Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 1 of 4

Common GroundI was in a fascinating conversation recently with a very sharp political science student, talking about the secular and religious intersection of U.S. – Middle East relations. An intricate and intractable problem, I have not said much about it on this blog. Inspired by the help that my student-friend said he got from our long conversation, I went back to my files on The Wisdom Project for the following, informative article I wrote on the subject years ago. Slightly updated, I’m posting it here in four parts over the next two weeks. See what you think, and let’s have some conversation about it.

Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma of
U.S.–Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer

At the start of the diplomatic history of the United States, it is curious that the founding fathers of the new nation did not include something akin to a “Department of Religion” in its foreign policy structure. After all, the fathers knew full well that their near-ancestors had acutely experienced negative influences from religion upon political decisions in sixteenth and seventeenth century England and Europe. And even after gaining its independence from England, the fledgling nation of America had ample reason to think about including some sort of religion bureau in its diplomatic toolkit.

Religion and U.S. foreign policy
In 1784-1785, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were trying to negotiate an end to a foreign policy crisis between the new America and the so-called Barbary states (Morocco, Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers), which were under Muslim rule. Ships of Barbary pirates were attacking and plundering American trade ships and selling their crews into slavery. It was young America’s “first acute foreign policy threat,” writes historian Michael Oren. U.S. negotiations to end the crisis were taking place, chiefly in London, with a shrewd foreign minister from Tripoli, a Muslim nobleman. In March, 1785, Jefferson joined Adams in London “for one last attempt to prevent ‘a universal and horrible War’ and reach an agreement with Tripoli.”[1]

Instead, the foreign minister from Tripoli reiterated to Adams and Jefferson that the United States must pay the nearly one million dollar sum that, he said, a peace treaty with the Barbary states would cost the new nation. It was an impossible demand, being nearly one-tenth of America’s annual budget. To further exacerbate the negotiations, the Muslim nobleman shocked the two American negotiators by citing that in the Qu’ran it was written that “all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Muslims] authority were sinners, [and] that it was their right and duty [then] to make war upon [them] and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” Oren writes that Adams and Jefferson left the negotiations aghast.[2] (Two wars ensued (1801-1805 and 1815.)

Afterward, the diplomatic toolkit of the United States and the Cabinet remained without any sort of department of religion. It was a sign of the intellectual times. The European treaties of 1648, known as the Peace of Westphalia, had divided up and redistributed political power in Europe. With it, a tremendous worldview shift had begun that would fundamentally alter the relation of religion to European governments. The rise and institutionalization of the modern, western sovereign state had begun, in which the political life of the nation is divorced from any exercise of religious control. The so-called “secular state” emerged.

One result 125 years later was what international relations scholar Douglas Johnston calls “the rigorous separation” of church and state in America. Writing in Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, some eight years before 9/11, Johnston notes that the long and serious history of “separation” in the United States has by our day “desensitized many citizens to the fact that much of the rest of the world does not operate on a similar basis. Foreign policy practitioners, for instance, are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where the imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, especially in our dealings with countries in the Middle East.”[3]

the better angels of our natureThis conclusion from 1994, the year the book was published, would need to be footnoted today, to note some modifications in U.S. foreign policy that have slowing been occurring. In its international relations, Washington has been taking more systemically the roles that religious concerns, religious institutions, and religious actors may have in starting, sustaining, or ending international political tensions or conflicts.

That footnote has, in fact, become an entire book. Writing in 2003, Johnston and a team of scholars researched start-up initiatives begun by Washington to give religion a more official place in conflict analysis and political solutions. One such major initiative of the State Department was to establish the Office of International Religious Freedom in 1998, making Robert Seiple the first U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.[4]

Nevertheless, turning the ship of state in the direction of religion goes slowly and is understandably tentative. Although “such measures show a growing awareness of religion’s political importance,” Johnston concludes, “religious imperatives have yet to be incorporated as a major consideration in U.S. foreign policy. They should be.”[5] Turning this corner, however, Washington cannot expect, nor can we as participating citizens expect, in just a few years to wisely overcome two hundred years of institutionalized predisposition against religious concerns in its foreign policy structure.

In order for this institutional shift in Washington to work itself out into normative foreign policy practice, the momentum must be sustained through concerted effort. Meanwhile, a clear understanding of this secular-religious problem in America’s relations with Middle East states is the first step toward solving it.

(See Part 2 here.)

FOOTNOTES

[1] Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), pp. 18-27, citing letters written by Adams and Jefferson.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 4-5.

[4] Douglas Johnston, Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 3.

[5] Ibid.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images via permissions from Creative Commons.

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