The Case for a Religion Attaché

By Dr. Douglas M. Johnston

The U.S. needs to elevate the consideration of religious factors in foreign policy. Appointing religion attachés to gather information in key countries would be a key step toward this end.

As the United States recovers from the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the focus of government action and popular attention has been the war on terrorism and the campaign in Afghanistan. At home, measures ranging from tightening security in government buildings and installations to federalizing airport baggage handlers add to a growing list of expenditures to address various symptoms of the problem. (The annual cost of the new Transportation Security Administration alone will be $1.25 billion.) But what about the underlying causes? Aside from the steps that are being taken to eradicate terrorism, is there anything comparable that the U.S. could do to address such motives before they give rise to violent expression?

One of the most helpful steps we could take in this regard would be to elevate the consideration of religious factors within the U.S policy-makers’ calculus, a step that is long-overdue. Reluctance to consider religious factors cost the U.S. dearly in Iran and Lebanon a quarter-century ago, to name just two countries where we simply did not understand or respond to the religious dynamics.

In the case of Iran, President Carter and his top policy-makers in Washington were caught unaware by the Islamic revolution, even though Embassy Tehran’s own reporting at the time noted that the Ayatollah Khomeini had emerged as the most outspoken critic of the government, that the Shah’s Islamic opponents were in a strong position, and that the Shah’s days were probably numbered. These observations were effectively suppressed at higher levels by the combined influence of economic determinism and dogmatic secularism.

It is entirely possible that a greater recognition and accommodation of the religious dimension may not have significantly altered the outcome in either of those situations. On the other hand, if the religious factors had been properly considered, the resulting improvements in our ability to anticipate and react could conceivably have spared us untold national embarrassment in Iran (and the embassy staff in Tehran 444 days of anguish). The same could also be said for Lebanon (and the loss of 241 U.S. Marines) several years later.

A more recent example of Western indifference to religious imperatives was the NATO decision to bomb Serbia on Orthodox Easter in 1999. Although the issue was intensely debated at the time, the choice to bomb was apparently taken out of a concern that if the bombing were to stop even for a day, it might prove difficult to get the Allies to reengage the following day. Whatever the rationale, it is a decision the Serbs will never forget. As they were quick to point out, the only others to have bombed them on this holy day were the Germans in World War II.

Proper consideration of the religious factors in political conflicts, however, will not necessarily ensure a predictable outcome. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, for example, there was considerable hand-wringing in U.S. policy circles on whether or not to continue the bombing of Afghanistan during Ramadan. The concern was well placed, but in this instance, historical precedent suggested a greater room for maneuver.

The first consideration in such a decision is understanding exactly what it is that the religious observance is celebrating. Then it becomes instructive to examine how Muslims themselves have dealt with this same kind of issue. During the Iran-Iraq War, for example, both sides fought through Ramadan every year of the conflict (although Saddam Hussein once offered a Ramadan cease-fire, only to have it rejected by the Ayatollah Khomeini). In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel during Ramadan. While commonly referred to in the West as the Yom Kippur War, among Muslims it is known as the Ramadan War. Finally, in 624 AD, Mohammed himself conquered the holy city of Mecca during Ramadan. While none of this should be viewed as a license to do as one pleases, it does provide a helpful context for determining how to deal with such questions.

More Now Than Ever

It is particularly strange that religion has yet to be incorporated as a major consideration in U.S. foreign policy since it is central to much of the strife that is taking place in the world today. Almost anywhere one turns — Macedonia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Chechnya, Kashmir, Sudan or Sri Lanka, for example — one finds a religious dimension to the hostilities. Whether it is the root cause of a conflict, as it is in the Middle East where there are competing religious claims to the same piece of real estate, or merely a mobilizing vehicle for nationalist and ethnic passions, as has traditionally been the case in the Balkans, religion’s potential to cause instability at all levels of the global system is arguably unrivaled. And as the Sept. 11 attacks brought home all too vividly, we must face the very real possibility of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of religious extremists.

Without the Cold War to suppress its influence, religious conflict has become widespread, virulent and inimical to vital U.S. national interests. South Asia is replete with ethno-religious challenges that are being dealt with along traditional secularist lines. Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir stare nervously at one another through the cross-hairs of their rifle sights or, more ominously, their nuclear delivery systems — ever susceptible to the flames of nationalism and religious unrest. In Sri Lanka, the tenets of Buddhism have been perverted to justify a never-ending stream of military atrocities between the Buddhist majority and the Tamil separatists.

Further east, there is Indonesia, an immense archipelago straddling a number of the world’s vital shipping lanes. Once considered a rock of stability, it is periodically wracked with religious violence so severe that some fear it may Middle East over their mutual religious claims to Jerusalem, as terrorists find continuing inspiration to play their deadly game.

In all likelihood, religion’s importance will only continue to increase in response to the growing threat to traditional values posed by economic globilization and the uncertainties stemming from the revolutionary pace of technology change. To underestimate these realities in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy is to tempt the gods, so to speak.

A New Approach

One effective way to give the religious factor its just due as a defining element of national power would be to create a new position within the Foreign Service — that of the religion attaché. These attachés would be assigned to diplomatic missions in those countries where religion has a particular salience. Included in their portfolio of responsibilities would be the tasks of developing relationships of trust with local religious leaders and groups, reporting on relevant religious movements and developments, and helping the mission to deal more effectively with complex religious issues.

The religion attaché’s role would not differ dramatically from that of the cultural officer in his or her performance of public diplomacy, except for its narrower focus on religion and its requirement for special aptitudes and training to deal with the non-rational complexities of many religious issues. Like the cultural officer, the religion attaché’s mandate would require a penetration of the local culture and a greater focus on people than on institutions. As currently configured, consideration of religious factors typically resides with the cultural attaché or a political officer (or, in some instances, the ambassador). But regardless of where the responsibility lies, the reality is that religious concerns often get squeezed out by other seemingly more pressing matters; hence the need for a new position.

Fortunately, the new religion attaché would not have to begin the process from ground zero. Some exposure will have already taken place in the natural scheme of things, particularly in conjunction with the relatively new reporting requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act. The new attaché could take over the management of these contacts (as well as the religious freedom reporting requirements) and work to deepen them, in addition to developing others. Needless to say, the religion attaché would have to work closely with the political and cultural officers in the sharing of pertinent information and contacts. Configured in this manner, a religion attaché would relieve already overburdened embassy staffs, help improve America’s image with important religious groups and leaders, and provide valuable insights into their motives and objectives.

There are a number of characteristics a successful religion attaché would need to have. First, an ability to understand and deal with the specific language of local religious expression would be essential. Second would be a sensitivity to religious motives and priorities, coupled with a keen understanding of how faith inspires action. And finally, the religion attaché should have a gift for foreign languages and dialects, since local religious figures often do not have the same English skills normally found among government officials and the intelligentsia, with whom other FSOs commonly interact.

Obvious places to search for recruits who would have such qualifications would be from among seminary graduates or religion majors as well as from within the ranks of the Foreign Service itself (where those already possessing such skills might welcome the new challenge). With the necessary skills and strong support from the top, the religion attaché could go far in closing the existing gap in religious understanding.

Prime Assignments

A conservative estimate of global requirements suggests the need for a cadre of 30 such attachés at an initial total annual cost of $10 million. This figure is based on a State Department budget office estimate of $250,000 to $300,000 per year to field a person in a new position (including salary, benefits, transportation to and from the post, shipping of household effects, outfitting of a new office, and any allowances for hardship, danger pay, cost of living adjustments, and housing). The total also includes an increment for the added training that would be required. Annual recurring costs would be somewhat less, so even a slight shift from the reactive to the preventive side of the ledger in our budget priorities would more than suffice to fund this initiative.

The new corps of attachés could most usefully be distributed as follows:

The Arab World and Turkey (approx. 8): Because of the unquestioned importance of religion in this region, there should be some coverage of every country in this part of the world. The missions in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, and Turkey would all benefit from a full-time religion attaché. For others like Bahrain and Kuwait, shared coverage might suffice.

South Asia (at least 3): Separate religion attachés would be required in both Pakistan and India. As alluded to earlier, religion and religious nationalism are particularly powerful forces in these two countries. That, combined with their historic animosity over Kashmir and the fact that both countries are nuclear powers, makes a very compelling case for individual coverage. Because of the religious dimension to the conflict in Sri Lanka, an attaché should be stationed there as well.

Central Asia (1-2): Religious fundamentalism is a growing concern in this region and a significant factor in any number of conflicts. While there may not yet be a need for coverage in some countries, it would be advisable to have at least one, if not two, attachés to collectively cover Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, and Kazakhstan.

China and Southeast Asia (4): China’s repression of the Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and its Muslim Uighur minority suggests a deep-seated insecurity to which the West should be closely attuned. As already discussed, Indonesia has a compelling need for a religion attaché owing to its strategic importance and the religious aspects of its internal conflicts. The Philippines qualifies for a resident attaché based on the extended conflict there with Muslim insurgents and the strong influence of the Catholic Church. The rest of the region could possibly be covered by a single regional attaché.

Russia (1): Like China, Russia is too strategic and too involved with religion to remain unmonitored. Beyond the situational influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, there are important questions relating to the rights of other religions and religious denominations to actively practice their faith and the prospective impact of Islam on the country’s internal stability (as manifested in Chechnya, the Crimea, and certain Central Asian Republics).

Latin America (5): Catholicism is an important part of life in Latin America and has at times played a crucial role in politics, including involvement in the removal of several dictators. The corresponding rise and increasing influence of evangelical Protestantism also suggests a need for some degree of coverage. Here, regional coverage would probably suffice, with one attaché each for the Southern Cone (including Brazil), the Andes, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Sub-Saharan Africa (4): Religion plays an underappreciated role in Africa. Like Indonesia, Nigeria has suffered from repeated riots stemming from animosity between Muslim and Christian communities. In South Africa, religious actors were crucial in the movement to dismantle apartheid and to prevent civil war from breaking out in its aftermath. In other African countries like Sierra Leone, where governments have failed to meet the needs of their people, religious institutions have stepped in to provide basic services. As with Latin America, Africa could be split up into southern, western and eastern regions for purposes of this coverage, with individual coverage for Nigeria.

The Balkans (4): Having been coopted earlier by the forces of nationalism, religion has a crucial role to play in peacemaking, conflict prevention, and the rebuilding of civil society in the former Yugoslavia. Religion attachés should be assigned to Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia/Kosovo, with one additional to cover the rest of the Balkans.

Central and Eastern Europe (1): Although Catholicism played an instrumental role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, particularly in such countries as Poland, East Germany, and Romania, it no longer has the influence that it once did. Thus, the region could probably be adequately covered with a single regional attaché.

Possible Problems

To be sure, the idea of establishing this new position comes with a host of concerns that must be carefully thought through. The following are representative:

  1. Without adequate support from the ambassador, the traditional political and economic mission sectors could push the newcomer to the side and effectively “ghettoize” religion. Instead of giving religion a higher profile, such a development could have the reverse effect and actually downgrade its importance. Internal politics are key.
  2. The mission assignments of the new attachés might be driven less by need than by political influence and budget.
  3. There might be a tendency for the religion attaché to become preoccupied with the major religious traditions to the exclusion of smaller but nevertheless important traditional faiths, such as African animists.
  4. The State Department’s practice of rotating personnel will result in an ongoing need to
    re-equip these attachés with an in-depth understanding of the religious complexities he or she will confront with each new posting.
  5. The logistical burden of adding additional staff to the smaller missions must be taken into account.
  6. Most missions may not want another staff position unless that person comes with a budget to support his or her programs.
  7. Some countries may take offense at the presence of a religion attaché on the grounds that it will create an unwanted intrusion in their internal affairs (in much the same way that the annual report on religious freedom has been viewed with some degree of resentment).

None of these concerns, however, are insurmountable. To begin with, the position would, in all likelihood, have the prestige to stand on its own (in terms of its priority in the hierarchy of mission concerns). Second, creation of the position would represent an opening wedge through which religious considerations could begin to balance the influence of the rational-actor model of decision-making that has so dominated U.S. foreign policy over the past 50 years. Through this wedge, the flow of religious reporting over time would sensitize others to religion’s importance, as would the presence in the mission of someone specifically assigned to the topic.

The remaining concerns are largely structural in nature and not particularly worrisome. A quick review of the proposed mission assignments reveals that few of the smaller missions would require a religion attaché. Most of the new positions would already be intended for those missions having the larger budgets and greater political clout. Most of those working out of smaller missions would be providing regional coverage (in which several missions would be able to pool their resources in support of a single position). The position itself might also come with a small budget to support religious-related activities, such as inter-faith seminars and the like.

In those countries where the mere assignment of a religion attaché could cause consternation — such as China — the position could technically be given a different label. The remaining concerns generally fall into a category where “forewarned is forearmed;” i.e., if those involved proceed with their eyes open, there should be no problem.

Meeting the New Challenge

It would appear from the foregoing that the benefits of creating the religion attaché position would outweigh the possible liabilities. Increased contact with the local religious communities would provide added insights on (1) what is going on in this critical area at the grass-roots and national levels, (2) concerns that religious leaders may have about U.S. decisions that are either being taken or contemplated, and (3) concerns these leaders might have with regard to local demagogues who attempt to manipulate religion for their own political purposes. Any such information would be highly valuable, as would the greater general understanding of religious imperatives that would accrue.

For far too long, the United States has focused the bulk of its energy and resources on reacting to events, usually in the form of picking up the pieces following the outbreak of hostilities in some near or distant part of the globe. That could be expected in a democracy where a crisis is often required to achieve the necessary political consensus for taking action. But in the post-Sept. 11 world, this approach will no longer suffice.

Other considerations aside, the looming marriage of religious extremism with weapons of mass destruction demands a markedly different approach, one that is both proactive in nature and that gives overriding priority to the task of conflict prevention. Establishing a corps of religion attachés would constitute a meaningful first step in this regard. It would give the United States an added capability for engaging on a preventive basis, while enhancing its ability to deal with a long-overlooked element of national security. The challenge now is to muster the political will to make the adjustment.



Foreign Service Journal – February 2002


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