Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Koran-burning & Sacrilege: Religion Matters in Diplomacy

Ted Williams III


March 9, 2012

By Ted Williams III

In her book, The Mighty and the Almighty, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reflects on her childhood as the daughter of a diplomat and her decades of foreign service, focusing on an issue lost on most in American diplomacy: Religion matters in international relations.

Secretary Albright confesses that in both her formal and informal secular education in diplomacy, she knew little about faith and felt woefully underprepared to mediate conflicts that were laced with spiritual and cultural complexities. Mediating religiously fueled conflicts solely with the tools of secular political negotiation left her at a significant disadvantage. She now vociferously advocates that American diplomats receive extensive training in religion, since the model for secularly based conflict resolution is failing to produce the desired results.

Her assessment is crucial.

The recent desecration of the Koran by American soldiers in Afghanistan reflects a larger cultural context in which religious commitment is not respected. Modern Western civilization has proudly declared a clear separation of not only the church and state as institutions, but also of the sacred and the secular. This concept, known as dualism, guides every aspect of our cultural, political and economic institutions. In the Western world, it is okay to be religious as long as that religion is primarily individualistic and lacks dogmatic, consistent applications for civil society.

By contrast, many of the societies in which our troops find themselves function in an antithetical manner. Muslim cultures understand that religion has social implications and, consequently, consistently apply religious tenets to their collective institutions. Historically, both Europe and the U.S. operated similarly. Yet today, cultural practices, such as the closing of schools and businesses for the observance of daily ritualistic prayer, for instance, have no Western counterpart. Westerners now bow exclusively at the altar of capitalism and prioritize its rituals in a way that actually rivals religious fanaticism. Cultural examples of this abound, from our annual holiday-stampede deaths to the prioritization of financial pursuits over time spent with family and in religious worship.  The modern Westerner has a difficult time understanding the level of religious devotion common in Arab nations.  

Why does this phenomenon matter in international relations? The word "jihad" means "struggle”—typically referring to the battle for the soul against evil. Worldwide jihadism is driven partially by a rejection of Western secularism and religious antipathy. Every time an American overseas commits an act that is seen as blatantly sacrilegious, it gives our enemies fuel for their fire of hatred. And while Jihadists are also opposed to non-Muslim religions, our own religious insensitivity does little to help the cause of peace. In many areas of civic life, secularism represents a more pernicious threat to Islam than Western Judeo-Christian values.

Yet, diplomacy works. When committed to cultural respect, the U.S. has achieved many diplomatic successes with Muslim states, including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While I firmly believe that realism is a viable school of political thought, and that certain nations must be dealt with primarily through force, deterrence, and containment, the U.S. must take a serious look at other, more effective ways to engage the Arab world. We must not only build upon the strength of our armed forces, but we must also expand non-military efforts to win support among Muslim states.

Because jihadism is part political, part religious and part economic in its motivation, I do not want to oversimplify our necessary response. We will never be able to see eye-to-eye with individuals who are bent on the destruction of our culture, major religion and system of government.

As a teacher, I have realized that my work may not change the general academic tendencies of high and low achievers in my class. However, the achievement of the middle 30 percent of my students is contingent upon my ability to inspire and reach them. Similarly, in the Arab world there exists a portion of the population that is open to our influence – if we wield it in a constructive manner. Otherwise, that same group is subject to being radicalized. Our responsibility as a nation is to fight for this group. For this reason, we must repudiate actions that are viewed as sacrilegious and respect the role of religion in the world, not just in the Middle East, but on our own shores as well. In this way, we would do well to heed the warnings of Secretary Albright.

—Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago.

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