Can Religion Lead to Peace?

By Breger, Marshall | Moment, October-November 2007 | Go to article overview

Can Religion Lead to Peace?


Breger, Marshall, Moment


Whenever one's view of the Oslo peace process, it is remarkable that the 1993 signing ceremony on the White House lawn did not include benedictions by rabbis, imams or priests. In an America where religious leaders open sessions of Congress, pray for the success of our armies and even sometimes pray for fair winds and bless the fleet at yachting regattas, this is passing strange.

Like the dog that didn't bark, the absence of religious content speaks volumes about the assumptions that drive conventional diplomatic wisdom in Washington. Foreign policy professionals instinctively recoil at the notion that religion can or should play an important role in foreign policy. They see religion as a "private matter," according to Tom Fair, former director of the State Department's office of international religious freedom, "properly beyond the bounds of policy analysis and action."

Far too many American diplomats and Washington think-tank gums continue to dismiss or, at best, ignore religion as "a tool of statecraft." They talk about promoting "civil society," but forget that in regions as diverse as the Middle East and South Asia, the largest and most powerful actors in civil society are religious. They assume that a "moderate" Muslim is a less religious Muslim, and that an "Islamist" who believes that Islam should play a role in politics must be in his heart a bomb-throwing extremist. They treat religion as a distraction to diplomacy and a threat to global stability.

The notion that religion has no role in foreign policy is not limited to Americans. In a recent international conference on Middle Eastern politics, where I spoke about the need to include discussion of religion in our deliberations, I unintentionally exposed a third rail. Many of the Middle Eastern intellectuals in attendance cried out, in effect: "Don't go there! You will open up a Pandora's box!" These prominent secular democrats fear talking about religion because they fear its influence. But ignoring something does not make it go away.

Sadly, in the words of intellectual historian Mark Lilla, "we in the West find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still influence the mind of men." Academic theories of modernization teach that as societies modernize they irrevocably grow more secular. But the truth is otherwise. Sociologist Peter Berger teaches that religious sensibility does not wither in the modern world. Even the State Department, long a bastion of secularist thinking, is beginning to get the picture, albeit slowly. In a powerful book written after she left the State Department, former Secretary Madeleine Albright effectively offered a mea culpa for ignoring religion while in office. And Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, says that President Bush wants her "to reach out and meet with religious leaders--because faith is such an important part of life for so many Americans and so many people across the world. …

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