics and mainline Protestants, hold such views.) Likewise, the U.S. Jewish community has recently demonstrated its internal diversity regarding U.S. policy toward the Netanyahu government, and none of the factions takes a back seat to the others in explicitly Jewish religious and ethical credentials.

No one can claim to be a realist and ignore the increasing influence of religion and religions on world affairs.

There is danger in engaging religious communities, of course, as well as opportunity. It is easy to get religion wrong and cause unintended harm to U.S. interests, either by imposing an American model and expectations on radically different societies and cultures, or — especially — by reaching out to the wrong elements in a religious community and promoting trends and actors we would prefer to see wither.

But no one can claim to be a realist and ignore the increasing influence of religion and religions on world affairs. That is why it behooves the United States to get globalizing religion right and to integrate the resulting insight and expertise directly into foreign policy planning.

The first step is to create and implement a government-wide program in education and training in “lived religion” and its impact in key regions around the world. The Chicago Council Task Force Report on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy includes a rationale and concrete recommendations for jump-starting such a program — and for tailoring it to business, energy, environment, education and other sectors of society.

View report (pdf, 99 pages)

R. Scott Appleby is the John M. Regan Jr. director and professor of history at the Kroc Institute.


1 “The President’s Speech in Cairo: A New Beginning” (June 5, 2009) http://www.whitehouse.gov/Blog/NewBeginning

2 See, for example, a recent series of task force reports on this topic produced by prominent Americans from each of these sectors:
• “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,”A Report of the Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy (The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2010) http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/taskforce_details.php?taskforce_id=10;
• “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World U.S.,” Muslim Engagement Project (Washington DC: Search for Common Ground and Consensus Building Institute, 2009) www.usmuslimengagement.org;
• “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict- Prone Settings,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington DC: CSIS, 2007).

3 The conduct of U.S. foreign policy is complicated by questions surrounding the relevance and applicability of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These questions must be resolved if the crucial task of developing strategies to engage religion is to move forward. The Chicago Task Force Report on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy “calls upon the president of the United States, advised by executive offices and agencies who have studied the problem, to clarify that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not bar the United States from engaging religious communities abroad in the conduct of foreign policy, though it does impose constraints on the means that the United States may choose to pursue this engagement. Such clarification would serve as a major “ ‘next step’ in the president’s post-Cairo follow-up” (p. 10).

4 See the series of United States Institute of Peace reports on religiously led peacemaking, e.g., “Abrahamic Alternatives to War: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Just Peacemaking,” Special Report 214 (October 2008).