Thursday, June 18, 2009

Evan's Corner: Conflict and Religion in US Foreign Policy: A New Way?

Conflict and Religion in US Foreign Policy: A New Way?

Center for Strategic and International Studies

The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a discussion examining the role of religion is US foreign policy. The guests included Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, senior US correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Center, Prof. Shaun Casey, associate professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, Ambassador Sudjadan Parnohadiningrat of the Republic of Indonesia, and Mr. Amir Ramadan, Charge d’Affairs for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.

Before getting down to more specific policy discussions, the panelists addressed President Obama’s speech in Cairo. Mr. Ramadan pointed out that although the speech was widely reported to be addressing the “Muslim world,” it was really a “political” speech. Ambassador Sudjadan agreed vigorously, noting that Indonesians felt the speech was not addressed to them. The ambassador explained that the millions of Muslims in south Asia thought that the president’s speech was about Middle Eastern politics, and not the faith of Islam. The ambassador went on to say that Indonesians are hopeful that Obama will speak to south Asian Muslims more directly in future speeches.

The panelists all stressed that Islam was not the center of the president’s Cairo speech, and also should not be the central preoccupation of US foreign policy. Mr. Ramadan argued that religious themes have no place in policy, and that is why his own Egyptian government has banned religious political parties. The speech was really about key political issues, such as the reconstruction of Iraq, and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Ramadan stressed that pragmatic solutions to these political issues must be the goal of US foreign policy.

Professor Casey did not entirely agree that religion should be absent from government. Casey said that the government needs more staff devoted to understanding the role of “lived religion” around the world. Casey explained that the counter insurgency strategy being employed in Iraq calls for an advanced knowledge of Islam as it is practiced. So much of counter insurgency is a battle for hearts and minds, and the US military does not have the human resources to interpret and interact with religious life in Iraq. Casey went further suggesting that the proselytizing, evangelical approach of some of the army chaplains was extremely counterproductive. Casey advised that the US military train a core of servicemen in “world religions” to better understand and contextualize the spiritual traditions of foreign nations.

The ultimate consensus of the panel was that US foreign policy going forward needs to address the individual political realities of each Middle Eastern country. Ambassador Sudjadan and Mr. Ramadan illustrate that that two predominantly Muslim nations can have completely different domestic and international concerns. In some cases, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, a greater understanding of country specific religious practices can be informative. However, these national religious traditions must never be misinterpreted as representative of all Muslims, and politics, not religion, must inform policy.

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