Last week the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations released a new report that called on the U.S. to better engage religious communities in the conduct of its foreign policy. Although foreign policy analysts frequently acknowledge the integral role of religion in conflicts and peacemaking around the world, the reality is that too often religious communities are not engaged in U.S. policy decisions. Last Tuesday task force members met with Obama administration representatives to present the findings of the report. If heeded by this administration, this advice could, in the long run, substantially strengthen our hand in achieving our national security goals. This report’s prescriptions are particularly applicable to how the United States deals with madrassas in the Muslim world.
The report states
Religion has been a major force in the daily lives of individuals and communities for millennia. Yet recent data show that the salience of religion is on the rise the world over. Once considered a “private” matter by Western policymakers, religion is now playing an increasingly influential role—both positive and negative—in the public sphere on many different levels….. 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 inability to fully understand religion and the role it plays in international relations has been characteristic of both Democratic and Republican administrations. When speaking of her 2006 book, the Mighty and the Almighty, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said,
As a practitioner of foreign policy, I certainly come from the generation of people who used to say, “X problem is complicated enough. Let’s not bring God and religion into it.” But through my being in office, and as I explored the subject much further in writing “The Mighty and the Almighty,” I really thought that the opposite is true. In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion.
President Bush can also be faulted for referring to the war on terrorism as a “crusade”. Although this was surely a slip of the tongue, such religiously-loaded words can have tremendous consequences and this fit all too well into Bin Laden’s narrative of a grand clash of civilizations.
The report presents a number of recommendations for how U.S. policy makers can better integrate religion into their decision making process. These range from making adjustments to the training that diplomats receive to naming an ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Conference. Just today the Obama administration announced that Rashad Hussain would take up this post.
Another change that ought to be considered is a rethinking of how the United States addresses madrassas in the Muslim world. Madrassas are private Islamic religious schools that many point to as a source of extremist ideology and terrorism. Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously said, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Others such as Peter Bergen discount the role that madrassas play in promoting terrorism. Although proving a direct causal link may be difficult, I think that it’s safe to say that some madrassas do promote to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that can contribute to a mindset that encourages extremism and sometimes violence.
So, what is the United States doing about this? Very little, it turns out. In Pakistan, for example, the bulk of U.S. assistance for strengthening education goes to secular schools. On this face of it, this makes sense. Why should U.S. taxpayers be supporting religious schools that are teaching students to adopt a version of Islam that preaches violence? Of course, we should continue supporting the secular education system, but it would be wrong to completely ignore the madassa system. There is much that could be done to provide training and materials to madrassa teachers and administrators to promote a more tolerant version of Islam. This sort of assistance is not particularly expensive and can make a big difference.
If you say it can’t be done, I’d encourage you to take a look at the work of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. Last week I attended a presentation by this organization that has engaged a number of Pakistan’s madrassas for the last five years. They have trained more than 2,200 madrassa leaders and senior faculty from some 1,450 madrassas, including a sizable number in the more radical areas of the country. The training emphasizes critical thinking skills, religious tolerance and human rights — especially women’s. This type of program should be expanded and would complement the important work that the U.S. is already doing to improve the secular education system in Pakistan.
Just as the recent Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs report encouraged policy makers not to ignore the religious facets of U.S. foreign policy, we must be ready to engage these religious schools. What is particularly ironic is that during the Afghan war with the Soviet Union, the U.S. supported such religious schools and their radical views when it suited the purpose of the overthrow of the Soviets. It’s not too late to return to those schools with a new message of tolerance and respect for human rights. I can’t think of a better way to seriously address the God-gap in U.S. foreign policy.