“Religion, Terror and Error:” What’s the Error?

[Editor's Note: This post by Dr. Eric Patterson is part of a conversation on the book Religion, Terror and Error by Doug Johnston at the Patheos Book Club here.]

Douglas Johnston’s latest book, Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement is a must-read for those interested in how religion and culture play roles in contemporary global affairs.  The book argues that a thoughtful U.S. foreign policy must take into consideration the religious multi-dimensionality of global affairs and the book provides dozens of anecdotes of the power of religion in building understanding, resolving conflict, and building community.  The book is thoughtful, balanced, nuanced, and surprising.

The “religion” and “terror” are obvious; what is the “error?”  Actually the book cites several errors.  The first is the failure of the U.S. foreign and national security policy establishment to embed training and expertise on religious factors into the training of diplomats, soldiers, and aid workers.  A second, well-documented error is that many of the foot soldiers of Islamist jihad (e.g. al Qaeda in Iraq, Palestinian suicide bombers) have low levels of religious literacy in their own faith tradition.  Johnston reports that “organic suasion” by Muslim clerics who teach and preach against violent extremism, as instituted in various de-radicalization campaigns in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and elsewhere, is the most potent force for countering violent Islamist narratives.

A third error Johnston describes is misperceptions of “the Other” (U.S. vs. Muslim world).  Using survey data, Johnston goes beyond traditional analysis to suggest what each side wants the other to understand about it.  For instance, most Americans feel that they are good friends to the world due to their huge investments, from private charities to humanitarian intervention on behalf of Muslims in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and most recently Libya…and therefore they cannot understand what is often called “Muslim rage.”  Johnston argues that Muslims likewise feel misunderstood, particularly the Muslim everyman in Indonesia or Malaysia, who sees his faith tradition hijacked by violent radicals and worry that Americans believe every Muslim is a terrorist.

The book suggests two sets of questions for Patheos readers.  The first has to do with how non-religious people can apprehend the “challenge of spiritual engagement.”  On the one hand, it is obvious that U.S. diplomats must engage foreign societies on their terms, by learning about their language, culture, customs, gender norms, arts, and the like.  Religion should be on that informational “menu.”   Can a secularist, one who explicitly believes that at best religion is harmless superstitition and at worst believes that all religion is a harmful obstruction to progress and rationality, really understand and engage religious actors, religious organizations, and religious themes in a society?  A second set of questions has to do with the very real religious and spiritual differences between Christians and other faith traditions.  Johnston argues that all faith traditions have powerful teaching on brotherly love, respect, and conflict resolution that can be tapped in service of international peace. But, how does the political initiative to de-escalate conflict mesh with the religious imperative of practicing and sharing one’s faith at the personal and collective level?  This is where issues of human rights policy and religious persecution intersect with other national security considerations, as can be observed in the recent assassination of Pakistani politicians calling for religious freedom or Afghan Christians tortured for their faith.  What does all of this mean for U.S. foreign policy and can “spiritual engagement” overcome domestic religious repression?

Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Associate Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.  His two new book, Politics in a Religious World: Toward a Religiously Literate U.S. Foreign Policy and Ending Wars Well: Just War Thinking at Conflict’s End, will be available in November 2011.


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