Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 3 of 4

Islam at night 2In part one and part two of this article we looked at the strong influence of secularism on the history of the foreign policy establishment of the United States. But Washington’s relations with the capitals of the Muslim Middle East is not a one-way street. In this post I want to offer an overview of the strong, yet varied, influence of religion in the capitals of the Middle East. This affects their international relations, and some insight into it is crucial for understanding the secular – religious dilemma of U.S. – Mideast relations.

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

U.S.– Mideast relations run both ways. Whereas Washington approaches the Middle East from a secularized orientation, the capitals of the Muslim Middle East rely on varying degrees of explicit religious belief, depending on the country in question. In other words, although everyone knows that Islam is that religion, it less commonly understood that there is no universal agreement in the Muslim world how each government should express Islam politically.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a monarchy based on Islamic law (shari’a) as it is interpreted and applied through the powerfully influential and well-instituted Wahhabi Sunni branch of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism controls and runs mosques, schools, and clerics, and preaches and enforces a strict Islamic fundamentalism that strongly influences all of areas life. This strict kind of Islam, for instance, has made constructing churches and synagogues in the country illegal.

Like Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam is by far the most dominant religion in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. But note some crucial differences. In Jordan, a monarchy, Islam is the state religion but, opposite of Saudi Arabia, Jordan is tolerant of non-Islamic religions. Egypt is an Arab republic (not a monarchy), with Islam as the state religion, and the country has significant Christian minorities in the Coptics and Roman Catholics. In Lebanon, the Arab country with the largest percentage of Christians, a unique political system is designed so that more that a dozen different religious groups, mainly Muslim and Christian, are structurally factored into the national government. “Parliamentary seats, ministries, governments jobs, and so on are apportioned according to these different confessional groups. So the political process formally recognizes these religious groups, that each one should have a share in the pie.”

Iran is different still. It is not a monarchy and Shia Islam is dominant, and for most of the mid-twentieth century, the government of Iran was secularized and practiced, in part, separation of mosque and state. Today, Iran a theocracy, constitutionally identified as an Islamic republic. The secularization of the government ended 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979 (he overthrew the country’s American-backed Shah). The contemporary determinacy between the religion of Islam and the politics of Iran dates back to the time. A religious Supreme Leader has since then been the head of the government (first Khomeini, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).

Besides the Supreme Leader, a twelve member Guardian Council, comprised of six jurists and six religious clerics (all must be highly-educated, dedicated Shia Muslims), oversees parliament. The Council can veto any piece of legislation that it deems to violate Islamic law (shari’a) or the Iranian constitution. The Council approves or disqualifies candidates wishing to run for any election. One of the more alarming ramifications of this for Western powers has been when Council at times disqualified nearly all reformist candidates who were seeking to run for political office, either for seats in parliament or for the presidency.

In this religious–political mix of government the Supreme Leader is thought by Iran’s ruling clerics to be God’s representative on Earth, in the sense of being directly answerable to God, and therefore not as susceptible to public opinion as are Iran’s president and members of parliament.  He is not elected by the public but selected by the Assembly of Experts. Under him is the president, who is elected by the people, and a parliament, also comprised of elected officials. Also, the Supreme Leader has been invested in the legal structure of the Islamic Republic with ultimate political authority. He has the final word on all matters of state, including foreign policy.

Iraqi girl at windowIraq is different still. Iraq’s system of government is constitutionally republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic. Its constitution makes Islam the official religion of the state and “a foundation source of legislation” that “guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.” Shias outnumber Sunnis in Iraq, but under the dictator Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist Party, largely Sunni, ruled. After Saddam Hussein’s fall from power in 2003, a predominantly Shia government has ruled Iraq.

Syria is an Arab republic in which Islamic jurisprudence, as stated in its constitution, is “a major source of legislation. The State shall respect all religions, and ensure the freedom to perform all the rituals that do not prejudice public order. The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected.” The Sunni Baath Party controls every facet of Syria, including its military, even during the current horrific civil – religious war.

There are, of course, other Muslim countries in the Middle East. I have only noted some basic, mainly constitutional, religious features of the foregoing seven countries to indicate their governments’ different understanding of how Islam should be expressed politically. It is crucial to understand that there does not exist a single governmental pattern of Islam operating everywhere in the Middle East. This means that Washington cannot have, thus it does not have, a one-size-fits-all foreign policy for the Muslim Middle East. That is impossible.

Yet it is not unusual to find U.S. citizens talking as if “they’re all the same over there.” No, they are not. Foreign policy decision making for a secularly institutionalized White House and Congress in the political–religious diversity of the Muslim Middle East is complicated and challenging. The U.S. has diverse policies for these states.

In the Muslim Middle East, the official conjunction of religion and the state, often called political Islam, seems like a bad marriage to most Americans. In the Muslim world, the alliance is generally considered a good marriage (perhaps it is better to think in the plural, here, “marriages,” since there is no single way in which state politics and religion are wed in that region).

The governments of Muslim majority countries face complicated and challenging decisions. They struggle, for instance, each in its own way, with issues such as democracy, modernization, and globalization vis a vis what (they determine) faithfulness to Islam requires of them in such areas. One of the current crucial international decisions they grapple with is how much cooperation they ought to give to Western powers in dealing with ISIS (a radical Sunni organization). In this, the division between Sunni and Shia governments in the region has played a crucial role in influencing foreign policy. That is, just as Washington engages differently with the various capitals of the Middle East, the various capitals of the Middle East have different policies toward ISIS, and their interpretations of Islam plays a large role in this. Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, for instance, have dissimilar policies toward ISIS.

One thing that does unite the varied religious expression of Islam is that they all face a common problem in the institutionalized, secular reductivism that controls the international relations of America and the rest of the West. This does not mean, however, that when, say, Iran’s foreign minister meets his American counterpart that the former talks like a theologian. He talks to his American counterpart, and seeks agreements, in the language of politics. But he will come to the table knowing that an explicit religious environment hovers over his head nearby.

Countries of the Muslim Middle East, then, face the equal opposite problem to that of the United States. Because their political governances formally recognize religious interests, albeit in varying capacities and with different theological interpretations of Islam, each one must contend from its religious point of view with how its relations should, or should not, develop with the United States, where religious authority is excluded from playing any official role.

Despite ongoing, serious attempts to solve it, the nub issue remains: finding peaceable and just ways to negotiate the secular – religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations. Part four of this article will look at ways in which the United States has in recent decades faced challenges at this crucial intersection, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much.


[1] “The Christian Message in Lebanon,” Christianity Today, Aug. 2007, journalist Rami Khouri interviewed by Charles Strohmer

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by Wajahat Mahmood; other image by dvidshub (permissions via Creative Commons).

Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 2 of 4

crescent moonIn Part 1 of this article I discussed why it seemed somewhat odd that the fledgling new nation of the United States of America decided not include a “department of religion” in its foreign policy structure. On the other hand, as a sign of the intellectual times, it seemed normal. But what were those times? Let’s look at that in this post. It was the end of the eighteenth century, and America’s founding fathers, politically, had drawn heavily from Enlightenment rationalism’s so-called secular way of doing politics. And that has had serious implications for U.S. foreign policy ever since. See what you think. Let’s have some conversation about this.

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

The secularization of U.S. foreign policy has been aptly explored by Scott Thomas in The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. An international relations scholar from the London School of Economics who teaches at the University of Bath, Thomas asks us to think about the conceptual map of secularism that has informed U.S. foreign policy making since its beginning.

The map dates back to Enlightenment reasoning, and on it Thomas finds four primary contours that have historically shaped Washington’s approach to international relations. These contours suggest why it is difficult, if not unthinkable, for any presidential administration to seek the proper place of religion in U.S. foreign affairs. Briefly summarized here, the four contours are:

1) Secularization theory, which “helped to explain religion away, rather than to explain its significance in social action,” for it was “argued that the numbers of people who declare themselves to be believers and who regularly attend religious services will steadily decline as a country modernizes.”[1]

2) The civil war between Catholics and Protestants in France (1550-1650) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) had engulfed all of Europe. The treaties that ended these catastrophic wars brought about what has been called the Westphalian era, in which the rise of “the liberal or secular state” was going to “save us from the cruel and violent consequences of religion. The modern state, the privatization of religion, and the secularization of politics arose to limit religion’s domestic influence, minimize the affect of religious disputes, and end the bloody and destructive role of religion in international affairs.”[2] In the Westphalian system, political governance is organized around states’ so-called secular interests; religious toleration domestically, and religious noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states, are also guiding principles.

3) All of the different Western schools of international relations that have arisen since the seventeenth century have downplayed the study of religion upon international relations. Instead, each school in its own way (e.g., political realism and political idealism), have focused on aspects such as military power, national interests, the balance of power, international law, and international institutions.[3]

4) The Westphalian model has followed the dictates of the modern scientific method, whose twin controls of naturalism and materialism admit into its theories only one reality, the physical world. Here, religion is seen, at best, as a mere epiphenomenon, rather than as a basic instinct of human nature.[4]

To sum up…, Western political theory has explicitly followed secular contours. In so doing it has shaped and validated approaches to the study and practice of international relations and foreign policy in ways that have marginalized the legitimate interests and concerns of religious actors, religious belief, and religious institutions. After settling in, this political way of thinking has had more than 200 years to become second nature to specialists in U.S. foreign policy.

choicesSimilar to Thomas, Edward Luttwak, an international relations historian, attributes Washington’s basic foreign policy problem with religion to what he calls its secularizing reductivism. And he adds this, which helps explain why political analysts, journalists, and others were caught short on the religious implications of 9/11. Today, “Enlightenment prejudice … has remained amply manifest in the contemporary professional analysis of foreign affairs.” And with the sway of modern secularism, both politicians and journalists have often ignored “the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivation in explaining politics and conflict.” Instead, they have focused far too much on geographic, economic, social, political, or other non-religious primary causes. For Luttwak, this indicates “a learned repugnance to contend intellectually with all that is religion or belongs to it.”[5]

As I was thinking and writing about this one day back in 2007, I conducted a simple experiment. I pushed my chair back from my writing desk and took a break. I walked to my book shelves, where at the time I had fifty-two titles covering U.S. and Western international relations history, theory, and practice. Twelve of those titles were then in use in American university classrooms. (I ignored the other titles for this experiment.) I wanted to know how much attention the classroom texts (the twelve I knew about) gave to issues of religion in foreign policy. So I made some notes. Of the approximately 3,600 pages that comprise these twelve titles, only 76 pages addressed religious concerns, with many of the references limited to a short paragraph or less. And 61 of those pages appeared in one book![6]

Drawing from her personal experience as a foreign policy student, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirms the systemic, academic disinterest in religion in university IR classrooms. In The Mighty and the Almighty, Albright reveals that her education in world affairs gave her quite a distaste for anything to do with religion in international relations. To some of her Georgetown students, she opened a window on her academic training:

My speciality was foreign policy, about which such icons as Hans Morganthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. In their view, individuals and groups could be identified by the nations to which they belonged. Countries had governments. Governments acted to protect their nations’ interests, at least to the point where wars did not break out and the world did not blow up. Foreign policy was commonly compared to a game of chess: cerebral, with both sides knowing the rules. This was a contest governed by logic; its players spoke in the manner of lawyers, not preachers…. Religion was not a respecter of national borders; it was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions; and, historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion. This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and as secretary of state. My colleagues felt the same. [7]

Like many in her field, Albright moved off this position after 9/11. Now when teaching in university classrooms she explains to students that learning about world affairs “cannot be done without taking religious tenets and motivations fully into account.”[8]

U.S foreign policy, of course, is not a one-way street. The formal role that religion plays in foreign policy toward America by Muslim majority countries in the Middle East is the other horn of the dilemma in U.S. – Mideast relations. Part 3 of this article delves into this much misunderstood area.


[1] Scott M. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillian, 2005), pp. 50, 52.

[2] Ibid., p. 22; see also pp. 54-55.

[3] Ibid., pp. 55-58.

[4] Ibid., pp. 59-63.

[5] Johnston and Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft; Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” pp. 8-10.

[6] The twelve titles: The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939; The Anarchical Society; Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations; Paths to Power; Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy; Neorealism and Its Critics; Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Understanding International Conflicts; Power and Independence; Politics Among Nations; American Diplomacy; Promised Land, Crusader State (the title with the 61 pages). For complete title information, see this Bibliography on the Web.

[7] Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 8.

[8] Ibid., p. 11.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images: Crescent moon by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; two paths by William Ward (permissions via Creatve Commons).

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.)


[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.