Progressive Christian Channel
An Anniversary Call to Arms
Like other religions, Islam has its extremist elements. It also has an illustrious history, which includes numerous contributions to the civilization we enjoy today. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are no more representative of Islam than those of the Ku Klux Klan are of Christianity (the onerous deeds of the so-called Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda also come to mind). And just as Osama bin Laden rallied his followers by quoting religious scripture out of context (e.g., "slay the infidels wherever you find them"), so did the Dutch Reformed Church do precisely the same in justifying the practice of apartheid in South Africa. Religion is a double-edged sword that can either cause conflict or abate it. To focus on the former, while ignoring the latter is to deprive oneself of a critically important asset in countering religious violence. To my way of thinking, the best way to deal with Islam is to make a concerted effort to understand it, first of all, by getting to know a Muslim.
The occasion of this tenth anniversary of 9/11 should serve as an inspiration to build bridges, rather than walls; and here, it is important to note that attitudes toward Muslims are markedly different (better) for those who actually know a practicing Muslim versus those who do not. In the absence of such exposure, it becomes easy to dehumanize the entire community. To buy into the uninformed Islamaphobia of late-night radio talk shows is to do a disservice to oneself and to the country more generally. Perceptions of the American Muslim Community as being either a persecuted or marginalized community play directly into the hands of the terrorists.
In a context in which religious legitimacy trumps all (as it does for those committing terrorism in its name), the best antidote for religious ignorance is religious understanding. It is encouraging to note that the State Department is at long last waking to this need through its incorporation of new training programs on religion at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute where it trains its senior and junior diplomats. While a positive development, this training is voluntary and therefore unlikely to have a deep-seated impact on how Foreign Service Officers think about and deal with religion's influence. The Department is also putting an increased emphasis on promoting and enforcing international religious freedom. While a highly important end in its own right, religious freedom is generally perceived by others as an American agenda (despite UN endorsement) and in any event represents a very narrow slice of a much larger pie.
So here we sit, ten years after our wake-up call, with a response that can only be described as too little, too late. With religious identity clearly on the ascendance, continuing to downplay its influence will only subject us further to the law of unintended consequences. The stakes are incredibly high (as the specter of religious extremism married to weapons of mass destruction continues to loom large), and the task of acquiring a sophisticated capability for dealing with religious factors more than merits whatever urgency we can give it.
Douglas Johnston is the president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. Johnston comes to this work after a long and productive career serving in the United States military and government. His edited collection Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft has long been cited as a key text in conflict resolution studies.