Istanbul, Baghdad, Manchester, Tehran, Berlin, Cairo, Nice, Dhaka, Orlando, Kabul, Lahore, Brussels — all these cities experienced major terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist extremists just in the past two years. These attacks testify to a world where violent Islamist extremism remains a constant security threat that continues to rise.1
While violence rooted in all faith traditions has been increasing since the late 1960s, Islam has come to play a disproportionately large role in global religious extremism. According to political scientist Monica Duffy Toft, more than 80 percent of religiously motivated civil wars involve Muslim communities, and Islamic ideology features prominently in more than 98 percent of religious terrorist incidents.2 Suicide missions by radical Islamist groups have been rising sharply over the past decade, in contrast to those by secular organizations, which have declined markedly.3 Of the 60 violent extremist groups currently classified as "foreign terrorist organizations" by the United States, 44 claim an Islamic mantle.
Yet for all of the proactive measures taken by the United States — invasion of countries, drone wars, special operations — the evidence suggests that the problem of Islamist extremism is becoming worse. Conventional approaches to American foreign policy have proven to be counterproductive to combating and curbing Islamist violence because they fail to take the faith factor seriously. Mainstream foreign-policy approaches and the theoretical frameworks on which they are based remain secular in orientation and ill-equipped for dealing with many of today's religiously based security problems. This raises an important question: What kind of policy can the United States pursue that would diminish the likelihood of Islamist terrorism at home and abroad?
U.S. FOREIGN POLICY
Despite the rising tide of violent Islamist extremism, the proliferation of counterterrorism "best practices" and a surge of scholarly interest in terrorism, recognition of the "faith factor" remains curiously absent from American foreign policy. Officials prefer to focus on measures like intelligence gathering and sharing, law enforcement and the freezing of assets. Far less attention has been paid to the potential of religious ideas, faith leaders and spiritual communities to contribute to counterterrorism.
One of the primary reasons American foreign policy remains ignorant of religion is that, as a result of their training, many policy makers have been inculcated with a secularist mindset that believes religion is irrational, violent and (fortunately) on the decline. The so-called "secularization thesis," however, proved to be dead wrong; religion remains a primary identity around the world. Even today, about 85 percent of the global population subscribes to some form of supernatural belief system.4 Moreover, religion's influence on global politics has been increasing.5 However, diplomatic training in the United States has yet to fully acknowledge the independent role religion plays in shaping global politics. For this reason, it has been appropriately termed the "missing dimension of statecraft."6 As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lamented,
When I was secretary of state, I had an entire bureau of economic experts I could turn to and a cadre of experts on non-proliferation and arms control. With the notable exception of Ambassador [at Large for International Religious Freedom] Robert Seiple, I did not have similar expertise available for integrating religious principles into our efforts at diplomacy. Given the nature of today's world, knowledge of this type is essential.7
Thomas F. Farr, a former diplomat and first director of the Office of International Religious Freedom within the U.S. State Department, attributes this skepticism towards incorporating religious factors in the conduct of foreign policy to a "religion avoidance syndrome" pervasive throughout the foreign-policy establishment. "American diplomacy is distinctly uncomfortable with the whole topic of religion," he explains.8 According to Farr, the embedded secularism in the State Department is owed to a long intellectual tradition framed by the "secular" international state system created by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which subordinated religion to the authority of the state following the devastating European wars between Protestants and Catholics.9 Religion, believed to be the cause of much of the world's suffering, was considered beyond reason and should rightly be banished to the private realm. This "Westphalian presumption," based on fear of religion, led to an astounding level of ignorance about religious issues in international relations and a general exclusion of religion from security discourses among those who believed that the era of religious ideas in public life had come to an end.10 "Diplomats of my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion," wrote Albright, drawing on her experiences in the Foreign Service.11 In Farr's view, it is therefore unsurprising that American foreign policy has failed miserably in making the connection between religious literacy and wider goals of strategic importance to the United States like the reduction of terrorism.12
Albright's and Farr's candid insider assessments of religion's marginalization in diplomacy are disquieting. How can the United States truly promote its interests in a highly religious world if the character of its foreign policy remains resolutely secular in nature — ignorant of or unreceptive to the very subject of religion? The marginalization of religion is even more perplexing given the relatively high levels of religiosity in the United States compared to its European counterparts, the codification of religious freedom in the First Amendment to the Constitution and the legacy of religious literacy in the history of America's relations with other states.13 These realities would seem to suggest that the United States should be at ease engaging with others on the basis of faith and uniquely positioned to deal with the challenges that are part and parcel of a religious world. Yet a brief examination of three mainstream approaches to American foreign policy — realpolitik, liberal interventionism and neoconservatism — reveals a serious blind spot in policy praxis when it comes to faith-based considerations.
Associated most commonly with former U.S. National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, realpolitik is an approach to foreign affairs directed towards the most practical means of securing a country's national interest.14 It is an approach strongly grounded in political realism, a straightforward school of thought that explains international outcomes in terms of power. Realists believe that domestic traits do not drive state behavior in international relations and that states should downplay them in their relations with other states. Countries should be dealt with on the basis of size and strength rather than political doctrine, internal characteristics, ethics or religion. As explained by prominent realist John Mearsheimer, "It does not matter much who is in charge in Cairo or Damascus. The United States has a rich history of working with leaders of all types, including communists, fascists, military dictators, and traditional monarchs."15 It would be incorrect to deem realism fundamentally undemocratic or immoral, but because power and security are the main issues, the requirements for successful political action tend to be seen as in tension with the demands of traditional conceptions of morality, leading realists to discount human rights.
In the context of American foreign policy, realism became a prominent way of understanding the world among practitioners during the Cold War.16 To prevent the spread of pro-Soviet regimes throughout the Third World, the United States regularly supported authoritarian governments and nondemocratic, anti-communist counterrevolutionaries. This was accomplished through direct military interventions in Korea and Vietnam and indirect CIA missions in Angola, Nicaragua and Chile. In the Islamic world, the United States, for decades during and after the Cold War, supported dictatorial regimes, both secular and theocratic, in the name of protecting American national interests.17 Although not a realist, America's forty-fifth president, Donald Trump, justifies U.S. support for repressive dictatorships in the Muslim world by similar national-security logic.
Realpolitik's support for dictators in the world of Islam has had the unfortunate consequence of sacrificing long-term interests in favor of short-term stability. The United States has considered Egypt, for example, a vital strategic partner since its independence in 1956. As the guardian of the Suez Canal — a critical artery for global commerce — a key balancing arm against American rivals in the region, and a strategic partner in the fight against terrorism, realists like Kissinger have viewed Egypt as a crucial ally of the United States. From 2009 to 2015, the United States provided Egypt with over nine billion dollars in military aid.18 But Egypt has also been highly repressive of Islam and a major generator of violent Islamist extremism. Following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the state became exceedingly repressive towards religious groups, arresting, imprisoning, and torturing thousands of suspected militants, their supporters and family members. These included individuals who would go on to play key roles in major terrorist strikes against the United States like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida, and Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "Blind Sheikh," who was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City. Today, a generally repressive approach toward Islam by the government of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has contributed to the formation of an Islamic State affiliate in Egypt called the Province of Sinai, which has seized on popular disillusionment with the Egyptian government.
The United States also continues a longstanding alliance with the theocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia for similar economic and geostrategic reasons. However, the kingdom also engages in the oppression of women, religious minorities and Muslims who depart from the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia, more than any other country, has been responsible for the spread of this puritanical interpretation of Islam abroad, with devastating consequences for both the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. It was in these conditions of intolerance and repression that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers had been indoctrinated. Furthermore, virtually every significant homegrown terrorist plot by Islamists in the United States can be tied in some way to the Saudi kingdom.
Finally, a realpolitik mindset led the United States to provide arms and support for the Wahhabi-inspired Arab mujahedeen opposition in Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion. At the time, this support was viewed as an act of balancing against Soviet expansionism. The story did not end there, however. After the collapse of the communist regime, many jihadis who fought against the Soviets went on to form the brutally oppressive Taliban regime. The Taliban gave quarter and a relatively stable base of operations to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, responsible for attacking American interests and citizens around the world, thereby triggering a chain of events ultimately leading to the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of the country by the United States shortly thereafter. Ultimately, while successful in its initial goal of weakening the Soviet Union, the bolstering of a theocratic insurgent group led to the rise of new adversaries who have proven to be a serious threat to Americans and American interests.
Why has realpolitik, an approach firmly grounded in the self-interest of the state, been slow to grasp the connection between the repression of Islam and Islam's violent outgrowth? The answer has a great deal to do with realpolitik's treatment of religion, or, more appropriately, the lack of it. Realpolitik, like all mainstream approaches to foreign affairs, remains resolutely secular in orientation, resulting in a serious blind spot.19 Because realpolitik does not believe that religion is a primary motivator of state behavior in international relations, it tends to neglect it altogether. "How many divisions has the Pope?" arch-realist Josef Stalin once asked. International relations is thought to be a nonreligious category guided exclusively by reason and the pursuit of power, with religion simply masking political ambitions. Tellingly, the index of Kissinger's nearly 1,000-page seminal work on foreign policy, Diplomacy, contains not a single reference to religion.
This neglect has led realists at times to embrace sharply repressive regimes. While American support for illiberal governments in the Muslim world was grounded in a clear-eyed appraisal of the American national interest at the time — assuring regional stability, guaranteeing access to energy, securing reliable sea lanes to and from the Middle East for America and its allies, and blocking Soviet expansionism — it also generated a long-term process that would spawn unimaginable blowback.
Realpolitik policies, while perhaps logical in the context of the Cold War, helped cultivate a climate of repression and anger in the Islamic world that has come back to bite the United States decades later. The problem, then, is not just a matter of moral complacency but one of supporting policies detrimental to the security of the United States. Ironically, then, realpolitik remains a woefully unrealistic foundation for combating Islamist extremism.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from realpolitik is the approach to foreign affairs called neoconservatism, a morally driven movement emphasizing the struggle between good and evil. Despite its name, neoconservatism is essentially a liberal approach to foreign affairs, like its cousin, liberal interventionism (discussed below). In sharp contrast to realpolitik, neoconservatism holds that the internal characteristics of states matter a great deal in explaining international outcomes. This "second image" logic can be seen in its two key pillars: support for democratic forms of government and a strong belief in American exceptionalism.
First, neoconservatives locate the root cause of many of the world's ills (including violent Islamist extremism) in the nature of authoritarian states. Whereas realists supported authoritarian governments for the stability they provided during the Cold War, neoconservatives espoused the proliferation of democracy and the incorporation of "values" into the conduct of foreign policy. After the 9/11 attacks, they also came to believe that the threat posed by Islamist terrorists to the interests and citizens of the United States was rooted in the absence of democracy in the Middle East. Neoconservatives are thus defenders of democracies where they are threatened by illiberal ideologies or political movements, supporters of the spread of democracy worldwide and enemies of authoritarian regimes.20
The second pillar of neoconservatism distinguishes it from liberal interventionism: the advocacy of American hegemony and a willingness to rely solely on American military power to bring about democratic transformation abroad — "Wilsonianism with teeth," as John Mearsheimer has called it.21 This is due to neoconservatism's belief in American exceptionalism, which conveys a moral responsibility to use the U.S. position as the world's superpower to export its inherent moral virtue to other countries, through the use of force and regime change if necessary.22 Neoconservatives believe that American military intervention can accelerate democratization processes within countries.
Neoconservative thinking strongly shaped the policies of the George W. Bush administration following the 9/11 terrorist attacks,23 particularly in motivating the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.24 In his 2002 West Point speech, President Bush used an essentially neoconservative logic for adopting an aggressive posture towards Saddam Hussein: "We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties and then systematically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."25
Much has been written about America's missteps in Iraq.26 It is now apparent that neoconservative foreign policy was a failure in that country. Not only did American strategy rely too much on military force, it also gave virtually no thought to what political apparatus would replace Saddam's regime and virtually ignored Iraq's underlying sectarian dynamics. The process of "de-Baathification" — the general purging of hundreds of thousands of Sunni civil servants from the army and bureaucracy — for instance, opened a Pandora's Box of suppressed communal hostility that had been brewing for decades, creating a sense of angst among Sunnis, who believed they would have no place in the new Iraq. Shiite strongman Nouri al-Maliki pursued a punitive policy towards the Sunni community, including the use of brutal security forces. To the neoconservatives' chagrin, Islam, not secularism, filled the void left by the collapse of the Baath regime, and Iraq descended into a religious civil war between dispossessed Sunnis and long-repressed Shia. From this cauldron would eventually emerge the world's most ruthless terrorist organization, ISIS, whose ideology would inspire numerous attacks against European and American targets.
One of the key dynamics behind neoconservatism's foreign-policy failure with respect to Islamist extremism rests with its own approach to religion. If realpolitik ignores the effect of religion on global politics, neoconservatism distorts it. Although largely secular, many neoconservatives subscribe to some version of the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis. In brief, Huntington attempted to offer a new paradigm of international relations after the Cold War, arguing that the future of international conflict would occur between different "civilizations," whose defining features are common religions.27 In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Huntington's ideas regained the spotlight among scholars, policy makers and journalists. The post-9/11 clash-of-civilizations discourse would also influence the scope and course of American foreign policy in the coming years, particularly relating to the idea of the "West versus the rest."28 As described by two neoconservatives in the Bush administration, David Frum and Richard Perle, "The war against extremist Islam is as much an ideological war as the Cold War ever was."29 The influential neoconservative public intellectual Norman Podhoretz believed the 9/11 attacks had tipped off World War IV.30 This mindset in the Trump administration reflected the influence of advisers like the now-departed Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who consistently invoked a clash-of-civilizations approach to combating Islamist extremism.
At the same time, neoconservatives differ from Huntington on democratic universalism. After all, if Islam and democracy are incompatible, why try to democratize the Middle East? Whereas Huntington urged caution about attempting to impose one civilization's values upon another, neoconservatives believed that, just as Western-style democracy was the best antidote to communism during the Cold War, it is the best weapon against Islamist extremism today.31 But in order to establish a pro-American, Western-friendly democracy in Iraq, the society would have to be remade and political Islam — believed to oppose both separation of religion and state and Enlightenment ideals — would have to be sidelined.
In accordance with one interpretation of the clash thesis, distrust of Islam led neoconservatives to adopt a largely secularist strategy and downplay the influence of Islamic doctrines and communities after the initial invasion. They chose to rely on secular Iraqi politicians like Ahmed Chalabi, secular-state mechanisms and the political marginalization of Islam — all of which were resoundingly rejected by Iraqis as foreign imposition. Although the Bush administration initially insisted on indefinite rule by Iraqis picked directly or indirectly by Washington, the United States reluctantly reversed course in 2004, when hundreds of thousands of Shiites took to the streets in mass protests, demanding the right to choose their own leaders. Unsurprisingly, the political vacuum was filled by hardline Shia religious parties eager to gain unilateral control over the new Iraq; they resisted compromise and reconciliation. This dynamic fueled a Sunni insurgency that continues to this day and has engulfed large swaths of the region.
On the other hand, had American officials recognized the potential of moderate and democratic forms of Islam as represented by individuals like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a sustained effort to work with religious actors (Islamic and other) inclined to the institutions and habits of democracy, and understood the political theologies of Iraq's different religious communities, the nightmare in Iraq might have been avoided and the prospects for political reconciliation realized.
Rooted in Wilsonian idealism, liberal interventionism is a third influential school of thought in foreign affairs.32 Proponents include Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Like their neoconservative counterparts, liberal interventionists strongly believe in the power of democracy and human rights to promote peace, and therefore contend that the United States has a natural stake in the domestic policies of states.33 Both groups supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Liberal interventionists depart from their equivalents on the right, however, in two ways. First, they are much more likely to believe that the United States should influence illiberal state policies through international law, norms, organizations and public diplomacy rather than through the unilateral application of military force, though they are not unwilling to use it if necessary. Neoconservatives, on the other hand, tend to view international organizations as a hindrance to achieving American objectives. Second, liberal interventionists tend to be less favorable than neoconservatives to using ground troops. Prominent liberal interventions such as those in Bosnia and Libya did not feature full-scale invasions, unlike the neoconservative-dominated mission in Iraq.
Like realpolitik and neoconservatism, secular liberal-interventionist policies have contributed to the rise of violent Islamist extremism against the United States, the prime example of this being Libya. Largely because of liberal interventionists like Rice, Clinton and Power, in 2011 the United States led a multilateral attack against the government of Muammar Qadhafi. Already in the throes of civil war, Qadhafi threatened to massacre regime opponents in Benghazi.34 Initially, the intervention was successful: The massacre that Qadhafi promised was thwarted, and the regime was toppled. However, external intervention in civil conflicts often has unpredictable consequences, particularly in highly religious contexts.
While Muammar Qadhafi was a barbarous despot who terrorized his people for over four decades, his overthrow and the lack of post-intervention planning created a power vacuum that enabled the rise of violent faith-based extremism in Libya. Since the intervention, the country remains riven by sectarian violence and instability with terrorist organizations such as ISIS acquiring territory, viewing Libya as an important target for expansion due to its proximity to Europe.35 On September 11, 2012, terrorists stormed the American consulate in Benghazi and murdered four Americans, including the ambassador.36 Since Qadhafi's ouster, Libya has averaged an astonishing 276 attacks per year, according to our analysis of the Global Terrorism Database. These extremists pose a direct and clear danger to American interests abroad and to U.S. allies.
Why did foreign-policy liberals fail to foresee the devastation that American intervention would facilitate? In the case of Libya, one can again see an ignorance of religious dynamics at work. If realpolitik ignores religion and neoconservatism distorts it, liberal interventionism tends to reject it openly, seeing traditional expressions of religiosity as antithetical to the advancement of liberal values.37 Liberal interventionism has its roots in the secular ideals of the Enlightenment — rationality, humanism, modernization — and its practitioners generally believe religion to be an obstacle to progress and an atavism to be superseded. Liberalist scholars of political development and their practitioner counterparts thus underestimate the role of religion in the modern world in their implicit acceptance of the theory that modernity would naturally bring about democracy, capitalism and secularism.38 There is no evidence that the highly secularized foreign-policy establishment even took religious factors into account when selling the Libyan intervention.
Liberal disregard for the potential threats of Islamist extremism contributed significantly to the current situation.39 Little was done to alienate extremists within the Libyan opposition, thus allowing them to recruit and gain power. In fact, in the intervention against Qadhafi, faith-based militias guided by extremist political theologies were given support and held in esteem, as they were in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion. Because the regime was hostile towards and dominated religious institutions, it was hardly surprising that a great number of opposition factions were religiously motivated. Yet the religiously based character of the resistance was paid scant attention by liberals. This negligence aided the enemies of the United States and its allies by inadvertently creating an environment that allowed Islamist terrorist groups to flourish.
A RELIGIOUS REALPOLITIK
Realpolitik, neoconservative and liberal-interventionist approaches to American foreign policy have failed to stem the tide of global Islamist extremism, including terrorist threats to the United States and its allies. We propose here an amended version of realpolitik — "religious realpolitik" — as a promising approach to deal with Islamist extremism in the modern world. Traditional realpolitik, properly understood, does not exclude consideration of nonmaterial factors like religion in the pursuit of the national interest, particularly when they contribute to the realist ends of security and stability. The realpolitik perspective holds instead that moral absolutes cannot be perpetually adhered to in the conduct of statecraft — that is, when pragmatism and principles fail to align. Grounded in realism, religious realpolitik is highly disciplined about promoting the national interest and circumspect about the use of force, while at the same time being informed about religious contexts and political theologies. In what follows, we outline its three components: religious literacy, religious freedom and restraint.
The first pillar of religious realpolitik involves religious literacy, the ability to analyze the religious dimensions of sociopolitical life.40 While the U.S. State Department has recently taken some positive steps toward integrating religion into the foreign-policy bureaucracy — including the establishment of a Religion and Global Affairs Office and the development of a training curriculum on religion and foreign policy at the Foreign Service Institute — religious literacy remains largely absent in the conduct of American foreign policy. To make matters worse, recent advances in the area of religious literacy risk being undone by the Trump administration, which has already eliminated the positions of Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The Religion and Global Affairs Office itself stands on the verge of eradication.
Ignorance of or inattention to religious subject matter in the foreign-policy establishment comes at a moment when religious conflict is on the rise and many first-order threats to national security stem from religiously based groups. Many of them seek to combat the secularism that became the basis for global politics during the first half of the twentieth century, reverse the perceived destruction of values believed to derive from religious principles, and replace corrupt secular political orders with new ones that conform to religious principles. For these reasons, knowledge of religious issues is vital in a world where many conflicts involve explicitly faith-based concerns, and Islamist extremist groups make unambiguously religious claims. The spread of religiously based conflict since the end of the Cold War would seem to call for the infusion of traditional diplomatic practices with a greater recognition of religious matters. At the same time, the global resurgence of religion also presents important opportunities to incorporate religious insights into the prevention and settlement of conflicts.
In the absence of religiously informed analyses of contemporary conflicts, identifying threats and achieving peace will prove difficult, especially when dealing with Islam, where faith and politics tend to be tightly fused. Indeed, increased religious literacy among American diplomats and military leaders would likely have proven of strategic value in many of the conflicts in which the United States has been involved over the past several decades, especially in the contexts of Iraq and Afghanistan, where a shallow understanding of Islam complicated attempts at conflict transformation.
To imagine what a religiously literate foreign policy looks like, one can refer to a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.41 Its central thrust is that religious communities abroad present not only security challenges but also tremendous opportunities to forge paths to peace. Accordingly, government officials need to develop detailed knowledge of and appreciation for the role of religion in global politics by engaging with religious communities across and within states.
Among the many astute suggestions found in the report that can help undermine Islamist extremism are the following. First, American diplomats should make a concerted effort to build relationships with faith leaders abroad who are best equipped to make theological arguments against proponents of violent extremism. These spiritual leaders possess a degree of moral standing and influence based on shared values, credibility with their constituencies and an intimate knowledge of cultural values and local issues that no outsider can possibly have. Because they have personal relationships with members of their communities, they are uniquely well positioned to credibly verbalize counternarratives, positively influence would-be militants, mobilize support for compromise and reduce the likelihood of conflict. Religious actors have often proven instrumental in mediating peace agreements in places like Mozambique, Algeria, Kosovo, Guatemala and Uganda.
Second, the effort to integrate religious consciousness into the conduct of foreign policy should be directed by the National Security Council (NSC), the principal body used by the president of the United States for consideration of such matters. Because of its location in the Executive Office of the president, the NSC is the agency best positioned to ensure religious subject matter is taken seriously at the highest levels of government and to coordinate religion-related policies among various government agencies.
Third, the United States should ensure that ambassadors to religiously torn countries — those in the midst of religious conflict or that have historically experienced high levels of religiously based societal tensions — should possess the necessary experience and receive the necessary training to effectively engage religious communities abroad. This is especially important in strategically crucial Muslim countries threatened by Islamist extremism — Pakistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — and countries outside the Muslim world where interreligious tensions involving Islam remain high like China, India and Russia. Lower-level officers in the Foreign Service and the military should be required to receive extensive training in the role of religion in world affairs. An especially valuable resource is the experience of thousands of military veterans and civilians who have spent time in war zones in the Muslim world such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. The government should make a concerted effort to nurture their skills and expertise and make use of their practical knowledge.
In sum, the spiritual concerns of religion and the security concerns of American foreign policy are intertwined. Only by taking religion seriously as a salient dimension of statecraft, like economic and security concerns, can Washington expect to anticipate conflicts and security threats that might confront the United States and effectively counter the voices of extremism and hate. In so doing, it will make its own foreign policy more successful and durable. In an increasingly religious world, religious literacy remains a matter of strategic importance that ought to be incorporated into professional diplomatic and military education.
The second pillar of religious realpolitik is religious freedom. While realists and liberalists have debated the existence of a "democratic peace" among countries for decades, far less has been offered by either side about the impact of internal state characteristics on violent sub- and transnational actors such as terrorists. The presumed absence of moral considerations like religious freedom in a realpolitik framework ought to be reconsidered when those factors have obvious strategic implications for American national security.42
Recent research has shown that religiously free countries are secure because of (and not despite) their levels of tolerance.43 On the other hand, repressive environments that stifle religious liberty and independent thinking serve as natural breeding grounds for violent anti-American extremism.44 In addition to suppressing the positive contributions that religion can make to society, they also silence voices of liberalism and moderation and empower the narrative of extremists who claim the state is acting unjustly toward people of faith. Religious restrictions create grievances on the part of targeted groups, prompting these embattled communities to strike out violently against those perceived to be responsible for their marginalized status, as has happened in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia.45 Religious militants may also attack government targets or citizens of another state believed to be complicit in their subjugation, as in the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001.46 Unsurprisingly, virtually all transnational Islamist terrorist attacks against American citizens and interests have been carried out by groups incubated in conditions of pervasive repression.
Conversely, religious freedom can open up space for political dialogue and the development of a wide range of perspectives, religious practices and cross-cutting cleavages.47 The freedom of thought and exchange of ideas inherent in religious liberty serve to create a marketplace of views that can empower liberal and moderate voices to challenge the claims made by extremists.48 In such countries, individuals belonging to different religious communities tend to see each other as legitimate, even if they disagree on matters of faith and practice.49 Freedom thus has the effect of leveling the playing field among the different religious groups in society. Furthermore, the political openness found in religiously liberal countries allows potential extremists to work through alternative legitimate channels — electoral participation, grassroots activism and civic engagement — by which they can seek to shape religion, politics and society.50 Illiberal religious groups with radical theologies may well exist in religiously free countries, but the environment of freedom can serve to deprive those on the fringe of the legitimacy they need to thrive.
Religious liberty can also function as a counterterrorism weapon at home. Religiously restrictive counterterrorism policies that discriminate against entire religious groups work at cross-purposes with the desired goal of combating terrorism. This is true for three reasons. First, when states, in the name of combatting terrorism, treat all those in a particular religious community as terrorists, they waste time, energy and resources when they should focus very narrowly on those who might actually be terrorists. Only a very small percentage of individuals in any faith tradition believe terrorism is justifiable; many fewer still actually take up the gun. Second, such actions inevitably serve to generate sympathy for terrorism, lead people to turn to terrorist groups for protection and end up creating more terrorists. Indiscriminate and widespread repression of religion in the name of counterterrorism raises the costs to ordinary citizens of remaining peaceful, as armed resistance presents the possibility of changing the status quo. Third, discriminatory policies against entire religious communities make it far less likely to garner cooperation from those communities on counterterrorism efforts. These logics explain why terrorist groups hope to provoke overreaction by states against the very communities they claim to be defending.
In sum, if religion lies at the center of many of the world's conflicts today, the answer to religious violence can also be found in religion, specifically in those strands that offer a counternarrative to the voices of extremism. To be sure, policies aimed at promoting tolerance for free and peaceful religious practice will not solve every problem associated with violent religious extremism. Nor will inculcating religious freedom in any society be an easy task. Yet in a world where so many conflicts contain a significant religious component, international religious freedom cannot be overlooked as an important part of American foreign policy and diplomacy. Policy makers need to recognize that if they oppose political expressions of religiosity in favor of "secular stability," they will find themselves ill-prepared for the realities of emerging democracy in religiously devout places, particularly the Middle East.
A foreign policy of religious freedom is a matter of simply enforcing the existing statutory requirements found in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), mandating the U.S. government to oppose religious repression wherever it exists. Yet the provisions of IRFA, which include punitive measures for countries engaging in widespread religious persecution, have generally been ignored in foreign-policy practice.51 Similarly, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom — a position created by IRFA — should be elevated to a status commensurate with other at-large ambassadors within the State Department and have regular briefings with the president. These changes would send a powerful message to both American officials and foreign governments that the United States takes religious liberty seriously and considers it a priority in pursuing its normative and strategic goals.
The final pillar of religious realpolitik is restraint, historically one of the virtues of realpolitik that should undergird any strategy aimed at fighting Islamist extremism.52 In the Islamic world, the risk of civil war has significantly increased as a result of foreign-imposed regime change.53 Moreover, the expenditure of trillions of dollars on military interventions, drone wars and special operations in various parts of the Muslim world inadvertently but unquestionably paved the way for state collapse and militia rule, fueled Islamist insurgencies, and directly contributed to radicalization and sympathy for terrorists. This has resulted in the deaths of thousands of servicemen and women and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. In short, the application of conventional and nonconventional military power in these countries has greatly contributed to the rising tide of Islamist extremism, seriously undermining the national security of the United States.
Understanding that American military invasions and occupations of Middle Eastern countries have made its terrorism problem much worse, policy makers should seek to avoid attempting to change religious societies through direct military action. Instead, the U.S. government should combine a "light-footprint" strategy (including intelligence gathering and sharing, law enforcement and highly targeted and limited military strikes) with "soft power" in the form of religiously informed diplomacy as part of a broader national security strategy.54 The struggle against global religious extremism is better understood as a war of ideas than a battle of bombs. To this end, a war must be fought, but one aimed against religious intolerance and extremist ideologies. Groups like ISIS that pervert religion according to their distorted interpretations of sacred texts can only be defeated when people are free to choose better ideas, and these ideas emerge only in the free marketplace of beliefs. This naturally weakens extremism at its root. On the other hand, the military occupation by foreign troops of lands considered holy will likely have the opposite effect, giving extremists and their constituencies a common enemy in the United States.
Restraint does not mean that American influence cannot be used to invigorate democratic change abroad, nor does it work at cross-purposes with religious liberty. The United States can exert diplomatic leverage on allies to improve conditions of religious toleration through incentives like new or enhanced bilateral trade agreements, sanctions relief or security guarantees. The United States can act to protect vulnerable religious communities, as it did in the humanitarian mission undertaken by the Obama administration in 2015 to save those trapped on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq and facing certain death at the hands of ISIS. Another positive step would be swift congressional passage of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390). This law ensures that humanitarian assistance will reach the victims of genocide whose survival is at risk; it is an effort to preserve minority religious communities in their ancestral homelands in the Middle East. Moreover, the United States should do more to help refugees fleeing severe persecution at the hands of radical jihadi groups. An embrace of refugees will also likely generate goodwill from Muslim communities at home and abroad, thus making counterterrorism easier. The restraint inherent in religious realpolitik, therefore, presents the United States with a low-cost strategy more likely to succeed against Islamist extremism over the long term than military measures.
Expanding the analytical toolkit of U.S. policy makers to include religious subject matter is necessary if Washington hopes to address the threats posed by radical Islamist actors like ISIS, al-Qaeda and thousands of potential lone-wolf terrorists who draw inspiration from these groups. Absent the integration of religion, American foreign policy will remain seriously hampered in its ability to address the rising tide of Islamist violence.
This understanding calls for fresh policy thinking. We believe "religious realpolitik" offers an approach that has the potential to combat Islamist radicalism while averting costly and counterproductive military interventions. Mainstream approaches to American foreign policy — traditional realpolitik, neoconservatism and liberal interventionism — have exacerbated rather than mitigated the problem of global Islamist extremism. The three pillars of religious realpolitik outlined here — religious literacy, religious liberty and restraint — offer American foreign-policy makers an approach that, after the 9/11 attacks, might have enabled the United States to avoid several costly Middle Eastern interventions. ISIS might have never come into existence. But they did not consider these prescriptions, often because they approached foreign affairs from a distinctly secular perspective that fails to take spiritual forces seriously.
Islamist extremism cannot be defeated by sidelining religion or relying solely on the force of arms. These approaches exacerbate the problem. Instead, a foreign policy seeking to tackle this scourge must address the underlying cultures that give rise to violent Islamist ideologies. In the end, this goal can be accomplished only through Muslims themselves, made possible through religious and political reform in the world of Islam. The goal of American foreign policy should be to support the conditions in the Muslim world in which such a favorable outcome can become a reality. But without a more earnest engagement with and appreciation for religious actors, institutions and ideas, the United States will continue to miss important opportunities to undermine the root of Islamist extremism and bolster its own national security.
1 Following James A. Piazza, we define Islamist extremism as any violent action "committed by groups that are primarily motivated by interpretations of Islamic political principles or by a Muslim religious and communal identity." See James A. Piazza, "Is Islamist Terrorism More Dangerous?: An Empirical Study of Group Ideology, Organization, and Goal Structure," Terrorism and Political Violence 21, no. 1 (2009): 62-88.
2 Monica Duffy Toft, "Religion, Terrorism and Civil Wars," in Rethinking Religion and World Affairs, eds. Timothy Samuel Shah, Alfred Stepan and Monica Duffy Toft (Oxford University Press, 2012), 127-48.
3 Assaf Moghadam, "Suicide Terrorism, Occupation, and the Globalization of Martyrdom: A Critique of Dying to Win," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29, no. 8 (May 2006): 707-29.
4 Pew Research Center, "The Global Religious Landscape," Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, December 18, 2012, accessed June 3, 2014, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/.
5 Josè Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 1994); Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); Peter L. Berger, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999); Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (W.W. Norton, 2011).
6 Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 1994) .
7 Madeleine Albright, "Faith and Diplomacy," The Review of Faith and International Affairs 4, no.2 (2006): 7-8.
8 Thomas Farr, "International Religious Freedom and Moral Responsibility," in Challenges to Religious Liberty in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Gerard V. Bradley (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 194.
9 Thomas Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security (Oxford University Press), 34.
10 Daniel Philpott, "The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations," World Politics 55, no. 1 (2002): 56-95.
11 Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (Harper Collins Publishers, 2006), 8.
12 Thomas F. Farr and Dennis R. Hoover, The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy: Recommendations for the Obama Administration (Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 2009).
13 William Inboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment (Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (First Anchor Books, 2012).
14 John Bew, Realpolitik: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015).
15 John J. Mearsheimer, "American Unhinged," The National Interest 129 (January/February 2014), 10.
16 George F. Kennan, Realities of American Foreign Policy (Princeton University Press, 1951).
17 This explicitly realpolitik approach can be seen vividly in Richard Nixon's "twin pillar" strategy of strengthening Saudi Arabia and Iran via military training and weapons sales to prevent Soviet expansionism into the region.
18 "Foreign Military Financing Account Summary," U.S. Department of State, 2016, accessed June 7, 2016, http://www.state.gov/t/pm/ppa/sat/c14560.htm.
19 Douglas Johnston, ed., Trumping Realpolitik: Faith-Based Diplomacy (Oxford University Press, 2003).
20 Aaron Rapport, "Unexpected Affinities? Neoconservatism's Place in IR Theory," Security Studies 17, no. 2, (2008): 257-89.
21 John J. Mearsheimer, "Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq War: Realism Versus Neoconservatism," Open Democracy, May 19, 2005, accessed July 25, 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-americanpower/morgenthau_2522.j….
22 Mark J.L. McClelland, "Exporting Virtue: Neoconservatism, Democracy Promotion and the End of History," International Journal of Human Rights 15, no. 4 (May 2011): 520-31.
23 James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (Viking, 2004).
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25 George W. Bush, "President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point," June 1, 2002, The White House, accessed July 12, 2016, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020….
26 For some of the more popular titles see, Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-2005 (Penguin Press, 2006); George Packer, The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006); Ali A. Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (Yale University Press, 2008); and Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
27 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
28 Especially problematic for Huntington is the world of Islam. Huntington believes that Christianity and Islam are likely to clash insofar as both are missionary faiths that seek to convert people of other religions. Both are universalistic faiths, emphasizing the truth claims of their particular religions; and both are teleological religions whose innate values symbolize the purpose of existence. Huntington writes that the differences between civilizations stem from divergences in social and political values. Of the seven or eight major civilizations he describes, Huntington believes the greatest conflict to emerge will be between the Western and Islamic worlds.
29 David Frum and Richard Perle, The End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (Ballantine Books, 2004), 147.
30 Norman Podhoretz, World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism (Vintage, 2007).
31 Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy (Yale University Press, 2006), 116.
32 Tony Smith, America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1993).
33 Michael C. Desch, "Liberals, Neocons, and Realcons," Orbis 45, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 519-33.
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35 Charlie Winter, "Libya: The Strategic Gateway for the Islamic State," The Quilliam Foundation, February 2015.
36 Erica Ryan, "Chronology: The Benghazi Attack and the Fallout," Public Broadcasting Service, 2012, accessed July 22, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2012/11/30/166243318/chronology-the-benghazi-attack-….
37 Farr, World of Faith and Freedom, 63.
38 Philip S. Gorski, "Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State and Society in Late Medieval Modern Europe, ca. 1300-1700," American Sociological Review 65, no. 1 (February 2000): 138-67.
39 David Wood, "Anti-American Extremists among Libyan Rebels U.S. Has Vowed to Protect," Huffington Post, March 19, 2011, accessed August 7, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/19/extremists-among-libya-rebels_….
40 Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn't (HarperCollins, 2009).
41 R. Scott Appleby and Richard Cizik, Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2011).
42 Shibley Telhami, "Kenneth Waltz, Neorealism and Foreign Policy," Security Studies 11, no. 3 (Spring 2002): 158-70.
43 Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press, 2011); Nilay Saiya and Anthony Scime, "Explaining Religious Terrorism: A Data-Mined Analysis," Conflict Management and Peace Science 32, no. 5 (2015): 487-512; and Nilay Saiya, "Religion, Democracy and Terrorism," Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no.6 (December 2015): 51-59.
44 Peter S. Henne, Sarabrynn Hudgins and Timothy Samuel Shah, Religious Freedom and Violent Religious Extremism: A Sourcebook of Modern Cases and Analysis (Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 2012); Nilay Saiya, "Explaining Religious Violence Across Countries: An Institutional Perspective," in Kevin R. den Dulk and Elizabeth Oldmixon, eds., Mediating Religion and Government: Political Institutions and the Policy Process (Palgrave, 2014): 209-240; Nilay Saiya, "Blasphemy and Terrorism in the Muslim World," Terrorism and Political Violence 29, no. 6 (November 2017); and Nilay Saiya, "Religion, State and Terrorism: A Global Analysis," Terrorism and Political Violence, DOI:10.1080/09546553.2016.1211525.
45 Mohammed Hafez, Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World (Lynne Rienner, 2003); and Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (I.B. Tauris, 2006).
46 Nilay Saiya, "The Religious Freedom Peace," International Journal of Human Rights 19, no. 3 (June 2015): 369-382.
47 Chris Seiple and Dennis R. Hoover, "Religious Liberty and Global Security," in The Future of Religious liberty: Global Challenges, ed. Allen D. Hertzke (Oxford, 2013).
48 Nilay Saiya, "Religious Freedom, the Arab Spring and U.S. Middle East Policy," International Politics 54, no. 1 (February 2017): 43-53
49 Anthony Gill, The Political Origins of Religious Liberty (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
50 Alfred C. Stepan, "Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations,'" Journal of Democracy 11, no. 4: 37-57.
51 Thomas Farr, "Our Failed Religious Freedom Policy," First Things, November 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/11/our-failed-religious-freedom…, accessed March 19, 2016; and Thomas Farr, "International Religious Freedom Policy and American National Security," The Witherspoon Institute, September 19, 2014, http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2014/09/13818/, accessed March 19, 2016.
52 Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne, "A New Grand Strategy," Atlantic Monthly 289, no. 1 (January 2002): 36-42.
53 Goran Peic and Dan Reiter, "Foreign-Imposed Regime Change, State Power and Civil War Onset, 1920-2004," British Journal of Political Science 41, no. 3 (2011): 453-75.
54 Seth G. Jones, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa'ida since 9/11 (W.W. Norton, 2013).