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Policymakers Ignore Religion at Their Own Peril

There is awareness at some level in most Western capitals that religion matters in foreign policy write Ted Reinert and Stephen F. Szabo. Violence linked to religion, most spectacularly the 9/11 attacks, has seemingly vindicated the warnings of Samuel Huntington and others about a coming clash of civilizations. Those attacks rescrambled the threat matrix for Western policymakers, leading to a “global war on terror,” divisive and ill-fated military interventions across the wider Middle East, increased security measures for travelers, and vastly expanded intelligence collection efforts.

Developments in the last 12 months, notably the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State — which has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, proclaimed a caliphate, and murdered thousands — and the Paris attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, have made the issue of religious violence even more pressing.

Religion has also contributed to both unity and division in the West. Contrasts between Christian political activism in the United States and the secularism of European societies are occasionally a divisive factor in transatlantic relations. Within Europe, secularism also varies from country to country. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church in what he portrays as a civilizational struggle with the West is another source of religious conflict.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, the transatlantic community has had a blind spot when it comes to religion, particularly how religion should be taken into account in policy formulation and how that can be done effectively. A recently released report by the Transatlantic Academy — Faith, Freedom, and Foreign Policy: Challenges for the Transatlantic Community — addresses various aspects of the role of religion in the liberal international order, in the foreign policies of Europe, the United States, and Canada, and in Europe’s neighborhood.

Michael Barnett argues that religion’s role in world affairs is poorly understood by Western scholars and policymakers because of widespread confusion about the concepts of religion, secularism, and liberalism, and a lack of historical self-awareness and critical introspection. He argues that under a received interpretation of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the liberal international order is understood as secular, neglecting the historical role of Christianity in its shaping. Religion, he argues, is seen as a primary cause of violence, neglecting violence done in the name of secular nationalism and other ideologies. And liberalism is often projected as an antidote to religious violence, even though secularism can sometimes be seen as an assault on freedom of conscience and religious expression.

Mustafa Akyol offers a useful typology of political Islam, in an effort at a better understanding of a highly diverse global community of 1.6 billion people. He distinguishes between five trends: secular Muslimhood, Islamic modernism, Muslim nationalism, political Islamism, and violent Islamism. Muslim nationalists, such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may challenge the liberal international order, but their complaints are essentially political and comparable to those of some non-Muslims. “The real ideological tension is between the liberal order and Islamism, in its non-violent and violent forms,” Akyol writes. He argues that while Islamists should be welcomed to the democratic space and not oppressed or removed from power in coups, their acceptance of electoral democracy should not be mistaken for an acceptance of liberal democracy, and the West should defend liberal values through diplomacy, the media, activism, and — if necessary — sanctions.

Alicja Curanović argues that Christianity too can influence politics and foreign policy, as shown by the Russian political leadership’s increasingly symbiotic relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. Traditional Russian values, defined in opposition to those of a purportedly decadent West, have become a central notion of Russian foreign policy under Putin. Meanwhile, Lucian N. Leustean looks at the broader split between Western and Eastern Christianity and its implications for European unity.

Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic need to better understand and appreciate religion as both a factor and a challenge in their approaches toward the world. They should take seriously Putin’s use of the Orthodox Church and of conservative groups in Western Europe. They should realize they are facing a clash over values, some associated with religion, within the “Christian world.” However, they should resist the temptation to see challenges from within the “Muslim world” in terms of a clash of civilizations. Much more can be done to de-escalate religious confrontations. But it requires a far better understanding of religion in global affairs.

Ted Reinert (@tedreinert) is the program officer and Stephen F. Szabo (@StephenFSzabo) is the executive director with the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of The German Marshall Fund

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