U.S. Foreign Policy and the Muslim World

Speech by Douglas M. Johnston

Evangelicals for Peace Summit
Washington, DC
September 14, 2012

If I had to convey a single message to U.S. foreign policy practitioners, it would be that religion matters. For good or for ill, the world is growing increasingly religious.  What’s more, the nature of religion in many places is changing; it is becoming more dynamic, more activist, and more political.   While the majority of religious movements are peaceful, some errant ideologies are at work justifying and encouraging violence.  These ideologies must be countered, and countered effectively. Military force is clearly an asset in the fight against religious extremism, but it can never fully protect us from the type of terrorist assaults that have taken place over the past decade.  Ideologies must be countered with ideas, and ideologies steeped in religion need to be challenged on religious grounds.

These days, in almost any foreign policy situation, ignoring the motivating influence of religious faith is a sure recipe for failure.  Because so many terrorists, like those that struck the United States on 9/11, derive their legitimacy from extremist interpretations of their religion, the most effective counter is to empower the more tolerant, mainstream beliefs of that religion, especially among those communities most at risk of succumbing to violent propaganda.  Although radical Islam is at the forefront of most religious conversations today, the lessons to be learned from combating extremism in an Islamic context apply equally well to any conflict having a religious dimension to it.

At latest count, some 86% of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants identify themselves as members of a religious community.[1]  It may be fair to say that it is in the nature of things that humans instinctively aspire to a higher order of things.  To ignore the motivating influence of religious ideas and not have a sympathetic understanding of those who identify strongly with the dictates of their faith would be to handicap ourselves severely in dealing with today’s geopolitical realities.  Religious political parties are becoming increasingly influential in North Africa and the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, other conflicts in the region, and the current political evolution in Turkey.  Muslims have been migrating to the West in large numbers, reshaping public attitudes and government policies in the process.  This suggests that any effective long term strategy to counter extremism should seek to capitalize on religion’s extensive reach as well as its ethical values.

By the same token, it is important not to over-generalize in ascribing religious motives to all extremist activities.  Terrorism has long been used by people of various cultures for various reasons, primarily to achieve political aims.  More than 95% of all known cases of suicide bombings between 1980 and 2004 had clear political objectives.[2]  Whether in Chechnya or Sri Lanka, Kashmir or Gaza, the goals were always political and, more often than not, related to expelling an occupying force.[3]

It is also the case that those who committed these bombings came from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.  Between 1982 and 1986, Hezbollah carried out 41 suicide attacks against Israeli, American and French targets in Lebanon.  Of these, only eight were carried out by Islamic extremists, 27 by members of secular leftist political groups such as the Lebanese Communist Party, and three by Christians.  All those involved were born in Lebanon and adhered to diverse, if not totally divergent, ideologies.[4]  More recently, the anarchy and bloodshed that ensued in Iraq following the US invasion was motivated by political competition between the Shiite and Sunni militias in a bid for power.

Thus it is that the overriding motivation in most long term, large-scale terrorist activities is political rather than religious.  Where strong political passions exist, anyone can be a terrorist.  Regardless of the cause, though, religion can sometimes offer a powerful antidote, if properly engaged.  All of the major world religions share core tenets about neighborly concern and the betterment of humanity, tenets that can and often have been used to bridge differences between adversaries.  In the case of Islamic extremism, however, the first challenge becomes that of empowering mainstream Muslims, most of whom despise terrorism.  In the context of the Arab Spring, the West has a unique opportunity to do exactly this, if we are able to seize the moment.


Government Empowerment

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet in Switzerland with a group of Tunisians and Egyptians to discuss their respective transitions to democracy.  In response to one Egyptian participant, who said he and his colleagues had concluded that establishing one house of parliament would be less complicated and therefore preferable to establishing two, I said, “Don’t you dare.  Democracy is hard work and you need to build in as many checks and balances as you can from the outset.  Otherwise, oppression will eventually creep back in; and you will begin to backslide, as some Eastern European states have in the past.”  I further observed, “Above all, you need to establish strong civilian control of the military.  And if you need a good model for doing so, I suggest you take a hard look at the United States.  The way we are structured, it is inconceivable that serious consideration could ever be given to a military takeover of the government.”  Little did I realize how prophetic that recommendation would prove to be in Egypt’s transition.

A recent New York Times article noted that after meeting with members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, commented, “You’re certainly going to have to figure out how to deal with democratic governments that don’t espouse every policy or value that you have.”  He added, “They certainly expressed a direction that shouldn’t be a challenge to us, provided they follow through.”[5]  A short while later, William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Minister, noted, while reflecting on the election victories of political Islamist groups in the Middle East, “The test now is how they perform in office, of course, and we should not be afraid of talking to and working with those parties.  We found already with the new Tunisian government, that they are very willing to work with us, that they agree with us about many global and regional issues, so I think we should be positive about that and not prejudge them.”[6]  Change of the magnitude that is currently taking place calls for determination and the courage to engage.  The stakes are simply too high to let extremism take hold by default.


A number of European countries have greater problems with their Muslim populations than we do in the United States. As pointed out in another New York Times piece earlier this year, many Muslims in Europe feel excluded and harassed by their governments.

 “The recognition and accommodation of Islamic religious practices, from clothing to language to education, does not mean capitulation to fundamentalism. On the contrary, only by strengthening the democratic rights of Muslim citizens to form associations, join political parties and engage in other aspects of civic life can Europe integrate immigrants and give full meaning to the abstract promise of religious liberty…It is Islam’s absence in the institutions young European Muslims encounter, starting with the school’s calendar, classroom and canteen, that contributes to anger and alienation.”[7]

Engaging Muslim leaders as partners is one approach that is already bearing fruit in Britain, where authorities assert that Islamic leaders have been instrumental in helping to de-radicalize youth across the country.[8]  Yet another fruitful approach for addressing such problems is the “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge” issued by President Obama in March of last year, which challenges colleges and universities to sponsor a year of “interfaith service.”  As explained on the associated website,

“Interfaith service involves people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds tackling community challenges together – for example, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Jews, and Muslims and non-believers – building a Habitat for Humanity house together. Interfaith service impacts specific community challenges, from homelessness to mentoring to the environment, while building social capital and civility.”[9]

A number of colleges and universities have answered this call.[10]  Inter-faith cooperation is also a highly effective means for cultivating moderate thinking.

In a 2010 article published in the Christian Science Monitor[11], Hedieh Mirahmadi, President of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), and Mehreen Farooq, a Research Fellow at WORDE, presented a set of recommendations for curbing radicalization and extremism in the United States.  They begin by noting that domestic radicalization is a problem and suggesting that “our domestic counterterrorism strategies end up alienating or underutilizing our best asset – the Muslim community.”  They advocate empowering moderate Muslims through education, research, and dialogue, contending that “Muslim scholars and community leaders are best suited to confront this problem by providing religious education (and re-education) to youth in both an authentic and ‘cool’ paradigm.”[12]

One such Muslim scholar is Professor Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim at Emory University in Atlanta, who has written widely on the relationship between Islam and government.  He interprets the Qur’an as instructing Muslims to observe Sharia as their life’s work, their responsibility, their struggle – not their government’s.  He even questions the concept of an Islamic state, viewing it as a post-colonial construct based on a mid-20th Century European-style state.  As he explains, “My motivation is in fact about being an honest, true-to-myself Muslim, rather than someone complying with state dictates.”  Accordingly, he believes that the right answer for Muslims is a secular state that promotes human rights, so that both they and others can practice their faith freely.  Branded as a heretic (a label he wears with some pride), Naim is attracting a notable following among young Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia.[13]


NGO/Civil Society Empowerment  

While governments have considerable resources at their disposal to empower selected groups and individuals, NGOs enjoy greater freedom of movement, unencumbered as they are by any political agenda.  They are also able to (1) interact with populations in places that are sometimes inaccessible to governments, (2) bring to bear an intimate knowledge of the areas in which they work, and (3) capitalize on long-held relationships with the local communities.  NGOs are thus uniquely equipped to help empower mainstream Muslims both domestically and internationally.


The international potential of NGOs was illustrated at a recent U.S. Institute of Peace event on “Pakistani Peacemakers: The Challenges for Civil Society Actors.”  While the substance focused on Pakistan, certain over-arching principles emerged.  As one commentator noted[14], the empowerment of “traditional Muslim networks” can cultivate social cohesion and prevent the proliferation of extremism.  She explained that these civil society networks are effective in promoting peace, since they are mindful of the religious rhetoric used by extremists and know how to counter it.  In Pakistan, extremists often target Muslims who follow interpretations of Islam that run counter to their own.  NGOs can and do speak out in the media against such attacks, often providing sounder interpretations of religious texts and principles in the process.

One of the more direct ways of empowering mainstream Islam is the approach that our own NGO, the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), has been taking in Pakistan.  For the past eight years, we have been working with leaders of the religious schools (madrasas) to (1) expand their curriculums to include the physical and social sciences, with a strong emphasis on religious tolerance and human rights, and (2) transform their pedagogy to promote critical thinking skills among the students.  To date, we have engaged some 2700 madrasa leaders from 1611 madrasas, most of them located in the more radical areas of the country.

Experience has shown that once you are able to work your way past the veneer of hostility and rage and engage these madrasa leaders, not only do they “get it”, but many become ardent champions of the suggested change, often at great personal risk to themselves.  Because this work is dealing with the ideas behind the guns, it is every bit as strategic as anything else that is taking place, either on or off the battlefield.  Bombs typically create additional terrorists by exacerbating the cycle of revenge.  Education, on the other hand, both drains the swamp of extremism and provides a better future for the children of Pakistan (and, indirectly, our own as well).


Domestically, NGOs can promote community-based initiatives centered on education, dialogue, and cooperation.  Such efforts encourage and endorse activities that empower those in favor of dialogue over disruption, conversation over conflict.  One such NGO that does this is Interfaith Works in Montgomery, Maryland, whose mission is to “pursue social justice with an emphasis on identifying and meeting the needs of the poor by leading and engaging Montgomery County’s faith communities in service, education, and advocacy.”[15]  Interfaith Youth Core, founded in 2002 by Eboo Patel, promotes interfaith community service among university-aged students across the United States.[16]

NGOs such as these, as well as religious organizations that promote inter-faith dialogue form a family of organizations that advance moderate ideas.  Still other organizations facilitate this same kind of understanding and cooperation on a broader scale.  The Alliance for Peacebuilding, for example, provides a support base for the activities of the more than 60 organizations that operate under its umbrella.  Soliya, one of its members, encourages students in the United States and across the Middle East to use technology to communicate with and learn from one another.[17]  Extremists try to dominate discourse, while projects such as these work in the opposite direction.

In 2006, our center partnered with the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), the Pentagon’s leading think tank, to convene a conference that brought 30 US government officials together with a like number of American Muslim leaders to discuss how both groups could begin working together for the common good.  The catalyst for this conference was our recognition that the greatest strategic asset the United States has at its disposal in its global contest with militant Islam is the American Muslim community.  Not only was this not being recognized, but we were unwittingly alienating this community through counterproductive over-reactions to the events of 9/11.  Incidents such as those in which Muslims have been pulled from planes for praying underscore the need for increased religious sensitivity in the execution of government policies.

One of the several objectives of both that conference and a second follow-up conference a year later was determining the most effective way to inform US foreign policy and public diplomacy with a Muslim perspective (in order to minimize the possibility of unintended consequences).  In response to that challenge, we established a monthly Policy Forum that brings key Congressional and Executive Branch staff together with respected leaders from the Muslim community to discuss issues that affect US relations with Muslim countries overseas.  The purpose of these Forums is to provide the Washington policymaking community with a more nuanced understanding of Islam.  From all indications, they appear to be achieving their intended goal.  The Forums also provide an excellent example of the synergy that can be achieved in empowering moderation when NGOs and government work together.



The question – How can the West empower mainstream Islam? – is broad and in some ways controversial. This attempt to provide a range of answers is by no means exhaustive; the possibilities are limited solely by our imaginations. The matter clearly deserves all the attention we can give it.  As indicated earlier, the stakes are too high to do anything less.




[1] Pearson Higher Education. “Religion.” Universalizing Religions.  Retrieved August 31, 2012, www.pearsonhighered.com/samplechapter/013243573x.pdf

[2] Pape, Robert A.  Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. (New York: Random House, 2005).

[3] Pape, Robert A.  Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. (New York: Random House, 2005).  (Raw data available at the archive for the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, housed at the University of Chicago.)

[4] Pape, Robert A.  Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. (New York: Random House, 2005). 14.

[5] Kirkpatrick, David D. and Steven Lee Myers, “Overtures to Egypt’s Islamists Reverse Longtime U.S. Policy,” New York Times, January 3, 2012.

[6] “William Hague: UN has failed on Syria,” BBC News, March 12, 2011.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17339013.

[7] Laurence, Jonathan, “How to Integrate Europe’s Muslims,” New York Times, January 23, 2012.

[8] Leiken, Robert S. and Steven Brooke. “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 2 (2007): 107-121.

[9] “The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge,” The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ofbnp/interfaithservice.

[10] Allen, Bob, “Colleges, universities, pledge to interfaith community service,” Word & Way, accessed August 3, 2011, http://www.wordandway.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2042&Itemid=53.

[11] Mirahmadi, Hedieh and Mehreen Farooq, “How to Fight Jihad in America,” Christian Science Monitor, December 16, 2010.

[12] Mirahmadi, Hedieh and Mehreen Farooq, “How to Fight Jihad in America,” Christian Science Monitor, December 16, 2010.

[13] Lampman, Jane. “Muslim reformer’s ‘heresy’: The Islamic state is a dead end,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2008/0402/p01s01-usgn.html.

[14] Mehreen Farooq, Research Fellow at the World Organization for Resource Development & Education (WORDE)

[15] “History and Mission,” Interfaith Works, http://www.iworksmc.org/a-history-mission.html.

[16] “About IFYC,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/about-us.

[17] Luce, Jim. “Muslims & Non-Muslims Hear About Terrorist Threat, Solutions at Harvard Club,” HuffPost World, June 29, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-luce/muslim-non-muslims-hear-a_b_629437.html.

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