Religion, Terror, and Error
In Douglas Johnston’s important and thoughtful book, two themes stand out:
Religion is playing an increasingly important role in international and domestic political affairs. To understand and deal effectively with international issues, including terrorism, Americans (particularly those involved in diplomacy or the military) must have a much better understanding of religious movements, especially Islam.
To be effective in dealing with other nations in an era when religious or identity-based politics are increasingly important –and particularly in dealing with terrorism – “American foreign policy must develop a capacity for spiritual engagement.” (p. 5)
The first theme would be hard to dispute: In the most spectacular attacks, terrorist actions motivated by extremist forms of Islam killed almost 3000 people on September 11, 2001. But terrorists motivated by extremist strains of Islam have also killed hundreds of others: in Bali, Madrid, London, East Africa and Fort Hood.
Johnston, who is the President and Founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), completed his book prior to the “Arab spring,” and although movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria have been motivated by demands for freedom and human rights, groups linked with Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are clearly playing a role in efforts to forge new systems of government (particularly in Egypt).
The second theme – the need for “spiritual or faith-based engagement” as part of U.S. foreign policy – is more controversial in a nation where separation of church and state is a fundamental principle. Nonetheless, Johnston makes a convincing case that spiritual engagement is not only necessary, but also possible without violating the First Amendment.
Johnston begins his discussion of the first issue – the need for greater understanding of religious movements, particularly Islam – by reviewing Islamic grievances against the U.S., and “western” grievances against Islam. Among the Muslim grievances against the West, he cites contentions that the decline of Muslim societies is a legacy of European colonialism and American neo-colonialism and that Islamic extremism and terrorism are reactions to western imperialism. He also notes criticisms that the U.S. is not serious about promoting democracy in the Muslim world and props up autocratic regimes. Among the western grievances (in addition to terrorist attacks in the name of Islam) are: that radical Muslims are abusing democratic freedoms and social welfare to advance their extremist causes, and that the lack of assimilation of European Muslims is a threat to western culture. In discussing these grievances, Johnston argues that neither Islam nor Christianity is the problem per se. The sacred writings of both religions have passages that promote tolerance and peaceful relations with other religions, as well as passages that express less tolerant views. He points out that there have been extended periods of peaceful relations between Islam and Christianity, including in Muslim Spain.
Much of the book focuses on Johnston’s recommendations for using “faith-based engagement” to bridge this cultural divide, to strengthen understanding and respect between western and Islamic civilizations and to address effectively the threat of religiously-motivated terrorism.
Johnston notes that NGOs have already played important roles in conflict resolution and “faith-based engagement”—sometimes working with governments and sometimes alone-- and could do more. He cites the lay Catholic Community of Saint Egidio’s role in helping to resolve the civil war in Mozambique that ended in 1994, as well as the work of his own NGO, the ICRD, in the Sudan, among other examples. NGOs are not without criticism, however, as Johnston acknowledges. One criticism is that there is inadequate accountability for NGO resources; another is that of unverifiable claims of success. Still another is that NGOs are sometimes seen as part of a larger western hegemony. Johnston argues that faith-based NGOs provide several advantages over their secular counterparts, including that they tend to maintain closer linkages with those they serve, can offer a sense of moral authority and have greater “staying power” and immersion in the community.
Johnston also puts forward recommendations of how the U. S. State Department can be involved more effectively in “faith-based engagement.” First and foremost, there needs to be an understanding of the integral role that religion plays in many societies, and of specific religious movements. Johnston acknowledges that many embassies are already involved in faith-based engagement—usually carried out by the Ambassador, the political and/or the public affairs sections. To ensure that faith-based engagement is sustained and not sidelined by more immediate needs, however, he recommends the assignment of “religion attaches” at U.S. embassies—individuals who have the requisite religious understanding as well as language and other skills and a mandate for faith-based engagement. He suggests several options for filling such a position, from establishing a separate career track for religion specialists to engaging and training Foreign Service Reserve Officers, or even using qualified Fulbright grantees on a volunteer basis. Another possibility would be to assign a qualified person to the Embassy’s political section as a “political/religion officer,” similar to the way in which political/military offers are assigned. Johnston concedes that the “…title is far less important than the fact that embassy staffing would include the requisite expertise to take religious imperatives fully into account in the conduct of our relations with a particular country,”(p. 88).
Johnston also makes recommendations for realigning the structure of the State Department to increase its focus and attention on religion-related issues. As one possibility, he recommends the consolidation of the religion portfolio under the Undersecretary for Political Affairs, and changing that individual’s title to Undersecretary for Political and Religious Affairs. Another option would be assigning a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Religion to each of the regional bureaus. Johnston recommends as well that the State Department mount a more robust training program on religious issues (with emphasis on Islam) for Foreign Service officers. He notes that academic institutions, such as Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, offer, and encourage their students to take, courses in comparative religion and religious studies.