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

long winding roadPart one and part two of this article explained the history of the secularized U.S. foreign policy establishment. Part three looked at the diverse religious histories of Muslim majority countries in the Middle East in the context of their policy making. Parts one thru three were meant as a primer for anyone seeking to discover, in some detail, a realistic picture of why U.S. – Mideast relations have been so intractable, especially since 9/11. The secular – religious dilemma has foiled even many of the best plans and polices. Here in part four, I want to look very practically at several religious challenges In the Middle East that the United States has faced and responded to in recent decades – sometimes successfully for common good, sometimes not so much. Understanding these has greatly helped me to appreciate the ongoing struggle that our presidents and their advisors face at this tough religion/secular intersection.

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

Perhaps the most successful initiative occurred in 1978, when what may be called the faith-based peacemaking agreement orchestrated by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David. There, a peace agreement was reached between Egypt and Israel. It “would never have come about,” writes former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “if not for Carter’s ability to understand and appeal to the deep religious convictions of President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin.”[1]

During the 1990s, after the terrorist bombing of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 1993, President Bill Clinton’s administration devoted time and resources to the issue of how to deal effectively with militantly religious terrorist groups, particularly al Qaeda. These groups were being increasingly implicated in large and deadly acts of violence overseas against various U.S. interests. Despite numerous “threat-and-response studies” considered by the Clinton administration, no consensus could be reached by the secularly institutionalized Washington concerning effective non-military policies for addressing and dispelling the appeal of the religious ideologies of these non-state, terrorist actors. Responses by the U.S. were mostly military ones, such as with the use of cruise missiles.

During the 2000s, the huge policy vacuum that remained in Washington toward engaging with relevant matters of religion in the Middle East meant that non-military policy had to be created on the run as they arose. Albright saw this personally in Iraq during the lead-up to Iraq’s first round of elections in January, 2005, when she chaired the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which works to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide. The organization is a nonpartisan and neutral NGO and as such cannot support one party over another.

In the lead-up to those elections, NDI was under Albright’s leadership, and at the time the nonprofit organization had been helping both the secular and religious Iraqi political parties to understand and implement the many aspects of a democratic electoral process. The Bush State Department, however, was seriously considering funneling tens of millions of dollars in material assistance to favored secular parties, in hopes of helping to defeat the religious parties.

It was a “dangerous idea,” Albright writes. “If we played favorites, we would confirm every suspicion about our intentions, make our rhetoric about democracy look foolish, and raise new questions about our attitude toward Islam. NDI warned that if the administration went forward with such a scheme, the institute would have to consider suspending its own programs, because its credibility would be destroyed and the security situation – already tense – would become intolerable.” It took months of serious debate before top officials at the State Department killed the proposal, but the Bush administration, she concluded, seemed “far more comfortable working with secular leaders than with Iraqi political parties for whom religion is central. This is true even when the religious leaders are moderate in orientation and generally accepting of U.S. goals.”[2]

Washington’s institutionalized predisposition to rely on a secular calculus for addressing religious issues in the Middle East may also have been evident in the Bush administration’s relationship with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the high-profile religious leader of Iraq’s large Shiite population. Due the country’s Shiite majority, Sistani immediately become Iraq’s most influential religious leader on political matters in the collapsed country, after the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in March-April, 2003. (As we saw in part three of this article, Shias outnumber Sunnis in Iraq. Nevertheless, under the dictator Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist Party, largely Sunni, governed the country.)

After Saddam’s removal, Sistani’s became the religious go-to voice guiding Iraq’s large Shia population through the troubled waters of the emerging political reconstruction of the government. And yet after Paul Bremer was appointed (May 2003) by President Bush to oversee reconstruction of Iraq, replacing Jay Garner, Bremer only ever managed to talk to Sistani through intermediaries, which took place when necessary. One would think that it would have been expedient, if not crucial, for Bremer to meet personally with the Grand Ayatollah on at least a somewhat regular basis during his year-long tenure as director of post-war planning in Iraq.

Sistani publicly supported the U.S. position on a number of vital political issues, but he opposed other issues vital to Washington. Face-to-face meetings have been known to lead to working through disagreements and reaching mutually accepted policies in a way that may not be possible when only using intermediaries. Of this, political essayist Paul Berman writes that the “Americans blamed the ayatollah for refusing to meet with them, [but with] a proper approach, any reasonable person will eventually yield to an insistent suitor. Sergio Vieira de Mello[3] succeeded in meeting with Sistani. The ayatollah was approachable.”[4]

We can see Sistani’s great sway with Iraq’s Shia population in the January 2005 legislative elections. It was because of Sistani’s edict instructing Shiites to vote in that election that President Bush, afterward, could trumpet the political event as one of his success stories in Iraq. Without Sistani’s edict authorizing them to vote, most Shia would probably have stayed home from the polls, being unsure if their religious beliefs permitted them to vote in that kind of election. An embarrassing turnout at the polls would have probably made it an historic embarrassment for the Bush White House (most Sunnis boycotted the elections and the Kurds represent a small percentage of the population). Further, the large Shiite vote that day won them a huge majority in the new 275-member Iraqi National Assembly.

children's tug of warThere are times, too, when a U.S. administration’s positive gesture toward religion in the Middle East will be criticized. In 2007, President Bush made a gesture which on the surface seemed so ordinary that many political analysts thought nothing of it. In July, President Bush called to congratulate Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (the AKP), which had won a landslide reelection over its two closest rival political parties.

What was wrong with calling to congratulate the Prime Minister? After all, America and Turkey are allies, and Turkey had been implementing serious steps for more than two  decades to be able to enter the European Union. Besides, the gesture may have signaled an improvement in Washington’s approach toward religion in the Middle East. Also, since it came to power in 2002, the AKP had been seen by many analysts as modernizers who fully supported a pluralist and democratic Turkey.

Author Steven Cook, a Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that the AKP has “presided over political and economic reforms that strengthened human rights, overhauled the penal code, improved parliamentary oversight, reined in Turkey’s powerful military establishment, and made Turkish economy the most dynamic in the region.” And with the July 2007 elections, the party returned to parliament with twenty-seven women (more than double any other party) and “scores of young liberal legislators who have joined because they want to live in a democracy.”[5]

What, then, could critics possibly have to complain about the congratulatory phone call? They fumed because the AKP is an Islamic party. President Bush, they said, should have commiserated with its two closest rivals, who lost, and who are secular. Although the AKP is what the Western media and press tend to call a “moderate” Islamic political party – to denote perceived differences to the aims of more militant political groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah – some groups in the West nevertheless strongly oppose the AKP.

Cook concludes that despite some Western suspicions about the AKP’s long term aims, Bush was right to “welcome the Justice and Development win, [for] the Arab world has taken a keen interest in the way both Europe and the United States deal with Turkey’s Islamist government, seeing Turkey as a test case for the West, for much of the Arab world has branded Washington’s democracy promotion policy as little more than hypocrisy.” Thus at the time, Bush’s support of Erdogan’s reelection helped “undermine Arab accusations and signals that Washington is not opposed to Islamist power, but rather opposes certain kinds of Islamist groups.”[6][7]

I hope that the foregoing examples have provided a good, behind-the-scenes practical introduction for negotiating the complicated and challenging secular/religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations. In hopes of presenting a more manageable understanding of that, I focused on issues smaller than the big, often sensationalized, ones that make the media.

The Muslim Middle East has much longer history of, and therefore is much more practiced at, orienting its religious backdrop to a secularized Washington than latter has at orienting its secular self to the former. Whereas the modern West at the Peace of Westphalia (1648) began weaning itself from official ecclesiastical influence upon the state, the Muslim world has had fourteen hundred years of religious experimenting with varied and diverse political structures. If, then, the foreign policy of the Muslim Middle East remains for the foreseeable future tied to explicit religious interests (this does seem predictable), then both the U.S. and the Muslim Middle East must find wisdom suitable for peaceable cooperation when negotiating the secular/religious intersection of their international relations.

The realistic picture that this article (begun here) paints of the religion – secular dilemma of U.S. – Middle East relations can leave us feeling queasy. And well it should. Until a new, different, and better paradigm for these international relations becomes normative, we have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. But we’ve got more than what we’re stuck with. In a week or two I hope to have finished (and then to post) an article that details the fine work being done by high-level individuals, organizations, and the U.S. State Department as they struggle, often against great odds, to develop and implement wise ways ahead for peaceably negotiating the rough secular/religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations for common good.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty, cpts 5, 7.

[2] Ibid., p. 177.

[3] Sergio Vieira de Mello was the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Iraq. His death in Iraq in August 2003, from a massive truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, led to the UN’s immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

[4] Paul Berman: Power and the Idealists (NY: W. W. Norton, 2007), pp. 264-265.

[5] Steven A. Cook, “Cheering an Islamist Victory,” Op-Ed in The Boston Globe, July 26, 2007.

[6] Ibid.

[7] In recent years, Turkey’s long path to EU membership has slowed to a crawl due to complication in negotiations that have yet to be resolved. Speeches made by Erdogan in 2015 reveal increasingly hardline rhetoric against the West. In Turkey’s 2015 general elections, the  AKP lost its long-standing parliamentary majority.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by Peter Nijenhuis, other image by Jennifer L. Sovanski (permissions via Creative Commons)

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