THE BLOG
05/31/2016 04:51 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Religion and the Middle East in U.S. Foreign Policy

Secretary of State John Kerry recently discussed a new approach to U.S. foreign policy making during a lecture at Rice University in Houston - a focus on religion: "The more we understand religion and the better able we are as a result to be able to engage religious actors, the more effective our diplomacy will be in advancing the interests and values of our people."

He explained in great detail how religion would be taken more seriously as a component of foreign policy making with the creation of a permanent Office of Religion and Global Affairs within the State Department; religious actors and officials at different levels would engage regularly, going beyond leadership and "to the rank and file"; and, he recognized that religion is an integral part of people's lives all around the world, something that is "pervasive...complex....and internally diverse, reflecting multiple schools of thought, regional variations, and complicated histories". Ignoring religion undercuts American foreign policy. Critically, Secretary Kerry stated: "But we don't - and this is important - we don't establish contacts just for the sake of having interesting conversations. We do so to make progress towards our foreign policy and our national security goals, and I believe this effort is one of those multiple efforts necessary in today's world to help make America safer in a responsible and thoughtful and perhaps even, hopefully, visionary way."

As a student of religion and politics who focuses primarily on the Middle East, I am genuinely excited about this new approach. Religion, indeed, is an important factor in politics and needs to be taken seriously. This new approach has the promise of helping to make better-informed foreign policy decisions. Yet, its eventual distinctiveness and success depends on the extent that U.S foreign policy makers are willing to engage with non-orthodox religious actors and move beyond the nebulous substantive focus of this new policy. In particular, the implementation of the new approach to foreign policy making faces three major challenges, especially as it relates to the Middle East: the nature of religious authority, dominance of Islamists, and resemblance to CVE programs. Ultimately, I am compelled to ponder whether there is anything "new" in this new approach to foreign policy making that promises to take religion more seriously.

1) Fragmented Religious Authority: This new approach requires engagement with leaders and representatives of faith communities who typically are well-informed and wield religious authority. These individuals provide the most direct and immediate access to a religious tradition, channel insight into religious doctrines, and potentially help identify problems in policy issues as it relates to U.S. foreign policy. Yet, the Middle East in particular, and the Muslim world more broadly, experienced a major fragmentation in the nature of religious authority within the last century. The class of religious scholars (ulama) who historically wielded religious authority is weakened, abused, or ultimately turned into stooges of government. Islamic intellectuals, Islamists, and fundamentalists are the new kids on the block. They have successfully morphed into major religious actors and holders of religious authority throughout the 20th century, being only marginal outsiders a century ago.

There is no well-defined religious institutional structure and authority throughout the Middle East, perhaps with the exception of Iran. Religious authority is highly fragmented and fiercely contested between the state, preachers, scholars, Islamists, and fundamentalist groups. Under such circumstances, this new foreign policy approach that draws from religion is fraught with key dilemmas, calling into question the viability and value of this new policy.

For example, picking partner(s) to work with in a fiercely contested issue area such as religion introduces a host of potential problems. Who do U.S. state department officials interact with among various claimants of religious authority, state or civil society representatives? If civil society partners are picked, then the State Department officials must be wary about their choices, which might amount to picking winners.

By contrast, if official state religious institutions become the partner (which in most cases have limited legitimacy or credibility), such partnership renders the notion of "progress towards our foreign policy and our national security goals" futile. Religion might simply be overlaying a thinly guided effort to affect the policy making of another country. As such, it would signal, at best, unnecessary encroachment in the affairs of another country and spur anti-American and anti-Western sentiment; at worst, it would undermine strategic foreign policy goals of the U.S. throughout the Middle East in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt by fueling religious oppositional groups' antagonism. Critically, the majority of activities that relate to religion in international affairs originate and persist beyond formal state and multilateral institutional confines. Put differently, limiting engagement to formal institutional structures or "favorable" religious groups and individuals is unlikely to yield effective policy.

2) The Dominance of Islamists: Perhaps the most daunting challenge to the new policy is Islamists. While it is easy to classify Islamists merely as political actors, which they certainly are, they often exist as hybrid organizations. They act as political parties or have organically-tied political branches; they also operate as religious groups that preach, educate, lead prayers, and provide health care and other kinds of social services. They have their own men of religion and imams. Crucially, this Islamic activism forms the bedrock of Islamist claims to legitimacy and religious authority; they provide an alternative and, by their own claims, a more authentic Islam to the ones typically offered by state institutions of religion in association with the traditional ulama. Many buy into Islamist claims.

Yet, Islamists have historically been ignored in U.S. foreign policy making; indeed this aversion is so great that, as Amaney Jamal explains, the authoritarian outlook of the Middle East partially owes its existence to this aversion. Secular authoritarian leaders and citizens in the region channel their efforts to block Islamists from assuming power lest the U.S. turns hostile against their country; the economic and strategic costs of such an unfavorable turn outweigh the potential democratic gains. There is a peculiar dilemma. While the U.S. is dismissive of Islamists, such actors are highly popular, well-entrenched in the society, and generally command religious authority. The policy of engaging religion and religious actors but leaving major ones such as Islamists or other oppositional religious groups out undercuts this new policy's efficacy right off the bat. Moreover, it is highly possible that the new policy might turn into liability, as alternative religious actors who are shunned will likely use this as an opportunity to actively derail U.S. foreign policy discourse and credibility. In order to make this new religion in foreign policy effective, therefore, the U.S. needs to develop a sustainable policy on engaging Islamist groups.

3) Existing Policies and Religion in Foreign Policy: Recently, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd analyzed counter violent extremism (CVE) programs in the U.S. These programs are gaining ground domestically especially among college students and have been around for many years as an instrument of foreign policy. They typically aim to tackle "bad" religion and nurture "religious moderation", most recently in the Muslim world: "Government-led programs and projects intended to support moderate religion and to suppress violent religion are flourishing. These efforts encompass advocacy for religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, and legal protections for religious rights. Increasingly, they also include CVE."

Many problems have historically plagued CVE and similar programs. Most critically, religion is viewed as the primary cause of political behavior, i.e. political violence and extremism. Consequently, neutralization or transformation of the religion becomes the policy option to provide the most favorable outcome in regards to providing security.

The concern is that it might eerily resemble past or existing programs that utilize religion and religious discourse to attain American foreign policy objectives such as CVE programs. While the new religion approach of the State Department remains only partially unveiled, the poor track records of similar policies in the past focusing on religion to achieve "our foreign policy and our national security goals" cautions us against taking the same path. Unless a distinct focus and approach to religion can be created, the proposed policy promises to waste resources for no clear endgame. To quote Shakman Hurd again, "The US has never disestablished religion in our foreign policy. Instead, American authorities coopt and cooperate with religious institutions and leaders overseas, perceiving these efforts as essential to securing US interests."

The Middle East is not the only region in which we might observe these three fundamental issues: yet, their coming together in one geographic area in which the U.S. is economically, politically, and strategically involved necessitates further scrutiny in the way this new policy is conceived and implemented. As it stands, this policy fails to bring anything new to the discussion, in terms of both substance and methods.