Religion and the Global War on Terrorism

Address by Dr. Douglas M. Johnston

As made clear by the experience of September 11 and its aftermath, the United States is operating at a distinct advantage when it comes to dealing with conflict that involves a significant religious component.  Indeed, the principal reason religious terrorism poses such a difficult challenge is because we as a nation-state have virtually no capability to understand this phenomenon, let alone deal with it.  For most of our country’s existence, religion has effectively been off the policymaker’s screen—a victim of enlightenment prejudice and its accompanying assumption that religion would have a declining influence in the affairs of state.  Tied closely to this has been our ongoing commitment to the rational-actor model of decisionmaking, which effectively excludes religion as an irrational factor.  As a result and as made abundantly clear by our experience in Iraq, the U.S. has little, if any, ability to deal with religious differences in a hostile setting.  Nor does it have any ability to counter demagogues like Bin Laden or Milosovic, who manipulate religion for their own purposes.

This lack of capability is not merely a function of purposeful neglect. It also relates to very real operational constraints imposed by our legal separation of church and state.  For example, there were instances early-on in Iraq where investments in the religious arena could have helped enormously with the security challenge, but the establishment clause relating to church/state considerations got in the way (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).

It is also sadly the case that we have let our commitment to separation of church and state serve as a crutch for not doing the necessary homework to understand how religion informs the world views and political aspirations of others (who don’t similarly subscribe to the idea of separation).  With the wake-up call of September 11, however, religion is finally moving into our policy calculations as a defining element of national security and with it accompanying concerns about the prospective marriage of religious extremism with weapons of mass destruction.

In confronting the challenge of religious terrorism, it first becomes necessary to understand how it works. After all, most religions at their core subscribe to laudable principles of neighborly concern, the betterment of humanity, and one’s relation with one’s Creator (for those religions that profess a Creator).  So, why is it that religion is so easily co-opted by power politics or the forces of nationalism? In most instances, co-option takes the form of a badge of identity or a mobilizing vehicle for nationalist or ethnic passions. At times, though, it assumes a more central role, more often than not as a result of manipulating holy scripture. For example, how is it that Bin Laden can claim religious legitimacy for suicidal attacks against civilians when the Qur’an specifically prohibits both suicide and attacks against innocents?  Bin Laden answers this question by noting that:

“It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression… Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her in security and peace? You may then dispute that all the above does not justify aggression against civilians, for crimes they did not commit and offenses in which they did not partake.”

Bin Laden justifies such attacks on the basis that the American people choose their government through their own free will–a choice that stems from their agreement with its policies–and that they pay the taxes which “fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq. So the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us.”

On a related note and in his self-appointed role as a religious spokesman, Bin Laden cites verse 89 of Surah 4 in the Qur’an as a call to violence:  “Slay the enemy wherever you find them.”  In isolation, this verse seemingly promotes a spirit of violence. However, if one continues on to verse 90, one finds the opposite to be the case: “If they leave you alone and offer to make peace with you, God does not allow you to harm them.” Muslim extremists purposely overlook this second half of the admonition, and in so doing compromise Qur’anic intent.

There is no end to the verses al Qaeda can find to meet its ends, just as officials of the Dutch Reformed Church were able to do in justifying apartheid in South Africa or Jewish zealots do today in justifying their misdeeds in the West Bank. Sadly, the task of perversion is made all the easier by the impoverished circumstances that prevail in most Muslim countries. In South Asia, for example, where the Washington-based International Center for Religion & Diplomacy is teamed up with an Islamic policy studies institute in reforming the madrasas (religious schools), including those that gave rise to the Taliban, it is not unusual to find students who attend these schools solely because they are provided free room and board.  Nor is it unusual to find students who have memorized the Qur’an from cover to cover but who have no idea what any of it means. Because their first language is Urdu or Pashto (or some equivalent) and the Qur’an is in Arabic, it often becomes a matter of mindlessly memorizing what are no more than a medley of strange sounds to the students. (Although students typically receive some exposure to Arabic, it is by no means sufficient to provide Qur’anic understanding).  Then when the local militant comes along and misappropriates a few verses of scripture to enlist new recruits, the student, who has no ability to question or challenge, becomes easy prey.

When religious scripture is retrieved selectively and applied situationally, it thus becomes a powerful tool for justifying the unjustifiable. This is crucial for religious terrorists where religious legitimacy trumps all other considerations. If they can point to a “precedent” in sacred scripture or tradition, opponents will find it difficult to dispute the morality of their actions, despite their obvious contradiction with the overarching spirit of the religion. This is true of all major world religions, as illustrated by the bitter 20 year conflict in Sri Lanka where the peaceful tenets of Buddhism have been perverted to justify an endless stream of military atrocities.

So why doesn’t someone set the record straight? Though long overdue, there are signs that this is finally beginning to happen. A poignant example recently cited in the Christian Science Monitor involves a development that has taken place over the past several years in Yemen, one of the most ignored, yet important fronts in the war on terrorism.  In late 2002, a Yemeni judge, Hamoud al-Hitar, announced to five captured al Qaeda members that, if they could convince him and four other scholars that their (the captives’) ideas were justified by the Qur’an, the judge and his colleagues would join their struggle. If they, however, could convince the captured terrorists otherwise, then the terrorists would have to renounce violence.

This high-stakes theological poker was readily accepted by the prisoners, who were supremely confident in the soundness of their interpretations. With the help of Judge Hitar and his team, however, they came to see just how wrong they had been. Two years later, those five prisoners, and more than three hundred others like them have been released after engaging in such a dialogue. According to the Judge, and as affirmed by European diplomats, the approach has been highly successful, with a relative calm falling over the once unruly (and largely failed) Yemeni state.

To be sure, this approach, which was largely criticized in the West before its success became apparent, is no panacea. The Yemeni government has also taken a harder line with the extremists, from shutting down certain madrasas to deporting foreign militants. But the Judge’s program coupled with vocational training and job placement assistance is proving to be an effective antidote to the hopelessness that often feeds the resort to violence.  And its impact operationally has been dramatic. Some of the former militants have led authorities to weapons caches and even provided advice on tracking militants. In one astounding example, a reformed militant provided the tip to authorities that resulted in the death of the top al Qaeda commander in Yemen by a U.S. air-strike.

As evidenced by the Yemeni experiment, these sorts of organic approaches may well hold the key to dealing with the plague of religious terrorism. At the same time, though, there are steps that can be taken institutionally to enhance our national effectiveness in dealing with this problem.  First, one needs to bring to bear any existing assets that are relevant to this new challenge.  Foremost among such assets are the chaplain corps of the U.S. military services.  Historically, the role of military chaplains has been one of addressing the spiritual needs of the men and women of their respective commands.  With additional training and expanded rules of engagement, however, they could also significantly enhance their command’s ability to deal with the religious dimensions of military operations.

Through greater and more effective interaction with local religious communities and nongovernmental organizations, chaplains could develop an improved understanding of the religious and cultural nuances at play and help identify incipient threats to stability posed by religious frictions or ethno-religious demagogues.  At times, they might also be able to provide a reconciling influence in addressing misunderstandings or difficulties that may arise between their commands and the local communities.  Finally, they could provide informed and politically sensitive advice to their commanders on the religious and cultural implications of operational decisions that are about to be taken or that should be taken.  In other words, in addition to their ongoing function of addressing human casualties after conflict has erupted, chaplains could and should be viewed as important tools for preventing its eruption in the first instance.

In 2001, the previously mentioned International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) led an effort to train all U.S. Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard chaplains in a nuanced examination of religion and statecraft, with an eye toward playing the kinds of roles suggested above.  The purpose was to enhance the conflict prevention capabilities of the sea-service commands (i.e. those commands that that are typically at the cutting edge of our involvements overseas).  As might be predicted, about a third of the chaplains were enthused about the possibility of enhancing their role, and another third were quite willing to give it a try.  Although the remaining third weren’t very interested at all, the fact remains that their colleagues who were, constitute a formidable capability that could be brought to bear to good effect.  All that is required is for the military services to expand the chaplains’ rules of engagement to encompass these kinds of activities (in addition to what they are already doing).  As a resource already-in-being, the only costs involved would be those associated with the additional training that would be required.  Moreover, any constraints relating to separation of church and state would largely be finessed, since the chaplains already deal with both.

A second asset that can be brought to bear in situations where political considerations may (or may not) preclude effective government intervention is the trans-national capability of NGOs (non-governmental organizations).  Illustrative of the potential these NGOs have is the role that ICRD has played in the Sudan over the past five years.  At a time when U.S. policy toward Sudan was one of isolation and demonization, the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy set out to establish relationships of trust with Sudanese religious and political leaders on both sides of the conflict (with a special focus on the Islamic regime in the North) and from that vantage point inspire them to take steps toward peace that they would not otherwise take.

In addition to assisting behind the scenes to bring an end to Sudan’s long-running civil war between the Islamic North and the Christian/African Traditionalist South, ICRD undertook a couple of complementary institutional initiatives designed to ensure that any peace that eventually materialized would be lasting in nature. (More than two million people paid with their lives because an earlier peace brokered in 1972 subsequently broke down).  Chief among these was the establishment in 2003 of the Sudan Inter-religious Council (SIRC), which for the first time in that country’s history, provides a forum where key Muslim and Christian religious leaders can come together on a regular basis to work out their problems.  As an independent body, the SIRC has as one of its principal objectives the task of influencing Sudan government policies on human rights, education, employment, media access and the like.  In just the first few months of its existence, the Council was able to advance the interests of non-Muslims well beyond what the churches had been able to achieve working on their own over the previous 10 years.

The second institutional initiative involved the creation this past year of a Committee to Protect Religious Freedom (CPRF), which serves under the Council’s auspices.  Until this Committee’s establishment, there was no mechanism for investigating alleged violations of religious freedom to determine the truth of what had actually taken place.  Nor was there any capability to rectify a problem if the facts ever became known.  The CPRF is now bringing accountability to this highly sensitive area through the use of fact-finding teams and follow-through recommendations for the concerned parties and governmental authorities.

It is significant that these two independent bodies were formed in a totalitarian context.  Not only did the Islamic regime permit their establishment, but it also agreed to give serious consideration to their recommendations.  To date, the government has honored that commitment, even though doing so has required a significant expenditure of funds.  All of this is notwithstanding the intra-Muslim conflict that continues to rage in the Western state of Darfur.  Even there, however, the SIRC in its capacity as a reputable reconciling body recently convened a major conference on Darfur (a conflict that some would say is beyond its purview); and they did it against the wishes of the government.

The above undertaking in Sudan is illustrative of the extensive maneuverability that NGOs often enjoy, especially when more traditional approaches are precluded.  Because the efforts of NGOs involved in this kind of work are typically constrained by inadequate resources, economic (and other) incentives should be created to facilitate the development of a private funding base that would enable these NGOs to take their effective programs to scale.

Beyond strategically redeploying existing assets to counter religious terrorism, another step that could be taken would involve the creation of a religion attaché position within the U.S. Foreign Service (for assignment to diplomatic missions in those countries where religion has particular salience).  These attachés could help U.S. missions deal more effectively with complex religious issues that typically get pushed aside by more pressing business.  It is the neglect of such issues that has led to uninformed foreign policy choices in such places as Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.

A cadre of thirty such attachés could cover the globe and greatly enhance our ability to anticipate religious developments and their prospective impact on the conduct of international relations.  It would cost approximately ten million dollars annually to train, deploy, and maintain such a cadre; and while that may sound like a great deal of money, it pales in comparison to the billions that are currently being spent to address the symptoms of the problem, such as baggage inspectors and the like.

In much the same manner that setting a counter-fire is often the best antidote for a blaze that is raging out of control, so too does religious reconciliation offer a potential counter to religious terrorism.  Incorporating religion as part of the solution, however, is not without its challenges.  Beyond requiring a special set of skills, the work itself is physically, emotionally, and psychologically draining.  And it is by no means risk-free.  Most conflicts are accompanied by vested sets of interests that want to see them continue, and more than a few spiritually-motivated peacemakers have paid the ultimate price for their efforts.  Despite such risks and whatever other discomfort one may feel in navigating the uncharted waters of spiritual engagement, the stakes are simply too high to refuse the challenge.  Only time will tell if we are up to the task.



Address by Douglas Johnston to a conference on “Understanding Terrorist Networks and Organizations” at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.
May 4, 2005

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