On July 25, The New York Times reported that President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki often discuss, among other things, religion during their frequent teleconferences. As an official who sits in on the discussions explained, “It is an issue that comes up between two men who are believers in difficult times, who are being challenged.”
The news is not particularly surprising. Both Bush and Maliki profess their religious beliefs publicly, and the violence raging in Iraq has been increasingly drawn along sectarian lines. U.S.-Muslim relations are certainly an ongoing topic of debate in Washington and, one would imagine, in Iraq as well. Religion would seem to be an important part of any discussion aimed at promoting stability in Iraq and disentangling the U.S. from the mess it has created there.
Yet, more often than not religious dynamics and their influence on situations of conflict and peacebuilding are often overlooked, sidelined, or misunderstood within policy contexts.
The War on Terror Lens
Over the past 15 years, a growing body of academic research and practitioner experience is opening new debates in Washington and internationally about the role of religion in both fueling and preventing violent conflict. While many still question whether religion can play a positive role in peacemaking, there is now wide agreement on the need to better understand the impact of religion in conflict situations and to try to mitigate the potential dangers. However, incorporating a constructive approach to religion into U.S. government policy and practice is still a considerable challenge.
Early on President Bush and his administration demonstrated a jaw-dropping disregard for the potential negative impact of using religious sentiment to fuel emotions in situations of conflict. Comments that mixed political calls for a U.S.-led global war with references to a “holy crusade” and suggested that Islam itself was to blame for the actions of a small group of violent extremists quickly generated increased anti-U.S. sentiment and escalating conflict. While the administration has since cleaned up its script, the damage done to U.S.-Muslim relations has yet to be completely mended. Moreover, the administration’s actions have spoken louder than words with the ongoing occupation of Iraq, rising threats of military action against Iran, and continued military support to Israel. While political analysts may argue that the U.S.’s actions in the Middle East have nothing to do with religion, for many in the region the lines appear much more blurred.
In its new report, “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings,” the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) encourages the administration and Congress to deepen their understanding and attention to the role of religious dynamics in conflict situations in more constructive ways. The study compiles findings from a year of research and interviews with government officials into how religion is, or is not, addressed within the structures and practices of U.S. foreign policy. The conclusions of the report are not surprising: U.S. government officials are hesitant to approach issues of religion, there is a deficit of understanding and an overemphasis on terrorism in approaches to religion, and there is little institutional capacity for effectively addressing the role of religious dynamics within U.S. foreign policy.
In fact, the inept U.S. approach to religion has been all too evident and costly in its operations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and in its failed relations with the Muslim world. U.S. negligence of religious dynamics in what it terms “stabilization” or “reconstruction” situations has impeded its efforts to “win the peace” and fueled anti-U.S. resentment. A misguided approach to religion in the rebuilding of Iraqi political structures has contributed to growing sectarian violence and deep divisions between Sunni and Shiite communities. Once known as a relatively secular society, Iraq now appears to be spiraling into a civil war drawn along religious lines.
While some changes have been made to U.S. military approaches on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, the anger and resentment sparked by raids and attacks on sacred places, disregard for religious customs, and lack of understanding of religious beliefs will not be easily forgotten. CSIS quotes one Afghan’s response to foreign troops: “They come with their boots into our mosques. This is why everyone is fighting against them.”
Similarly, the Bush administration’s push to create “public diplomacy” campaigns to “win the hearts and minds” of the Muslim world won more criticism than praise. From the start the new so-called diplomacy focused largely on promoting a positive image of the United States and its values, rather than engaging in a constructive dialogue around both common and contentious issues. Despite various attempts at change, the administration still seems unable to engage in real diplomacy. As CSIS notes, “the main criticism of dialogue efforts with the Muslim world, including from government officials themselves, remains that they are focused more on talking than listening.”
The manipulation or negligent use of religious sentiment within the political realm is certainly not unique to the Bush administration or the United States alone. Historically, religious rhetoric has been used to support U.S. forays into war and its rise to global military and political dominance. Worldwide, religion has been manipulated since the creation of the nation state to advance political interests and justify violence. While the separation between church and state is hailed as one of the great democratic advances, in practice religion has played a persistent role within U.S. and global policy-making throughout history.
So, a new dialogue on religion and policymaking that recognizes the potential negative impact of religious dynamics – within the United States and in other societies – and seeks ways of respecting rather than manipulating faith is most welcome. As the CSIS report points out, since the attacks of September 11, the United States has made efforts to incorporate a greater understanding of religion into its foreign policy and international programming, and some positive steps have been taken. The inclusion of religion in the conflict analysis and trainings of USAID’s Conflict Management and Mitigation Office and the increasing recognition of the contribution of many faith-based organizations to peacebuilding are notable developments. Initiatives in the Middle East, Nigeria, and Sudan to create opportunities for religious dialogue have also demonstrated some new openings in working with civil society. Unfortunately, as with all current U.S. foreign policy, the approach to religion continues to be shaped by the predominant lens of the “war on terror”, overemphasizing religious extremism (and particularly extremist Islam), and neglecting the positive potential for religious actors, beliefs, and institutions to help break cycles of violence and build durable peace.
Contributions and Concerns
What would a positive approach to engaging religion in conflict-prone, and particularly post-conflict, situations look like? The CSIS report offers a number of recommendations for the U.S. government intended to better integrate religion into analysis and policy formation, foreign service training and education, and on-the-ground programming by the State Department. But a deeper understanding of religion’s role in conflict and peacebuilding is necessary. Policymakers would do well in the near future to shift away from viewing religion through the lens of a war on terror and toward greater attention to the positive contributions faith-based actors and institutions can make in rebuilding war torn societies and preventing new outbreaks of violence.
Following experiences of war and violent conflict, religion can often provide a structure of belief and action for restoring relationships and encouraging reconciliation among former combatants. Religious institutions often survive wars or state collapse when other social and government structures break down. Faith networks, churches, temples, and mosques are often the first to begin picking up the pieces after violence and will remain as part of the communities long after humanitarian workers and international aid have moved on. Most religious traditions include teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation, and religion can often bring people together across lines of conflict.
Notably, some of the best examples of religious based contributions to post-conflict peacebuilding can be found in places where the United States is currently not heavily involved. In Vietnam and Cambodia, Buddhist organizations provided humanitarian assistance and education, helped reunite families, and worked to rebuild local economies after the war. In Guatemala the Catholic church has been in the lead in demanding a Truth Commission and accountability for war crimes by government officials. In Northern Uganda Acholi religious leaders organize peace campaigns, train community leaders in conflict resolution, and press for amnesty and rehabilitation for former child combatants. After mass slaughter in Burundi and Rwanda, Quakers have been training community leaders and gacaca court judges in alternatives to violence and trauma healing.
While these initiatives may often seem relatively small and disconnected from the higher-level diplomatic negotiating and policy-making that is necessary in post-conflict situations, such local-level peacebuilding initiatives help reweave a society and create the social structures that allow economic and political rebuilding to take place. Within these more local contexts, the faith beliefs and institutions of a community often take on an important role and can be positive factors in peacebuilding. That is not to deny the very real negative role religion can and often does play in motivating people to violence and justifying war and abuse. However, it is to argue that more sustained support for positive faith-based peacebuilding efforts, particularly after a conflict recedes from the headlines, is needed.
Of course any proposals to incorporate religion more actively into U.S. foreign policy and programming should raise concerns as well. After all, the potential of entangling religion with government in harmful rather than constructive ways has been all too evident during the Bush regime. Moreover, religious actors and institutions are often most effective at reconstruction and reconciliation when they are not linked to government efforts because they are able to maintain their independence and the trust of their communities. Support for faith-based peacebuilding should not mean linking government and religious-based programs.
Efforts by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to actively engage religious actors and influences in conflict situations, as reported by CSIS, should be viewed with particular concern. Under the current administration the lines between civilian and military roles have already been dangerously blurred. In Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. humanitarian organizations, many of which are faith-based organizations, have often found their work complicated and the people they serve endangered by the U.S. military’s efforts to incorporate reconstruction and aid into its operations. While greater understanding by military and intelligence personnel of the religious dynamics at work in a society is certainly needed, the independence of faith-based groups – both local and international – must be preserved. Religion and religious actors should certainly not be treated like the humanitarian community, as “force multipliers” in stabilization or post-conflict operations.
Perhaps most importantly, any proposed policies or programming that would seek to engage religion more directly should be vetted and discussed first religious leaders and communities that would be affected. The Bush administration has a particularly bad record of listening only to those who already agree with him. As the CSIS report notes, under President Bush 98% of the U.S. foreign aid directed to faith-based groups between 2001 and 2005 went to Christian groups, and despite the existence of faith groups actively engaged in peacebuilding in nearly every post-conflict situation, government officials report being unable to identify or support local religious groups for collaboration in most cases. Creating more open channels of input for faith leaders and communities of all political and spiritual stripes to help shape new approaches to religion in U.S. foreign policy should be an imperative.