The Role of Religion in National Security Policy Since 9/11
Authored by Chaplain (COL) Jonathan E Shaw.
The United States has struggled to find a framework to integrate religion into the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) discussion of national security. Islam has been the central focus, with both the 9/11 terrorists and many of America’s partners in overseas contingency operations sharing an Islamic heritage. President George W. Bush’s paradigm of “Religion as Freedom” and President Barack H. Obama’s paradigm of “Religion as Unity” have been partially successful, but they have yet to provide a nuanced understanding of Islam and a comprehensive framework. Part I of this Carlisle Paper examines the enduring role of religion in human conflict through the eyes of Alvin Toffler, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan. Part II provides an analysis of Islam to determine its power within current alignments, and addresses jihad and the level of support for terrorism. Part III examines the role of religion within the Bush and Obama administrations, and proposes a third paradigm—“Religion as Ideology”—in an attempt to relate a strategic vision which comprehends the power of Islam to a policy which accounts for religion in terms of empowered behavior. Part IV addresses practical questions regarding the implementation of the paradigm of “Religion as Ideology” and the way ahead.
The United States has struggled to find a framework to integrate religion into the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) discussion of national security. Islam has been the central focus, with both the 9/11 terrorists and many of America’s partners in overseas contingency operations sharing an Islamic heritage.
The struggle to locate that framework has taken the United States down a number of roads since the turn of the millennium, none of which has been totally satisfactory. President George W. Bush viewed freedom as a universal value, with religious freedom as the preeminent characteristic of free, robust societies. With this assumption, he viewed the post-9/11 conflict with the Taliban and al-Qaeda as a battle over freedom. He believed that repressed Iraqis and Afghans would welcome the U.S. military as liberators bringing greater freedom, to include freedom of religion. President Bush’s assumptions were only partially validated. Part of the problem was the dissonance between a Western concept of freedom to choose and worship God over against an Islamic concept to submit to God. Bush’s construct of Religion as Freedom did not offer the optimal framework.
Neither has President Barack Obama’s Religion as Unity framework solved the problem. President Obama has asserted a universal value regarding religion—that all religions are united by a moral law to care for one’s fellowman. Based on this assumption, President Obama has labeled radical Muslim terrorists as false Muslims, and also launched initiatives to honor Islam and resolve mutual misunderstandings through dialog with Muslim states. His efforts have succeeded partially, but radical traditionalist Muslims continue to fight, believing they are the pure practitioners of the faith. Also, President Obama’s framework has not accounted for the large numbers of Muslims in Muslim-majority countries who find terrorism sometimes justifiable. An additional framework is needed, one that understands religion as power which is comprehended in grand strategy, and religion as behavior which is addressed in policy.
To begin to derive such a framework, it is helpful to look forward, to project the potential scope of the interplay between religion and national security. An examination of the enduring role of religion in human conflict through the eyes of Alvin Toffler, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan proves helpful. Toffler, Fukuyama, Huntington, and Kaplan articulate different visions of the current and future world, with varying views of national security challenges. Each author, however, includes religion as a critical component in any policy that would address those challenges effectively, and highlights Islam within that process.
Current and projected U.S. national security challenges highlight the need to explore Islam’s historical, theological, and political roots and traditions. Such an exploration suggests that the central issue for Islam is its universalization. One may identify six partially overlapping positions, or schools of thought, within Islam today, each of which attempts to address the problem of Islamic unity. These positions are found among both U.S. adversaries and partners in current overseas contingency operations.
Islam today is far from monolithic. It is manifested in many forms, reflecting multiple perspectives on how the faith is to achieve its universalization, on what jihad means, and on when, if ever, terrorist tactics are justifiable in defense of Islam. Traditionalist conceptions of Islam maintain the continuing applicability of Shari’ah as state law, and the potentiality for jihad as warfare, with an average of over 20 percent of Muslims in Muslim-majority nations finding terrorist acts at times justifiable in defense of Islam. Liberal and post-modern reformists, on the other hand, generally condemn violent jihad and seek peaceful relations with the West. An accurate assessment of Islam as power will inform that grand strategy and strategic vision on which effective national security policy rests.
A review of the national security policies of Presidents Bush and Obama demonstrates the incredible difficulty of bringing religion to bear within national security policy. To the alternative paradigms of Religion as Freedom and Religion as Unity, the author suggests a third, Religion as Ideology, arguing that it appears to offer the greatest utility. It calls for a strategic vision that comprehends the power of Islam, it enables a nuanced understanding of Islamic groups based on their behavior, it facilitates a diversified continuum of policy rewards and consequences based on that behavior, and it refrains from violating the American tradition of the Federal Government neither advocating for nor judging a religion.
If religion is to gain currency within national security policy, many practical matters will need to be addressed. For example, how should religion impact campaign design, campaign planning, and strategic communications with internal and external audiences? Relative to various positions within Islam, U.S. policymakers will need to understand the conceptions of universalization to which various Islamic positions aspire. Even more, policymakers will need to determine how much active support or passive space U.S. national interests can afford or allow toward the fulfillment of those aspirations. Knowing the parameters could amount to a national security imperative.
Finally, that religion will continue to matter, and matter a lot, in U.S. national security challenges may be a bitter pill for secularist western liberals to swallow. Certain political advisers, academics, and senior leaders of the professions of arms may find it difficult to believe that many 21st-century people are still motivated by religion, and that some are even willing to fight and die for their beliefs. Their incredulity is easy to document. National security policy statements, academic texts on cultural frameworks, and even military manuals on counterinsurgency doctrine can discuss their subject matter without examining religion as a power which motivates human behavior. The day has come to rethink assumptions and reengage in these critical arenas.
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