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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy

Engaging Religious Communinties

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs today released its task force report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy”. The Council convened a group of thirty-two experts and stakeholders – former government officials, religious leaders, heads of international organizations, and scholars – to bring a diverse perspective to the debate over how to successfully engage religion on an international level.

Religious communities are central players in the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, development assistance, the promotion of human rights, stewardship of the environment, and the pursuit of peace in troubled parts of the world. The success of American diplomacy in the next decade will be measuredRead Morein no small part by its ability to connect with the hundreds of millions of people throughout the world whose identity is defined by religion. President Obama’s historic speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, with its promise to engage with Muslim communities, was an important step in the right direction. This report takes the next step in developing a strategy to engage religious communities of all faiths in addressing foreign policy challenges.

The Task Force is comprised of high level and influential policymakers, academics, constitutional lawyers and religious leaders.  Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, President of CSID, has been an active member of this task force for the past 18 months and participated in the writing and editing of this report.


Excerpts from the Report:

Engage on the societal level, not just the governmental or diplomatic level. To do so the United States must engage with credible and legitimate indigenous groups in religious communities, including women’s organizations, civil society associations, professional organizations, religious political parties, clerical centers, environmental groups, educational institutions, grade school and high school teacher groups, and particularly young people, who are often at the forefront of conflict.”

 

Engage religious political parties even if they may oppose U.S. foreign policy. While we should not paper over the differences with such parties, evidence from the past decade indicates that religious political parties often place pragmatism and problem solving over ideology. Indeed, no Islamist party elected to national parliament has sought to put greater emphasis on Sharia laws as the source of legislation, despite preelection rhetoric to the contrary. Instead, they often become mired in the day-to-day necessities of ruling, which include making good on commitments to tackle corruption and provide much-needed public services in order to build a record of practical accomplishment”

Support human rights in order to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of religious communities. The United States faces a gathering crisis where its alliances with certain nations are dependent upon autocratic regimes, while the opposition, usually represented by religious parties, often (though not always) espouses anti-American positions. The challenge is to promote democracy without strengthening anti-Americanism. However, a comprehensive approach to democracy promotion is actually the critical element in maintaining U.S. alliances and partnerships.”

Government violations also constrict the ability of religious communities to have free and open debates between different theologies and hence to evolve towards theologies that are more accepting of pluralism, freedom, and democracy. The stifling of such opportunities prepares the ground for religious extremism.45 The emergence and maturation of democratic Islamic politics, for example, has been retarded in some nations-such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan- by the exclusion of some religiously informed arguments, religious actors, and viable parties from the public sphere.

Previously, the emergence of Islamic political movements encouraged the United States to rely more heavily on its autocratic allies, which in turn can inadvertently strengthen the opposition’s base of support and weaken America’s legitimacy with Muslim communities. While the United States might be tempted to side with authoritarian regimes against parties with an expressed anti-U.S. agenda, even if that means opposing the introduction of democratic practices, this poses a severe risk to U.S. goals and objectives in the long run by making the United States a partner in the suppression of political and human rights. As the opposition to authoritarianism grows, so too will the suppression. And if such a regime falls, it is likely to be replaced by a government more hostile to the United States than may otherwise be the case.”

Part of this effort should include engaging with religious political parties even though they may oppose some aspects of U.S. foreign policy. While we should not paper over the differences with such parties, evidence from the past decade indicates that elected, religiously affiliated parties tend to place pragmatism and problem solving over ideology. In a comparable case of “moderation via participation,” no Islamist party popularly elected to national parliament has sought to put greater emphasis on Sharia laws as the source of legislation, despite preelection rhetoric to the contrary.  Instead, they often become focused on the day-to-day necessities of ruling, which include making good on commitments to tackle corruption and provide much-needed public services in order to build a record of practical accomplishment.”

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