Addressing religion in foreign policy intelligently


A group of former government officials, religious leaders, heads of international organizations, and scholars called The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has released a report calling on American foreign policymakers to widen their perspective about the role of religion in foreign affairs.

This means seeing religion as more than Islamic fundamentalism and looking beyond the lens of terrorism. Most of all it means becoming sensitive and smart, rather than reactive, about the complex role of religion in culture and politics.

First and foremost, this report argues for greater acknowledgment of the full range of opportunities and challenges religious leaders and communities provide. This includes a focus beyond the Muslim world to encompass religious communities more broadly. What is needed is an informed and coherent framework that allows actors within and outside government to better understand and respond to religiously inspired actors and events in a way that supports those doing good, while isolating those that invoke the sacred to sow violence and confusion.

This report aims to provide this needed framework. It reflects the consensus of leaders drawn from academia, religious institutions, the foreign policy community, development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. It is structured around three key objectives that the Task Force set itself: (1) offering an understanding of the role that religion plays in world affairs, (2) explaining why this matters for the United States, and (3) charting a strategy for moving forward.

The Task Force has identified six principal patterns that together reflect religion’s increasing importance in international affairs.

1. The influence of religious groups—some with long-established and others with newly won voices—is growing in many areas of the world and affects virtually all sectors of society, from politics and culture to business and science.

2. Changing patterns of religious identification in the world are having significant political implications.

3. Religion has benefited and been transformed by globalization, but it also has become a primary means of organizing opposition to it.

4. Religion is playing an important public role where governments lack capacity and legitimacy in periods of economic and political stress.

5. Religion is often used by extremists as a catalyst for conflict and a means of escalating tensions with other religious communities.

6. The growing salience of religion today is deepening the political significance of religious freedom as a universal human right and a source of social and political stability.

Ekklesia reports:

A high-level task force of academics, religious leaders and lawyers has released a report urging US policymakers to rethink the role of religion in world affairs and proposing a new strategy for engaging religiously inspired people of all faiths….

…The Task Force says that the US should avoid trying to change religious societies through direct action or to promote an uncompromising secular alternative. It suggests that both of these approaches would be likely to backfire with dangerous consequences. Instead, the indirect approach is aimed at building and cultivating large networks and partnerships with religious communities.

The report urges engagement with religious political parties, even if they oppose US foreign policy. It points out that evidence from the past decade indicates that religious political parties often place pragmatism and problem solving over ideology.

It suggests that no Islamist party elected to a national parliament has sought to put greater emphasis on Sharia laws as the source of legislation, despite pre-election rhetoric to the contrary. Instead, it observes, they often become “mired in the day-to-day necessities of ruling, which include making good on commitments to tackle corruption and provide much-needed public services.

At least one person raised objections to the report, saying that if anything American foreign policy has been overly concerned with religion. Susan Jacoby writing in the On Faith blog at the Washington Post also says that American values of the separation of church and state has informed our advocacy for the human rights of religious minorities in places as diverse as China, North Korea and Darfur. Jacoby’s concern is that the report is at once naive and calls on direct engagement with religious groups in ways that will favor one over others.

Considering the mischief and outright harm that has resulted from the engagement of American private citizens with religious groups abroad (such as the engagement of right-wing Christian homophobes with homophobic Christian groups in Uganda), one can only shudder at the thought of diplomats being urged to work more closely with religious groups. And exactly how are we to know which sects within religious groups shuld be engaged? Should U.S. diplomats in Israel sit down with ultra-right rabbis who strongly support the expansion of settlements? Or should we offend the right-wingers by meeting with Jewish groups in Israel that consider the settlements a moral disaster? There is a huge difference between being aware of the importance of religious differences in a society and directly engaging with such groups.

The recommendations of the report fall into two main areas: (1) how to build the internal capacity to engage religion and religious communities and (2) how to engage religion and religious communities more effectively by better identifying whom to engage, what issues

to engage, and the goals of that engagement.

David Waters reports in another Washington Post article that task force members met Tuesday with Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and State Department officials who told Waters that there is already work in the White House and State to end the “episodic and uncoordinated nature of U.S. engagement of religion in the world.”

The report recommends:

— Adding religion to the training and continuing education of all foreign service officers, diplomats and other key diplomatic, military and economic officials. That includes using the skills and expertise of military veterans and civilians returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

— Empowering government departments and agencies to engage local and regional religious communities where they are central players in the promotion of human rights and peace, as well as the delivery of health care and other forms of assistance.

— Address and clarify the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. Cizik said some parts of the world — the Middle East, China, Russia and India, for example — are particularly sensitive to the U.S. government’s emphasis on religious freedom and see it as a form of imperialism.

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John B. Chilton
John B. Chilton

In addition to Susan Jacoby, there are many more essays on the subject at On Faith from a wide spectrum of opinion:

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