By Thomas Wright
Executive Director of Studies, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
I’d like to thank everyone for such a lively debate on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” but I also would like to clear up a number of misconceptions about what we say.
First, the report agrees that religion has played a negative role in U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially in relations with the Muslim world (for example, leading U.S. figures have sometimes framed the fight against terrorism in religious terms). The report does not actually say that U.S. foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and uncompromising Western secular bias and we agree that U.S. foreign policy has been damaged by the foolish use of religion as well as by a failure to understand the role of religion in world affairs. The mention of an “uncompromising Western secularism” is raised in the context of alternative strategies to the one we’re proposing.
Second, the United States has greatly improved its capacity to understand religious dynamics in world affairs–as evidenced by President Obama’s Cairo speech in which he spoke to Muslim communities as well as Muslim states. But, a major capabilities gap remains. The key challenge now is to build the capacity inside the U.S. government to properly understand the role of religion in world affairs and to engage with religious communities in a prudent and constructive way. The Obama administration is working on this issue and we hope that this report will be of some assistance in that regard.
Third, and perhaps most important, building this capacity should help to mitigate and reduce the negative impact of religion in world affairs. The United States will be better able to respect local cultures and societies and to avoid actions that are inadvertently religious in nature. To take one prominent example, U.S. counterinsurgency forces that respect and understand the religious culture of communities in Afghanistan are less likely to act in a way that inflames passions. They will also be able to blunt the efforts of extremists to manipulate religion (by bombing holy sites) and reduce tensions. On the other hand, ignoring religious dynamics is likely to increase their negative impact, as in the case of the slow U.S. reaction to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006.
Fourth, the United States needs to engage religious communities more generally so that their relationship with the United States is not defined through the lens of counterterrorism policy. The United States should engage credible civil society organizations in religious communities on matters like educational exchanges and technology transfer (especially in clean water technology). Such engagement will only occur if these communities find it helpful. Under no circumstances should the United States try to manipulate religion or use it instrumentally.
Fifth, some contributors to this forum have argued for leaving religion out of U.S. foreign policy but also understanding the role it plays. I’m not sure there is gap between this critique and our report is all that great. Again, the report is largely about engaging religious communities on practical non-theological issues (like science, development assistance, and entrepreneurship) and avoiding actions that inadvertently increase the negative role of religion in world affairs. Actively side-lining religious communities abroad would, in our view, be counterproductive–for instance, in practice such an approach would mean not dealing with al-Sistani in Iraq. Obviously, the United States should be cautious and prudent in its approach.
Finally, this strategy of engaging religious communities certainly does not seek to circumvent the First Amendment. The separation of church and state is vital and must be preserved in foreign as well as domestic policy. In fact, the report says that the first amendment does constrain the means by which the U.S. engages with religious communities (five members out of the thirty two dissented from this) and that any policy of engagement must take it into account. Unfortunately the constraints are unclear. Accordingly, the task force asks the administration to clarify the rules of the game so they are not overstepped.
Thomas Wright is Executive Director of Studies for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and project director for “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.”