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The Role of Religion in U.S. National Security Policy since 9/11 - Religion as a Paradigm in National Security Policy
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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
Endnotes
Glossary of Key Islamic Terms
All Pages

Part III. Religion as Paradigm in National Security Policy

 

We have seen that religion will continue to play a powerful role in influencing matters of conflict and security, and that nuance will be needed to address the varying positions within Islam. We now turn to consider alternative paradigms for integrating religion within national security policy. We begin with national security policy of President George W. Bush (2001-2009).

Religion in the National Security Policy of President George W. Bush
Because President Bush was quite open about his religious faith, it is important to briefly consider the relationship of his faith to his national security policy. President Bush’s evangelical Christian faith undoubtedly provided motivation and guidance for him in his private and public life.181 His faith also affected his construal of the adversary in the global war on terrorism.182 That said, it appears that President Bush set policy based on his view of universal values, not his religion. For example, President Bush saw freedom and human kindness as universal values, created by God—not by the United States—for the benefit of all.183 A critical component of that freedom was religious freedom. Because of this, it made sense to President Bush to use national security policy to encourage growth of religious freedom in problematic societies, irrespective of whether their religion was fundamentally different from his own.184

This view of religion as an expression of the universal value of freedom was reflected in President Bush’s 2002 and 2006 National Security Strategies (henceforth, 2002 NSS and 2006 NSS).185 I will use these documents as representative of his national security policy.

President Bush’s 2002 NSS was a wartime document released just one year after 9/11. It framed the global war on terrorism as a war in defense of freedom and human dignity. The broader purpose of the 2002 NSS—“to create a balance of power that favors human freedom”—aligned with its foundational assumption—that “freedom is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity; the birthright of every person—in every civilization.”186

Toward the end of defending freedom within the homeland and abroad, the 2002 NSS expressed eight strategic imperatives. The first and arguably primary imperative focused on growing freedom by championing the non-negotiable components of a free society, which included “freedom of worship” and “religious tolerance.”187 Moreover, the 2002 NSS articulated policy ways to achieve these freedoms: speak out clearly about violations of these freedoms, use foreign aid to support those who struggle non-violently for these freedoms, develop these freedoms through bilateral relations, and “take special efforts to promote freedom of religion and conscience and defend it from encroachment by repressive governments.”188 If my reading of the 2002 NSS is correct, this promotion of religious freedom was also intended to buttress the “war of ideas” against international terrorism. By supporting moderate Muslim governments in their efforts to build freer and more robust societies, the United States would make it harder for terrorists to plant their violent ideologies.189

President Bush’s 2006 NSS similarly emphasized freedom as a universal desire, but it went further by elevating religious freedom to the status of “First Freedom”:

Against a terrorist enemy that is defined by religious intolerance, we defend the First Freedom: the right of people to believe and worship according to the dictates of their own conscience, free from the coercion of the state, the coercion of the majority, or the coercion of a minority that wants to dictate what other must believe.190

The 2006 NSS also offered additional policy ways to promote freedom of religion.191
Beyond these incremental changes, the 2006 NSS did advance a substantive addition to the role of religion in national security policy. It offered a strategic message that Islam was a “proud religion” that was being “twisted and made to serve an evil end.”192 It characterized terrorists as turning the concept of jihad into a “call for murder,” eliminating any religious freedom to disagree, even among Muslims.193 To meet this threat, the 2006 NSS offered both long-term and short-term strategies.194

Religion in the National Security Policy of President Barack Obama
Less than one month after his inauguration, during remarks at the first National Prayer Breakfast of his administration, President Barack Obama grounded his understanding of the role of religion in world affairs in his personal faith experience.195 Connected to a religiously diverse family and raised by a mother skeptical of organized religion, he came to view his mother as the most spiritual person he had ever known. She taught him “to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.”196 This understanding later became decisive for his own faith, which germinated in the context of community organizing in Chicago:

I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck—no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to.197

This personal faith perspective has led President Obama to articulate a positive view of religion as a force for unity. For President Obama, belief systems may vary, but all Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, and secular humanists stand united: “There is one law that binds all great religions together....the Golden Rule—the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”198 Based on this understanding of the essential nature of religion, President Obama has rejected as false any religion that would preach hate or condone the taking of innocent life.199

This view of religion as a force for unity is reflected in President Obama’s national security policy. To examine this view, I have used as sources the following major speeches which bear on the role of religion in his national security policy—President Obama’s January 20, 2009 Inaugural Address in Washington, DC (henceforth, Inaugural Address); his April 6, 2009 remarks to the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Turkey (henceforth, Ankara); his June 4, 2009 “On a New Beginning” speech at Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt (henceforth, Cairo); his July 11, 2009 “New Moment of Promise” speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in Accra, Ghana (henceforth, Accra); his November 10, 2009 remarks at the memorial service at Fort Hood, TX (henceforth, Fort Hood); and his December 1, 2009 “On the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan” speech at West Point, NY (henceforth, West Point).200

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama announced the beginning of a new policy of rapprochement with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” In Ankara, he began to unfold this policy by identifying three main objectives bearing on religion. The United States would work with the Muslim world to (1) “[roll] back violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject”; (2) listen respectfully, conquer misunderstandings, and seek common ground; and (3) “convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith.”201 Here President Obama began to edge past President Bush’s 2006 NSS position by calling on the United States to praise the religion of Islam and by implying that Muslim terrorists were not true Muslims. In a side note, President Obama also encouraged diversity of religious expression as important for building strong and vibrant societies.202

In Cairo President Obama retained his three-fold emphases from Ankara, but expanded them in his bid to make “a new beginning” with Islam. Going beyond the language of common interests with the Muslim world, President Obama spoke of a “partnership between America and Islam [that] must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” Toward that end, the President argued that the actions of terrorists placed them outside the religion of Islam.203 Moreover, he maintained that Islam participated in a fundamental unity with all religions: “There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. . . . It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.” Based on this concept of shared faith, the President challenged his Muslim audience: “We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning.”204 Retaining his previous side note, the President also encouraged his audience to embrace religious diversity to enable all people to live together.

At Accra, Fort Hood, and West Point President Obama continued to portray religion as a force for unity in matters of national security. At Accra, President Obama rejected as false any religion that would define itself over against another faith: “Defining oneself in opposition to someone...who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century....We are all God’s children.”205 At Fort Hood, during the memorial service that followed the shooting that left 13 dead and 30 injured, the President reasoned that all true religions were united against such acts of violence: “No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor.”206 At West Point, President Obama judged al-Qaeda terrorists to be beyond the pale of true religion, having “distorted and defiled Islam, one of the world’s great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents.” Returning to the language of mutual interests between America and the Muslim world, the President called for partnership in “breaking a cycle of conflict” and in “[isolating] those who kill innocents.”207

Three Paradigms for the Role of Religion in National Security Policy

1. Religion as Freedom

The role of religion in the national security of policy of President George W. Bush suggests a paradigm of Religion as Freedom.208 The narrative of this paradigm runs as follows: Freedom is a universal value. All people everywhere desire to live in free societies securely, with equal rights under the law. Chief among these rights is the freedom to choose one’s religion and worship according to one’s conscience. Current adversaries such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda wield power defined by religious intolerance, intending to establish repressive rule that would deny inhabitants their freedoms. To defeat these adversaries, the long-term solution requires working within the Muslim world to build and strengthen democratic institutions, in order to protect the rule of law and individual freedoms, including the freedom of religion.209

This paradigm suggests certain national security policy options that leverage Religion as Freedom: Support moderate Muslim governments and isolate radical Muslim terrorists, to help build freer societies and to make it harder for terrorists to plant their violent ideologies of religious intolerance. Champion religious freedom and speak out clearly against religious oppression. Praise the actions of, and award foreign aid to, moderate Islamic governments that work to promote freedom of religion. Build religious freedom through linkage with other policies across all elements of national power. Work multilaterally to encourage Islamic governments to support freedom of religion and to discourage terrorists who repress such freedoms. Show religious sensitivity.

Analysis of the paradigm of Religion as Freedom follows: The pros of this paradigm are that it resonates with the enduring American value of freedom; is fully transparent to the American public; enables a slightly nuanced understanding of various Islamic positions, distinguishing between those which support freedom of religion and those which do not; and takes the long view of growing peace in the Muslim world by growing institutions of freedom. The cons of this paradigm are that it emphasizes a western concept of freedom to choose and worship God over an Islamic concept to submit to God, omits any discussion of the decisive nature of Islamic unity,210 fails to promote understanding of evolving alignments within traditionalist Islam,211 and locks itself into a monolithic “freedom” framework for addressing the role of religion in future conflicts. These problems suggest that this paradigm will not find traction in the Muslim world, at least in the short run.

2. Religion as Unity

The role of religion in the national security of policy of President Barack Obama suggests a paradigm of Religion as Unity.212 The narrative of this paradigm runs as follows: All religions are bound together by a universal moral law to love one another and to treat each other with dignity and respect. Religion is, in the final analysis, faith in humanity. Because of this, the religions of the world are a powerful force for unity, properly used to encourage people to work to understand each other and to resolve conflict. Any “religion” that preaches otherwise—propagating hate, violence, or opposition toward another religion—is no true religion, but only a fraud and defilement. Islam is a religion which embraces peace and rejects violence. Current adversaries such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda represent no religion, but only hate and violence. To defeat these adversaries, the long-term solution requires forming an enduring partnership with the Muslim world, seeking opportunities to honor the Muslim faith, address mutual misunderstandings, and locate and pursue mutual interests.

This paradigm suggests certain national security policy options that leverage Religion as Unity: Enter into dialog with all Muslim governments in order to show honor to Islam, resolve mutual misunderstandings, pursue mutual interests, and especially to isolate violent terrorists. Integrate the strategic communication that all true religions are a powerful force for unity through their common commitment to love humanity, spread peace, and reject violence. Champion Islam as a religion of peace, and fight negative stereotypes. Praise the actions of, and award foreign aid to, moderate Muslim governments which work to resolve disagreements through dialog and non-violent means. Work multilaterally to encourage Islamic governments to marginalize violent ideologies and to enact policies that show dignity and respect to people of all faiths. Show religious sensitivity.

Analysis of the paradigm of Religion as Unity follows: The pros of this paradigm are that it resonates with many Muslims through its praise of Islam, undercuts certain terrorist recruitment arguments which vilify the West, leverages religion as a force for unity, takes an immediate view of growing peace in the Muslim world through open dialog with all Muslim governments, and promotes some understanding of evolving alignments within traditionalist Islam through open dialog. The cons of this paradigm are that it employs a concept of religious unity that assesses a moral equivalence between world religions, which traditionalist Muslims do not accept; generalizes Islam into a caricature of peace, failing to provide a nuanced understanding of varying Islamic faith positions or to address data that show support for terrorist tactics between 22 percent and 69 percent in certain Muslim countries;213 appears to lack full transparency to Americans who are aware of rates of Muslim support for terrorism; omits any discussion of the decisive nature of Islamic unity;214 and locks itself into a monolithic “unity” framework for addressing the role of religion in future conflicts. These problems suggest that this paradigm will run headlong into serious difficulties in the long run.

3. Religion as Ideology

The preceding discussion of the paradigms of Religion as Freedom and Religion as Unity shows how hard it is to locate an adequate framework for integrating religion within national security policy today. Each paradigm has its own strengths and weaknesses, but neither rises to the level where its discussion of religion contributes robustly to the promotion of national security.

We must certainly value the strengths of these paradigms. Each paradigm brings an important truth to the table. We should understand freedom of religion as a necessary component of free and robust societies, and work to plant and nourish that freedom. It is also true that religions often share a moral commitment to care for one’s neighbor, and that cooperative ventures to meet human needs can build human trust. Each paradigm rightly encourages respect for religious expression and commitment.

That said, we must also account for the weaknesses of these paradigms. Taking a step back and looking at the entire policy formulation process, the reason for the weaknesses becomes clear. Although each paradigm brings an important perspective to the table, each does so apart from a prior assessment of Islamic power within the strategic environment. It is all well and good to begin with the enduring values of the United States (as the Religion as Freedom paradigm does), or liberal democratic values (as the Religion as Unity paradigm does), and then to frame national interests in terms of those values. But policy rests not only on national interests, but also on a grand strategy and strategic vision that comprehend strategic power and threat. Operationally the adversary always gets a vote. To frame the adversary in terms of our enduring national values or liberal democratic values—which is essentially what each of these two paradigms does—will ensure that our strategic vision and policy, although partially correct, are fundamentally flawed. The adversary must be known in terms of his values, his center of gravity, and his objectives. Effective policy rests on the creative interplay of our values which beget our national interests, with our strategic vision which comprehends the nature of the power of an adversary.

This means that there can be no adequate determination of the role of religion in national security policy apart from a logically prior and accurate assessment of an adversary and his power. In the case of our current adversaries, this means that we must first understand radical Muslims and terrorists by way of their values, their center of gravity, and their objectives. To the extent that these are based in religion, we must understand their view of, and participation in, Islam as power. Only then can policy makers bring our values-generated interests to bear on the adversary’s power as it actually exists.

This suggests a new paradigm for the role of religion in national security policy. If at the level of grand strategy and strategic vision religion matters as a source of power, then at the level of policy religion matters as a source of behavior. Religion motivates, enables and directs behavior which can have consequences for national security. In this sense we are not discussing religion in its capacity as divine path, but religion in its capacity as ideology, i.e., as a moral framework of ideas that drives actions, values, and objectives. This is what I mean by the paradigm of Religion as Ideology.

This paradigm is particularly important because the federal government of the United States is religion-neutral.215 There is no place in United States national security policy for religion in the capacity of advocate for one faith or judge of another, but only for religion in its capacity as empowerment of human behavior. The focus must not be on belief, but on behavior. Such empowered behavior must be in view as national security policy frames its options to influence behavior toward the ends of our grand strategy in support of our national interests. This is especially critical because religious behavior frequently reflects the fullness of human aspiration in light of the breadth and depth of the human condition.

Part II of this paper attempted to provide the underpinnings of an estimate for a grand strategy and strategic vision that comprehends Islam as power. The paradigm of Religion as Ideology would argue the necessity of contextualizing this understanding of Islam as power before generating related national security policy options. First distinguish Islamic actors at the transnational, national, regional, and local levels by their behaviors. Identify their actions which demonstrate their understanding of jihad, their concept of universalizing Islam, their position relative to alignments within traditionalist Islam, and their support of terrorist violence. Second, for analytical purposes, aggregate those actors which demonstrate similar actions, values, and objectives. Only then formulate policy options, in light of our values-generated interests.

Examples of policy options might include: Integrate the strategic communication that the United States is committed to enhanced freedom, peace, and prosperity for its Muslim friends, but will oppose all those who use violence to achieve their political ends. Informed by the above critical distinctions regarding Islam as power, issue statements that articulate ideological differences between Islamic actors in terms of behaviors and objectives, taking care to neither praise nor judge the religion of Islam. In these statements identify positive actions such as participating in peaceful dialog and consensus building, committing publicly to peaceful coexistence with those of different faiths, protecting broader freedoms, honoring the value of every human life, showing respect for religious diversity, and meeting critical human needs. Also identify negative actions such as violence and repression against innocents, against women, and against those of other faiths; support for terrorism; and destruction of infrastructure. Enact a diversified policy of engagement with a continuum of rewards and support for actors with positive behavior, and consequences for actors with negative behavior. Use this diversified policy to move Islamic groups and governments incrementally toward the positive end of the spectrum. Work multilaterally wherever possible to support moderate Muslim governments and isolate radical Muslim terrorists by revealing the full costs of their actions. Use available elements of national power, both soft and hard, to support our national interests and the mutual interests we hold with the Muslim world. Synchronize policy actions across the interagency. Show religious sensitivity. Encourage respect for religious commitments.

The advantages of the paradigm of Religion as Ideology are numerous. First, this paradigm is based on a strategic vision that comprehends the power of Islam understood in terms of varying concepts of universalizing Islam, different forms of jihad, evolving alignments within traditionalist Islam, and various levels of support for terrorist violence. Second, it promotes a more nuanced understanding of different Islamic groups based on their behavior. Third, it allows a diversified continuum of “carrot and stick” responses based on the relative behaviors of actors. Fourth, it brings the fullness of American values to bear through articulated national interests vis-à-vis national security issues, without the limitations inherent in monolithic paradigms such as Religion as Freedom, or Religion as Unity. Fifth, it should appeal to moderate Muslim governments as the United States works multilaterally to pursue mutual interests and isolate terrorists. Sixth, it conforms to the traditions of the religiously neutral federal U.S. government, neither advocating for nor detracting from any religion, but only focusing on behaviors in light of national security concerns. Finally, the paradigm of Religion as Ideology should appeal to the American public as fully transparent.

There are, nonetheless, at least two risks associated with implementing this paradigm. First, changing from the paradigm of Religion as Unity to the paradigm of Religion as Ideology might appear to some western and moderate Islamic audiences to signal a new, negative orientation toward Islam. Second, terrorist recruiters might seize on the changed rhetoric of a United States no longer praising Islam as yet further justification for fighting the West.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 September 2015 11:22