Religion and foreign policy

When religion defines foreign policy it will inevitably clash with national interests, creating the grounds for wars that only elites who rule in the name of religion win, writes Gamil Matar (Al-Ahram Weekly)

That Egypt’s president cites Quranic verses and uses religious phrases in his public addresses does not surprise me. If we are accustomed from an early age to using them in our school compositions, there is nothing inherently odd in the president peppering his speeches with them, especially given that he is a religious man and a prominent member of an Islamist organisation that elevated him to his current office. Nevertheless, I must confess that I was taken aback by the prologue to the speech he delivered at a recent conference in Iran and in which he made mention of the companions of the Prophet and cited a verse from the Quran. Something about that prologue did not ring true. It’s intent was consummately political and it conveyed the sense of a future policy orientation, which may well have been the intent of the speechwriters.

The conference in which this speech was delivered was the last summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). This movement is made up of numerous member states whose peoples have diverse religious affiliations. What bound these states together from the outset and protects them to this day as a non-aligned grouping is a set of political principles and interests that have no direct bearing on religion.

Clearly, the political point of employing religious references in a speech at a conference in which religion was not on the agenda was to deliver a “religious” message or, more accurately, a sectarian message to the host people, which in this case were the Iranians. I doubt that such a message could ever have been delivered in the era of NAM’s founding fathers or in any of the subsequent conferences. Nothing in the substance of this message addressed a single one of that set of principles established by the conferences of Bandung and Belgrade and that set the course for generation after generation of Third World leaders and diplomats for the next 60 years.

Of course, our president was hardly the first political leader to use religious language for political ends. History is filled with accounts of the practice of mixing religion with politics in order to promote narrow interests or ambitious policies. Perhaps the architects of Western colonial policies set world records in the use of religion to accomplish imperial ends. History is similarly full of stories in which religion and politics are blended in order to evangelise or spread a religious calling, or to instil noble morals and ethics in international political practices. As we know, there are long-established schools in international relations that specialise in the connection between politics and ethics, and also power.

The stories abound and their conclusions and consequences are varied. Certainly no Arab or Muslim will forget the story of President George W Bush when he deliberately inserted the word “crusade” in his televised speech on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. I recall that at the time many international affairs specialists anticipated the onset of an age in which religion would interweave with international relations to a degree unprecedented in modern history. Their prediction came true. To read the political studies and minutes of Congressional hearing sessions of this period one would think that American scholars, politicians and diplomats had begun to regard religion as a state enterprise.

What this means is that US diplomacy can use religion to further US national interests. It does this through the application of the “religion by proxy” theory, which holds that people place their faith in the hands of a religious ruling minority that represents or claims to represent the pious majority. There are many testimonies to this transformation in US foreign policy design. Take, for example, how the US has changed its approach to religious movements in various parts of the world. The rule in US diplomacy used to be that since the US constitution insists on the separation of church from state, US diplomats should avoid dealing with religious parties and leaderships even if the aim is to further US interests. This rule vanished with the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001. From then onward, US statesmen and diplomats made it their business to deal with foreign religious parties and political forces, as well as to furnish all possible support to Christian evangelistic groups and organisations which became more energetic than ever in their campaigns to spread their ideas in South America, Africa and China.

In short, the US now began to follow in the heels of the erstwhile European colonial powers, when the imperialistic drive donned a religious mantle and blazoned the fiction of the Christian civilising mission in order to justify the occupation of the continents of the South and the East for the purpose of plundering their national resources and reducing their peoples to subjugation. Some people claim that the US added other pretexts to that flagrantly religious mission, namely the missions to spread democracy and human rights and liberties, and that sometimes it jumbled the lot of them together.

Others make a distinction between how the Europeans and how the Americans use religion in foreign policy. For example, Javier Solana, the former EU foreign affairs commissioner, warned against the danger of the American use of religion in foreign policy. The Americans are “absolutists,” he said. Everything to them is either black or white, good or evil, with us or against us. Therefore, he argued, it is hard for them to be tolerant with other peoples or other religions, unlike the Europeans who had learned over centuries the true meaning of religious hatreds. Because the Europeans had had to pay a horrific toll for their religious wars, they eventually became among the most tolerant people on earth and the most accepting of the “other,” which today is reflected in their foreign policies, or so argue the defenders of the properties of European culture and policy.

A foreign policy academy in the US has cautioned that the mixing religion with politics can frequently give rise to the “hijacking of religion”. Unethical political leaders may take advantage of — or feel compelled by — certain circumstances to use religion as a cover for the pursuit of personal ends or for promoting narrow partisan interests. There are also many instances of political leaders who drew on religious passions to turn their people against other peoples, which only serves to make conflicts much more complex and intractable.

Others have been prompted by developments in their own countries or societies to warn against excessive blending of religion and politics. It is natural for different communities living side-by-side to fall into dispute and for disputes to erupt into violence. It is equally natural for local authorities to seize the opportunity to diffuse the situation before it spirals out of control, even before central authorities become aware of the situation. But in this day and age of ours, local disputes are increasingly becoming a cause of general concern because they offer an opening for foreign powers to meddle on the pretext of protecting a minority sect or ethnic group, and because the foreign meddling often causes the disputes to escalate into civil strife or even civil war. I am not sure of the scale of injustice being inflicted on the Muslims of Burma. Perhaps it is of a degree that merits such worldwide attention and international intervention. However, I am certain that other Muslims in northeastern India and in Bangladesh, itself, which is a Muslim nation, are the victims of grave injustices, while the “international community” remains unconcerned.

In all events, with Burma, as in many other cases, religion is being used to serve the “national” interests of other countries, in spite of the well-known “cost” of this practice, which is exorbitant and usually very bloody. This is not to say that the international community should stop supporting oppressed groups in Sankyang, Tibet, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and in many Arab and Islamic countries. Rather, the point is that the intervention should avoid inflaming the religious sensitivities of the peoples concerned. As history has shown, this practice has often created the soil upon which groups that originally existed on the fringes of society could develop into mass religious or sectarian movements with transnational dimensions. Or, more dangerously, it sparked the rise of terrorist groups that wrought fear, destruction and chaos and some of which were enlisted into the intelligence agencies of some governments in order to perform these governments’ dirty work in other countries.

In certain quarters there is this assumption that communities or peoples that share the same religious affiliation rarely fight or engage in war. In my opinion, this theory is just as fallacious as the famous one that holds that democratic countries never make war on one another. As many international politics experts will tell you, the prime engine of the foreign policy of any state is national interest. The idea was first formulated by the father of the science of international relations, Hans Morgenthau, and the overwhelming majority of political scientists and statesmen still subscribe to it. Some of these go on to assert that the goal of realising national interests sometimes gives politicians the incentive to pursue actions that defy ethical principles. The eminent political scientist Arthur Schlesinger coined a now famous term for this phenomenon. He called it the “necessary immorality” in the manufacture of foreign policy.

This concept brings us to an inescapable reality. “Religious states” go to war just as “secular states” do and “religious states” can become embroiled in gruelling wars with other “religious states”, including those that share the same religion and even the same religious denomination. The history of the Middle East, since the dawn of religion, is filled with religious wars, some of which lasted decades and left disastrous and long-lasting effects. Otherwise put, when religion enters into the equation as a shaper of foreign policy, it will inevitably clash with the chief engine of foreign policy, which is national interest. The winners in this game are never the people and the advancement of their societies, but only the elites who claim to rule in the name of religion and who will have no compunction about going on the warpath against other ruling elites who are their coreligionists in another country. There is an endless train of such wars, from the eras of the Islamic caliphates in Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul, to the clash in Europe between the eastern and western Christian empires. In the Arab and Islamic world, alone, we have had the wars between Egypt and Yemen, Libya and Chad, Iraq and Kuwait, Iraq and Iran, the Turks and the Persians, and western Pakistan and eastern Pakistan or the “land of the Bengals.”

The forced or artificial mixture of religion and foreign policies is fraught with risks, especially when the political elites who forge the policy decisions or orientations are “religious” in their political orientation or definition of their identity.

The writer is a political analyst and director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

Source: Al-Ahram Weekly

Categories: Africa, Egypt

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