Seizing the Middle East Moment

Seizing the Middle East Moment

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IGE president Chris Seiple discusses religion and politics in the Middle East, making recommendations for the next president.
[Note: This is a free sample article from the forthcoming theme issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs on "Faith & Foreign Policy: Recommendations for the Next President."]

There is no issue or region that we hear about more—but understand less—than religion and the Middle East.{footnote}The Middle East is understood to include the same countries that the U.S. State Department includes in its “Near East Affairs.”{/footnote} This is unfortunate as there is also no issue or region in the world that has more impact on the future of U.S. national security, not to mention U.S. domestic politics in an election year. Meanwhile, stereotypes abound as the Middle East seems on the verge of a regional realignment of power. It is a precarious moment.

Upon assuming office, the next president will have two tools immediately accessible for his use regarding religion and the Middle East: his bully pulpit and his executive branch authority. While the details and interrelationships of specific situations in the Middle East must be examined according to the context of January 2009, the next president can at least utilize these two tools pursuant the following recommendations.

Foremost, whatever the particular details, the president must provide, promote, and personally preside over a regional policy that is comprehensive, addressing both the interests and values of the regional players and the United States.

Three interests dominate the geo-political landscape of Middle East affairs today. Primary is the possibility of a nuclear Iran. That possibility should be prevented through all available means—preferably by engaging the Shi’a leaders of Iran with a powerful combination of carrots and sticks that respects Iran as the regional power it is, while keeping all options on the table.

The potential for a nuclear Iran is already warming relations between Israel and Syria, as both countries seek a peace deal that provides mutual security such that Syria does not need an alliance with Iran. Such a peace deal would also encourage Syria to help deter and deny Hezbollah (the Iranian-financed, and fellow Shi’a, group which fought the Israeli army to a standstill in the summer of 2006 in southern Lebanon, and now belongs to a coalition government in Beirut).
Still, the U.S. and its only democratic ally in the region, Israel, must be ready for the likelihood of a nuclear Iran resistant to conventional military strikes.{footnote}Since the Israeli strike against Saddam Hussein’s above-ground nuclear facility in Osiraq, Iraq, in 1981, Iran has built a diverse set of underground and redundant facilities capable of housing nuclear weapons. In other words, even if the intelligence was 100 percent accurate about particular locations, there probably would be other locations not known to Israeli or U.S. intelligence that could house nuclear weapons and/or other WMD.{/footnote} If so, the new policy, at least in some classified form, should anticipate a regional nuclear deterrence concept to which Iran and Israel agree. The Sunni Arab states—which can’t help but lose status with a nuclear Iran, despite being awash in oil money—should be included in the development of the deterrence concept.

The second U.S. and regional interest is Israel-Palestine. As I have written elsewhere,{footnote}See Chris Seiple, “Why I Signed the Open Letter,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 5:4 (Winter 2007): 59-60. Also see my February 2008 trip report on Israel-Palestine, “The Forgotten Fellowship,” 28 February 2008. {/footnote} it is vital that the next president’s Middle East policy proactively continue the official policy of the U.S., Palestine, and Israel: a two-state solution. Because Muslims worldwide view America as less than even-handed in its handling of the peace process, this issue has become the primary prism through which many Muslims understand America—a perception often manipulated by terrorist recruiters. It is therefore imperative to simultaneously remove this propaganda tool and improve our image in Muslim-majority societies by working to create a peace that is just and that also enjoys the support of regional stakeholders.

Between these two issues, literally, is the third—Iraq. If the situation continues to improve in Iraq—an Iraq that finds a way to balance its Shi’a-Shi’a, Shi’a-Sunni, and Arab-Kurdish rivalries—then Iraq might just balance the region by serving as a buffer between Iran and Israel, and between Iran and the Sunni states to the south that are largely incapable of defending themselves. Of course, if the situation gets worse, and an ascendant, perhaps nuclear, Iran dominates a weak Iraq, it would put Iran right on everyone’s doorstep creating more tension and trouble than current regional diplomacy structures could handle.

Leading, adapting, and implementing a policy that actively addresses these interrelated issues—in constant consultation with our regional allies and friends—will be the most important thing that the next president does over the next four years. Yet, as vital as this comprehensive policy is, its presentation to Muslim-majority societies is more vital still.

Words count. And as the next president actively promotes a policy like this, he must also promote American values in a language and logic that will resonate with Muslim values throughout the Middle East. Put plainly: the president must speak to Muslim-majority societies in a manner that conveys understanding and respect—something that such societies, rightly or wrongly, do not feel they ever receive from the United States.{footnote}See Dalia Mogahed and Ahmed Younis, “Billion Muslims and West Want Dialogue, Coexistence,” Arab News, 6 June 2008.{/footnote}

For example, my own experience in Muslim contexts suggests a few considerations. Take the word “secular.” Americans might understand this word to mean a pluralistic place where church and state are separated. To the Muslim ear, however, it is more likely to mean “godless,” something inconceivable to the Muslim worldview. Or consider the word “freedom,” something Americans routinely claim as not just a national but universal ideal. But freedom absent the context of the community can come across as licentious to the Muslim worldview, with no respect for tradition and honor.{footnote}For example, see Bernard Lewis, “Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East,” Foreign Affairs (May/June) 2005.{/footnote} For example, the “freedom of speech” represented by pornography is not a freedom most Muslims want.

Instead, we must try to honor the Muslim worldview through the use and understanding of words important to them as found in their sacred texts. These words include justice, mercy, and compassion—words to which we can certainly relate, if only through the sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition.{footnote}I do not mean to implicitly suggest that the Middle East is only Muslim and that America is only Judeo-Christian. Obviously Jews and Christians live in the Middle East and Muslims live in America. For the sake of argument, however, I am allowing for the fact that the majority of the population in the Middle East is Muslim and relates to the Qur’an, and that the majority of the population in America know of and can relate in some fashion to the Torah and Bible. {/footnote} A more active understanding of these words can shape our response to terrorism—whose first victim was Islam itself.

We should also, as our government has finally advised, stop using words that confirm the terrorists’ self-perception as religious (“jihadis”) and/or insults the entire religion (“Islamo-fascism”).{footnote}See, for example, Peter Singer and Elina Noor, “What Do You Call a Terror(Jihad)ist?” New York Times, 2 May 2008. Also see Chris Seiple, “Ramadan & Reason,” 6 October 2006. {/footnote} In fact, those who use Islam to justify violence against innocent civilians are hirabists (from hirabah); that is, those who wage a blasphemous and unjust war against society in violation of the teachings of the Qur’an.

It is this kind of understanding that has led Saudi Arabia to use the best of faith to defeat the worst of religion. For example, over the past five years, 3,200 young Saudi men have repented of their “deviant ideologies” as inconsistent with true Islam after “about 100 Islamic scholars, psychologists, and sociologists … engaged in continuous counseling programmes,” conducting “5,000 sittings with terror suspects.”{footnote}Mariam Al Hakeem, “Britain Plans to Copy Saudi Programme,” 19 June 2008. See also, Chris Seiple, “Interrogating Islam…& Ourselves,” 3 February 2004. {/footnote} Great Britain is now adopting this approach as well. It is this kind of thinking and approach—from within Islam—that is going to defeat the hirabists, and U.S. policy must support it.

In addition, the next president should encourage and expand the role of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom beyond a traditional understanding of this value. The next president should expect his ambassador for religious freedom to be a key player in foreign policy making toward places like the Middle East where religion is an important part of the problem and an even more important part of the solution. This person should work to integrate a holistic conception of religious freedom into the core objectives and strategies for building civil society, political stability, and sustainable democracy in the Middle East.

In every culture there is a mechanism for respect and/or hospitality that can serve as the anchor point for a religious freedom that is “owned” by the local culture rather than resented as an alien imposition. At the same time, however, such forms of religious freedom must not only encourage society to see the responsible exercise of religious freedom by minority faiths as consistent with the culture, they must also be formally institutionalized through the rule of law. If the U.S. operates respectfully at this intersection of culture and the rule of law, it is more likely to have a successful foreign policy. It is an approach that will demand generational strategies, rooted in respect, that intentionally and carefully work with Middle Eastern governments to build a sustainable form of religious freedom in those countries.

In other words, because religious freedom is foundational to a civil society that respects its minorities and thus is capable of deterring extremism, the next president must re-envision and empower the State Department’s office of international religious freedom with more staff and a more strategic intent. As a result, the next U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom should also be designated special assistant to the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, and special assistant to the president for national security, as a first step to forcing these different compartments of foreign policy making to more actively engage one another—from the policies they develop for the president to the words they recommend to the president to advance those policies at home and abroad.

A more robust office of international religious freedom is a necessary but not sufficient step. The next president should also mandate at least elementary religious-cultural training for foreign service, military, and intelligence officers (and other related personnel) who implement U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This training should eventually be offered across the foreign policy establishment and instituted as an educational requirement necessary for promotion.{footnote}See Chris Seiple, “Homeland Security Concepts and Strategy,” Orbis (Spring 2002).{/footnote} If the foreign policy establishment does not integrate religion into its analytical worldview, it will be irrelevant.{footnote} See Ryan J. Maher, “A Priest Walks into Qatar and…” The Washington Post, 20 July 2008, B2.{/footnote}

Finally, and more broadly, the future of U.S. foreign policy is necessarily the facilitation of an active intersection between the “track one” public-government sphere and the “track two” private-nongovernmental spheres; an intersection that will take place in the U.S. and overseas. The relational diplomacy required at this “1.5” working nexus begins with trust (not executive diktat). With this awareness, the next president should use his Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to convene different religious groups in the U.S. for intra-faith conversations about how they might work for peace with their co-religionists in the Middle East, and with other faiths who share the same values. Such an approach might inspire the president to consider even more creative options, such as commissioning an “Abrahamic Corps” of young Jews, Christians, and Muslims to work on practical issues of social justice while demonstrating to the region and the world that the Abrahamic traditions respect each other so much that they will serve one other.

At the Institute for Global Engagement, where I serve as president, our first principle of engagement is this: “Know your own faith at its deepest and richest best, and enough about your neighbor’s to respect it.” If each of the Abrahamic traditions in America did this—and expected it from their president—the U.S. would have a very different foreign policy, and, as a result, a very different Middle East, by the end of the next president’s term.
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