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.
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.