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Religion and Foreign Policy

Foreign Affairs

In the modern era religion has played a relatively small or insignificant role in foreign policy, especially among academics and professionals. International relations are assumed to be subject to rational processes and the primary motivating force is not religion but maximization of gain and minimization of loss.

But the Iranians following the revolution of 1979 have been the first significant departure from this trend. Iranians have defined themselves as fundamentally Islamist and any effort to organize against them, any war or confrontation, is considered an attack on Islam. Global jihad and pressures on other Islamic countries not to partner with non-Muslim governments are part of the growing entanglements between foreign-policy and religion.

The United States is oblivious, and I don’t mean that as a compliment, to issues in religion in foreign policy. They miss theological underpinnings all the time and have naïvely misread and failed to grasp incidents such as the Iranian revolution, Islamists objections to our presence in Saudi Arabia, all while we blithely armed Islamists in Afghanistan because we thought we were thwarting communism. Even our efforts at democracy promotion have failed in the face of confrontations with religious tenets that we fail to understand, ignore, and consider to be little more than inconsequential background.

And probably the biggest blind spot for the United States has been the published documents by ISIS and Al Qaeda members detailing terrorism with a vision of Islam. These documents make reference to the creation of a global caliphate; foment a religiously apocalyptic narrative; and use religious motivations to recruit young believers. The US continues to fight the war on terrorism as a military and security matter and not a religious one. Theology animates ISIS such that killing them only creates more committed actors who will find new ways to subvert their enemy, namely, the US.

Interestingly, it is a form of political correctness that keeps the US from acknowledging the theological underpinnings of terrorism or any other foreign policy with a basis in religion. What I mean is that American leaders do not want to be perceived as attacking Islam or being critical of Islam even if it is religious tenets rooted in Islam that justifies violence in its name. Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama might refer to gun laws, history, morals, economic deprivation, or some aberration but they never tie violence or some aggressive behavior by another group directly to theological principles of Islam. I can understand the delicate diplomatic position of the President of the United States such that he does not want to prance around the world condemning world religions. In fact, organizations like ISIS want to divide the world into Muslims and non-Muslims and blaming entire religions would play right into their hands. They succeed at this to the extent that the US blames Islam or gets involved in military actions on land that is considered caliphate. Still, our policies will be ineffectual to the extent that they fail to consider religion in foreign policy.

It is not easy for the United States to all of a sudden adopt religious oriented policies or even to begin to use the language of religion in an effort to appease or seek a superficial identification with another political entity. That is why we must find other ways to weaken their theological basis. This includes empowering natural enemies, and providing improved social and economic progress in contested areas. We’re also losing the propaganda or information war as these religious oriented policies spread their beliefs. Organizations like ISIS and countries like Iran clearly embrace religion as part of foreign-policy. In the end, if we are to make progress in the information war we are probably left with Justice Brandeis’s adage about how “the remedy for bad speech is more speech.”

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The Sin of Sanctity

Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.

The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.

In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”

When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.

Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.

So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.

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