Academic journal article Parameters

Bridging the Religious Divide

Academic journal article Parameters

Bridging the Religious Divide

Article excerpt

Academicians, east and west, hotly debate the fundaments of the war on terror. In our nation's capital, decisionmakers and renowned scholars meet regularly to posit the pros and cons of US foreign policy. Internationally, countless daily editorials are published highlighting current US efforts and shortcomings in the Middle East. Much has also been written about Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the insurgency, and the mechanics of the 9/11 attacks. Conversely, the one debate that seems to elude even our best and brightest intellectuals is an assessment of why--not how--9/11 occurred. Efforts to defeat ongoing insurgent attempts to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan must start with a debate on what is driving the nature of conflict in the region. Understanding why the insurgents hate America so much is equally important as knowing how the attackers of 9/11 were able to infiltrate our systems of protection.

Over the last two years, after countless lessons learned during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Coalition forces now have a limited but clearer understanding of the drivers of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of redeployed top military commanders recently pointed out that the true nature of this war is centered on economics, political will, culture, and religious ideology. (1) Research indicates that many Islamic scholars concur with the following assessment: the insurgency is slowly developing into a war of ideas that will serve as a catalyst for the globalization of religious extremism if left unchecked. The analysis that follows focuses on the vital but poorly understood role that religion is playing in shaping the ongoing insurgency in the Middle East, an insurgency fueled by religious extremists.

The Role of Religion: Understanding the Culture of Islam

The Iraqi insurgency clearly demonstrates the existing chasm between western and eastern cultures. Understanding Arab culture and the culture of Islam is the first step in bridging the religious divide that America currently faces. America must get to know the people of Islam and their cultural imperatives. Our understanding needs to account for every tribe, sect, and social class, to include radical extremists; we must become students of Islam. Abdurrahman Wahid implores governments, people of faith, and strategic planners alike using a straightforward message: "We are in a crisis of misunderstanding--of Islam; even by Muslims themselves." (2) For many, his message is hard to hear; the distractions of globalization, urbanization, and transnational terrorism cloud the reception of those with the greatest need to listen. Our failure to understand the nature of Islam permits the radicalization of Muslims worldwide while blinding the rest of humanity to a solution which hides in plain sight--a solution that must include a closer examination of the influence Islam has on its community of faith. (3) Before America can build an effective strategy to neutralize the extremist ideologies that underpin the Iraqi insurgency (and by extension, the global Islamic extremist movement), we must first commit to understanding Islam as it is practiced and observed by Muslims today.

The need to understand religious culture as a key element of change in the Middle East is further evidenced by the failure of US and international efforts to effectively engage religious leaders with any measurable consistency. US strategies for dealing with religious actors have tended to be ambivalent and reactive, focusing exclusively on certain religions or leaders seen as either close allies or immediate threats. When religion is addressed, the discussion is too broad, and the work often takes the form of dialogue rather than focusing on actions, processes, and results. Scholars of Islam take a slightly different approach to the issue. They characterize the ongoing war of ideas as a lack of western understanding regarding religion and the role of indigenous religious leaders in the Middle East. …

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