This Journal is sponsored by the Assn. for Christian Conferences, Teaching and Service.

ISSN: 2354-8315 (Online)


The Role of Religion in U.S. National Security Policy since 9/11 - Historiographical Projections on Human Conflict and Religion
PDF Print E-mail
Article Index
The Role of Religion in U.S. National Security Policy since 9/11
Historiographical Projections on Human Conflict and Religion
The Power of Islam
Demographic Surveys
Religion as a Paradigm in National Security Policy
Conclusion: The Way Ahead
Glossary of Key Islamic Terms
All Pages

Part I. Historiographical Projections on Human Conflict and Religion


To understand the interplay between religion and national security, one may either look backwards across history to assess past connections, or forward from today to project future connections.10 I have chosen the latter way, as this allows an anchor point in the current but evolving geopolitical world, with its well-known national security challenges.

The four authors I survey—Alvin Toffler, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan—have proposed perhaps the most compelling alternative visions of the future world written in the past thirty years. Each advances his own paradigm, through which he offers a distinctive view of history and projects a future world.11 To a greater or lesser extent each author discusses his understanding of the causes and projected occurrences of violent conflict, and the attendant role of religion. I include this survey not to critique their works, nor to claim that their works were written to prove a connection between religion and national security interests;

I use their works to explore the relationship between religion and human conflict, within a set of possible futures, in order to project back a present-day azimuth for national security policy alternatives which consider the role of religion.

Alvin Toffler12
In his 1980 book, The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler pictures humanity’s struggle as the quest to absorb change and to craft a related ideology that offers meaning for the new reality. For Toffler, humanity has experienced three “waves” of change—first agriculture, second industry, and third super technology—each of which has radically altered civilizational self-understanding, societal practices, and personal meaning. The rise of agriculture ten thousand years ago brought the First Wave.13 The industrial revolution signaled the Second Wave.14 Now, a Third Wave has arisen, marked by technological innovation, data systems, decentralized media, renewable energy, invisible economies, chaos theory, fragmented values, and accelerated change.15

Toffler locates the seeds of human conflict within his concept of wave confluence. Confluence occurs when a new wave crashes into the previous wave, producing a new situation, a new synthesis, a new civilization. Such new civilizations reflect more than paradigm shifts for ordinary societal labor—from agriculture to industry to technological science. More critically, every new civilization “develops its own ‘super-ideology’ to explain reality and justify its own experience.”16

According to Toffler, struggle is the inevitable result of two waves crashing together, each with its own super-ideology. For Toffler, this explains the violent conflict—within states and between states—that occurred at the confluence of the First and Second Waves.17 Similarly, as the Second and Third Waves collide,

The decisive struggle today is between those who try to prop up and preserve industrial society (Second Wave) and those who are ready to advance beyond it (Third Wave). This is the super-struggle for tomorrow.

Other, more traditional conflicts between classes, races, and ideologies will not vanish. They may even—as suggested earlier—grow more violent, especially if we undergo large-scale economic turbulence. But all these conflicts will be absorbed into, and play themselves out within, the super-struggle as it rages through every human activity.18

This decisive struggle is intensified because the Third Wave has brought tremendous ideological challenges, including religious challenges. In the Second Wave, the typical citizen retained long-term commitments aligned with the majority.19 In the Third Wave, civilization now “makes allowances for individual difference, and embraces (rather than suppresses) racial, regional, religious, and subcultural variety.”20 The resultant stress is “tearing our families apart . . . shattering our values.”21 Toffler notes that this shift in ground rules has led many to pursue fundamentalist religion to find “something—almost anything—to believe in,”22 and to join religious cults in order to locate “community, structure, and meaning.”23

In short, Toffler treats the subject of religion not as a body of beliefs, but as a manifestation of the confluence of Second and Third Wave ideologies; not as a source of absolute truth, but as a proof of the fragmented values of Third Wave civilization; not as a majority-based morality to guide society, but as a pattern of minority-based power within society.24 This reading of Toffler suggests that religion—especially as fleshed out in fragmented, smaller faith communities—will become increasingly vocal and powerful. Effective Third Wave governments will include religious groups as stakeholders, much as they would any minority power base within their ruling coalition.

The policy implication for Toffler seems to be that it is wiser to include religion as a dynamic, societal force, than to omit it and risk irrelevancy or failure. Indeed, his interpretation of the 1979 Iranian Revolution offers a good illustration of how Third Wave national security policy may ignore religion only to its great peril:

Nurtured by the West, attempting to apply the Second Wave strategy, . . . [the pre-revolution] Teheran government conceived of development as a basically economic process. Religion, culture, family life, sexual roles—all these would take care of themselves if only the dollar signs were got right. . . . Despite certain unique circumstances—like the combustive mixture of oil and Islam—much of what happened in Iran was common to other countries pursuing the Second Wave strategy.25

Francis Fukuyama26
In his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama embarks on a brave journey to locate “a Universal History of mankind.”27 Toward this end, he seeks to determine the evolutionary engines of human history, identify tensions within the unfolding of the historical process, consider implications for his philosophical construal of anthropology and community, and project a provisional end state for humanity. Based on an optimistic philosophy of history and borrowing heavily from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,28 Fukuyama traces the evolution of systems of human governance in the light of the human condition, and tracks a path leading to universal liberal democracy.29 This would represent “the end of history,” i.e., its final, rational goal and manifestation.30

The historical process that would lead to universal liberal democracy, Fukuyama maintains, runs on the twin engines of economics and the human struggle for recognition. The former represents the simpler case for Fukuyama, given the power of technology and the “universal horizon of economic production possibilities.”31 The latter is more complex. Man’s desire to be recognized as possessing dignity and worth—in particular, his desire to be recognized as desirable, i.e., recognized as greater than his fellowman—has led to an historical chain of slave and master identities, and to war itself.32 Within this construct, Fukuyama finds religion, and also nationalism and other forms of ideology, to be penultimate fulfillments of the human struggle for recognition.33 Because religion can end up perpetuating slave and master identities,34 it presents an obstacle to forming liberal democracies which alone give full expression to the non-negotiable principles of “liberty and equality.”35

Fukuyama admits his historical method and anthropological assumptions generate analytical problems as humanity nears the final destination of history. If humanity and society separate themselves from their ideological foundations and commitments, how will this affect their ability to sustain themselves internally and engage the world externally? It is to this question we now turn, briefly considering difficulties in the areas of anthropology, sociology, and international relations. This line of inquiry will help sketch a preliminary picture of the role of religion and national security implications in Fukuyama’s projected future.

On the anthropological side, Fukuyama believes that the most probable danger is that “the creature who reportedly emerges at the end of history, the last man”36 will lose his passions, his ability to strive, and cease to be a true man. Having been indoctrinated that the birthright of every human is absolute freedom and absolute equality at absolutely no personal cost, the last man will have lost the capacity to make ultimate commitments and, therein, his capacity to be human.37 Fukuyama also warns of the opposite, less likely, danger—humanity jettisoning the entire project of liberal democracy due to its loss of absolutes. Religion, nationalism, and ideologies would then drive a history which had not ended, and whose demise had been prematurely projected.38

On the sociological side, within the United States, those private associations which previously enabled debate and built strength within liberal democracies would be so emptied of religion and other ideological causes that the public good, as the politically-negotiated coherence of privately-held rights, might well collapse.39 Where tolerance requires being open to all belief systems, it unavoidably attacks the normative character of any one system. Fukuyama’s surprising solution is to re-empower personal ideology, to include religion, in order to make liberalism sustainable. He argues:

No fundamental strengthening of community life will be possible unless individuals give back certain of their rights to communities, and accept the return of certain historical forms of intolerance.
. . . Men and women who made up American society . . . were for the most part members of religious communities held together by a common moral code and belief in God. . . . Liberal principles had a corrosive effect on the values predating liberalism necessary to sustain strong communities, and thereby on a liberal society’s ability to be self-sustaining.40

Regarding international relations, because societies and states are located at different distances from the end of history41—with some still retaining robust religious, nationalist, and cultural ideologies—the U.S. would still need to practice foreign relations so as to engage the power of religion in those lesser developed societies where it remains the decisive, or at least a not-yet-marginalized, power.42 Here Fukuyama singles out the Islamic world.

At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy. . . . Outside the Islamic world, there appears to be a general consensus that accepts liberal democracy’s claims to be the most rational form of government.43

For Fukuyama, Islam would seem to merit special attention in national security policy. He represents Islam as an ideology that attracts those who are already “culturally Islamic,”44 that possesses “its own code of morality and doctrine of political and social justice,”45 and that has “defeated liberal democracy in many parts of the Islamic world, posing a grave threat to liberal practices even in countries where it has not achieved political power directly.”46

To sum up, these difficulties seem to suggest a conclusion that runs counter to the overall direction of Fukuyama’s thesis. My reading of Fukuyama is that his projected post-historical United States would of necessity retain religion as a power within society and as a lens for addressing national security issues for that society. Thus, religion would remain a critical component of effective foreign policy in Fukuyama’s future world, to meet the challenges of external threats, internal associations, and enduring anthropological distinctions.

Samuel P. Huntington47
In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington presents the case that the best paradigm for understanding and addressing current international conflict is “the clash of civilizations.” Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the alignment of world states was based chiefly on ideology, with states falling into “three blocs.”48 With the collapse of communism, however, Huntington finds that “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict.”49 Today,

...the most important distinctions among people are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.... People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations.50

Identifying seven or eight such civilizations,51 Huntington concludes that “in the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.”52 Huntington calls such clashes “fault line wars.”53

Religion plays two key roles within Huntington’s paradigm. First, religion largely defines a civilization, and is usually its most important objective element.54 Huntington quotes English historian Christopher Dawson: “The great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.”55 Second, because religion is so significant for defining civilizations, religion frequently serves as a critical driver in fault line wars.

Consider the religious components in Huntington’s most likely and most dangerous fault line wars. At the “micro level” (localized wars), Huntington sees violent fault lines “between Islam and its Orthodox, Hindu, African, and Western Christian neighbors.”56 At the “macro level” (global wars), Huntington assesses the worst conflicts as occurring “between Muslim and Asian societies on the one hand, and the West on the other.” Overall, he projects that “dangerous clashes” (wars of greatest violence between states or entities from different civilizations) will result from the clash of “Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.” Religion provides fuel for Huntington’s future wars.57

Because Huntington explicitly names Islam as a civilization likely to clash in micro, macro, and dangerous wars, a further word is in order. Huntington reviews significant historical, political, cultural, and religious data as he makes his case for the likelihood of continued Islamic civilizational violence. His evidence may be grouped in three, overlapping areas: the Islamic Resurgence,58 Islamic consciousness without cohesion, and the intercivilizational Islamic-western clash.

First, Huntington documents an Islamic Resurgence59 wherein multitudes of Muslims have turned to Islam for

a source of identity, meaning, stability, legitimacy, development, power, and...hope epitomized in the slogan “Islam is the solution."...It embodies acceptance of modernity, rejection of Western culture, and recommitment to Islam as the guide to life in the modern world.60

This Islamic Resurgence he characterizes as a mainstream and pervasive civilizational adjustment vis-à-vis the West, aimed at returning Muslims to “a purer and more demanding form of their religion.”61 Powerful demographic trends such as large Islamic migrations to cities, exploding youth populations, and economic problems have played no small part in this Resurgence. Huntington believes that although this Resurgence will produce many social gains, it will leave unresolved “problems of social injustice, political repression, economic backwardness, and military weakness,” thus fueling future conflict.62

Second, Huntington considers the implications of a strong transnational Islamic consciousness that exists without cohesive power.63 Huntington finds that traditional Islamic commitments to “the family, the clan, and the tribe,” as well as to “unities of culture, religion, and empire,” are producing a strong and widespread Islamic consciousness.64 What is lacking today, however, is a core or lead state, or transnational power structure, to effect Islamic cohesion. The result has been instability through competition among aspiring Islamic states, sects, and transnational actors, each seeking to gain popular Muslim support to expand its own base and reach of power.

For Huntington, this instability and competition increases the potential for conflict within Islamic civilization, and between Islam and other civilizations.

Finally, Huntington addresses what he views as the basic clash of Islamic and western civilizations.65 Huntington tracks a stormy relationship between these civilizations across 1,400 years of history, with conflict flowing from “the nature of the two religions and the civilizations based on them.”66 He documents that “the argument is made that Islam has from the start been a religion of the sword,” that it has expanded by use of force when strong enough to do so, and that it has refused to grant equal protection under the law to adherents of other religions.67 Beyond such historical and theological concerns, Huntington lists current trends which have contributed to the clash: increases in Islamic population, unemployment, and the number of disaffected youth; greater Islamic confidence over against the West through the Islamic Resurgence; the West’s abrasive policies of universalizing its culture and meddling in conflicts in Islamic lands; the fall of communism, against which the West and Islam had made common cause; and increased intercivilizational contacts between Islam and the West, which have magnified intolerances between the two.68

Huntington’s view of the future is clear: religion as the preeminent cultural factor defining civilization will play a central role in any effective national security policy.69

Whatever the normative prejudices of the reader, whether one admits to the possibility of meaningful differences between religions and moral frameworks, or not, the data Huntington cites in order to demonstrate points of friction between civilizations based on religion, must be taken at a minimum as points of data regarding differences in human behavior, flowing from cultural differences between certain state, sub-state, and transnational identities. That such differences in behavior, irrespective of differences in belief, may lead to violence and war implies the criticality of addressing religion as behavior within national security policy.70

Robert Kaplan71
In his 2000 book, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, Robert Kaplan advances his vision of the post-Cold War world, with special attention to national security implications for the United States. According to Kaplan, the Cold War brought significant order and stability to a world that was suspended between the polarities of US and Soviet power, tamping down fractious cultural, societal, and religious forces. Such forces, however, gained traction with the fall of the Soviet Union, destabilizing many countries and regions, giving rise to “the coming anarchy.” Within this context, Kaplan sees “the environment” as “the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century.72

In Kaplan’s coming anarchy, the population will largely be divided into the “haves” and the “have nots,” based on the nature of the devolving world. Kaplan writes that “we are entering a bifurcated world” populated by “Fukuyama’s Last Man” and “Hobbes’s First Man.”73 The former presents the few—post-modern humanity which is well educated, well fed, dominant in technology, and successfully separated from the brutish world. The latter presents the many—entrapped humanity which is surrounded by anarchy, living in poverty, engulfed in cultural strife, and doomed to failure by environmental privation.74

The polarities of Kaplan’s future world imply that religion relates to concepts of security and stability in two different ways. First, Hobbes’s First Man lives his brutish life in the throes of contradictory cultures, extremist ideologies, and religious constructs. For such a First Man, Kaplan’s view is that although religion can sometimes be a positive force—contributing to individual empowerment, cultural identity, and societal order—more often religion is a negative force—undermining stability and fueling conflict.

It is in this context that Kaplan discusses Islamic violence.75 My reading of Kaplan suggests that although he sometimes interprets violence between Islamic peoples as springing from religious grounds, more frequently he perceives such Islamic violence as rising out of a cultural clash, with religion being subordinated to a specific Muslim culture. So it is that Turks may distrust and clash with Iranians, for example. That said, the cultural differences between Islam and the West are yet greater than the cultural differences within the House of Islam, so that in clashes between Islam and the West, a broader Muslim identity takes precedence.

This is not to suggest that Kaplan agrees with Huntington’s thesis of a monolithic Islam clashing with western civilization.76 Rather, Kaplan’s view is that Huntington has oversimplified the matter and misidentified the clash. The clash is not between Islam and the West, but properly within Islam, or more precisely, within the patchwork of competing ethnic groups and cultures which self-identify as Islamic; and then, only in a derived sense, between Islamic groups and cultures and the West.

But the role of religion in the life of the First Man is yet more complex. This is because Kaplan subordinates all such ethnic and cultural Islamic violence to his thesis of the coming anarchy. Kaplan describes “Islamic extremism [as] a psychological mechanism of many urbanized peasants threatened with the loss of traditions in pseudomodern cities where their values are under attack.”77 He sketches Islam as a religion bringing happiness to “millions of human beings in an increasingly impoverished environment,”78 but whose “very militancy makes it attractive to the downtrodden. It is the one religion that is prepared to fight.”79 Thus for Kaplan foundational militancy within Islam is subordinated to the broader cultural identity, which in turn is subordinated to the environmental struggle of the First Man. From his perspective, the secular government of modern Turkey presents an outstanding success story of an Islamic culture driving toward moderation and modernity, effecting vital order and infrastructure within an Islamic society, “making it much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.”80

Thus, in Kaplan’s world of the First Man, religion will play a pivotal role in personal identity, cultural clashes, and the broader environmental struggle. Religion, especially as an enabler of culture, will empower the broader struggle seeking to gain control of critical resources, in hopes of securing a modicum of security and stability.

Second, consider Kaplan’s appropriation of Fukuyama’s Last Man. Although this suburbanized, well-fed, and self-satisfied man may have no personal need of religion, he will still have a policy need of religion. If only to achieve the ends of improved international stability and his own security, he will still need to influence the other strife-filled world where religion is valued. Kaplan makes the related policy point that the United States may have to learn to connect with cultures with which it holds little in common. It may sometimes be in the best interests of the USA to support authoritarian regimes in acute need of social stability and economic development, though not yet ready for democratic elections and still perpetuating systems of injustice.81 Borrowing from James Madison in The Federalist, Kaplan suggests that American global engagement will likely best promote stability in fragile societies and governments by focusing on their “regional, religious, and communal self-concern.”82 Thus the Last Man’s foreign policy will still need to address the priorities of the First Man, to include his religion.

Toffler, Fukuyama, Huntington, and Kaplan all articulate different visions of the current and future world, with varying views of national security challenges. Each author, however, includes religion as a critical component in policy that would address those challenges effectively, and highlights Islam within that process. Specifically how religion might be treated within national security policy—as a mark of freedom, a symbol of unity, or an expression of ideology—I address in part III.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 September 2015 11:22