Beliefnet News

By David E. Anderson
Religion News Service

U.S. foreign policy officials have shown an increased understanding of religion’s importance to American diplomacy, but the government’s activities in that area display a “lack of strategic thinking” that hampers efforts abroad, according to a new report.
U.S. officials do not have “a clear set of policy objectives or tactical guidelines for dealing with emerging religious realities,” said the 92-page report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.
“Offices, programs and initiatives are more often happen-stance than coherent,” the report says.
The report’s lead author was Liora Danan, a research assistant at the center. Titled “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings,” the report said the government still needs a policy that can encourage broad public discussion and programs that are sensitive to religious realities.
“To consider all of the roles religion can play in conflict-prone settings, the government must expand beyond a threat-based, Islam-focused analysis of religion and embrace a broader understanding of world religions,” the report said.
“The perception that America is a Christian nation that favors and discriminates on that basis must also be addressed,” it added. “At the same time, the State Department should broaden its approach to international religious freedom, prioritizing religious tolerance and conflict prevention.”
While noting that the government’s approach to religion in conflict-prone settings has improved in recent years, the report argues that international religious freedom — the most visible religious issue in American foreign policy — “remains marginalized.”
“Government efforts have also belatedly and not entirely successfully considered religion’s role in promoting terrorism, while a public diplomacy campaign has scrambled to assure Muslim communities abroad of shared values, without always listening to the different priorities of various communities.”
Among the failures, the report cited “the U.S. government’s underestimation of the potential for sectarian violence in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraqi invasion.”
And, it added, while policymakers “are now aware of the pervasive sectarian divisions in the area, they remain at a loss about how to respond. … The United States continues to try to contain violence without addressing the differences that lead to bloodshed.”
The report argued that countering the appeal of religiously motivated violence requires a deep understanding of the motivation behind the aggression. “It is equally important,” it said, “to recognize when religion is not a driver of conflict.”
In addition to urging greater government sensitivity, awareness and knowledge of the role religion plays in conflict situations, the report said the U.S. government should recognize that “religious groups and leaders can often be particularly effective track-two diplomats,”
operating outside of formal diplomatic initiatives. It cited “high-level Vatican diplomacy” and “unassuming Mennonite peacemaking” as examples of efforts that have achieved long-term reconciliation among groups in conflict.
The study examined U.S. policy in Nigeria, the site of conflicts between Christians and Muslims in recent years, as a case study in the interaction between religion and policy making. With a population of some 138 million people, evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, the country is in a key transition phase.
But, the report said, the U.S. government approach to understanding religious violence in Nigeria, especially since Sept. 11, “has focused on radical Islamic groups … and their potential to threatened American national security. Analysts have viewed Nigerian religious dynamics through the lens of the Global War on Terror and are concerned with transnational terrorist groups wielding influence in Nigeria.”
It said American preoccupation with Islamic extremism “has the potential to skew U.S. policy and compromise other goals in the country” and that Nigerian politicians have been able to manipulate the U.S. fears by exaggerating the extremist threat.
It noted that a recent study by the Department of Defense and the Agency for International Development found little evidence that there is currently a growing terrorist threat in northern Nigeria.
In urging the U.S. government to better inform the public and policymakers about the role of religion in international conflicts, the report listed a host of recommendations, including clearer definitions of the legal parameters for engaging with religious issues, expansion of foreign exchange programs and increased government partnerships with faith-based groups abroad.

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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