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Religion and Foreign Policy


“Religion, sometimes, is a continuation of politics by other means,” notes Jon Alterman, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Middle East division, and it was hard to avoid that thought about last month’s conference of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) in Washington D.C.

There was Gary Bauer, former head of the right-wing evangelical Christian organization, the Family Research Council, bringing a crowd of 4,000 conventioneers to their feet with a prayer that “the people of Israel-even under American pressure-never give up even one centimeter” of land in the Occupied Territories.

According to the weekly Jewish newspaper, The Forward, a choir struck up “Blow the Trumpets in Zion, Zion,” while delegates “danced between the rows waving Israeli and American flags; some people wept.”

If there was something slightly bizarre about apocalyptic Christians weeping over the fact that Israel might trade land for peace, there was nothing fringy about the foreign policy heavy weights CUFI has gathered under its wing. On hand to address the convention was Senator Joseph Lieberman, Republican heavy weight Newt Gingrich and the man who will quite likely to be the next prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The force behind CUFI, Texas Pastor John Hagee, counts President George Bush, Republican Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain, and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee among his supporters, as well as a number of Democratic legislators, including U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York.

Hagee’s organization-active in all 50 states-is currently pressuring Congress to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon, increase aid to Israel, and toughen sanctions on Iran, although the Texas minister himself doesn’t think Teheran will respond to anything but war: “It is time for America to adopt Senator Lieberman’s words and consider a military pre-emptive strike against Iran.” Hagee also advocates attacking Syria and the Palestinians.

Lieberman and Hagee are not the only ones talking about attacking Iran these days. President Bush recently told the American Legion convention, “Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywherewe will confront this danger before it is too late. According to an “informal poll” taken by ex-Middle East CIA field officer, Robert Baer, “The feeling is we will hit the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” within six months. The Sunday Times reported Sept. 2 “The Pentagon has drawn up plans for massive air strikes against 1200 targets in Iran, designed to annihilate the Iranian military capacity in three days.”

Are Christian evangelicals, in what is arguably the most religious administration in U.S. history, driving the Bush Administration’s agenda in the Middle East and Africa? Or is the religious content of U.S. foreign policy “politics by other means”? Is the current culture war against Islam by people like historian Bernard Lewis, philosopher Francis Fukuyama and Pope Benedict XVI, a return to the religious mania of the First Crusade, or does it have more in common with TV evangelists whose concerns are the contents of their parishioner’s wallets rather than the state of their souls?

Certainly the Bush Administration has appointed religious activists to key policy positions. Long-time religious activist and neo-conservative Elliot Abrams, former chair of U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, has helped focus U.S. foreign policy on “religious persecution” in Sudan, Russia and China. According to Newsweek, his co-chair, right-wing Catholic activist Nina Shea, made “Christian persecution Washington’s hottest topic.”

The Bush Administration’s Special Envoy to the Sudan, Robert Seiple, is the former CEO of World Vision, a Christian aid and advocacy organization. According to John Eibner, chief executive officer of Christian Solidarity International, “pressure” from Christian groups played an important role in pushing the U.S. to get involved in Sudan.

But is U.S. Africa policy driven by religious activists, or by the fact that by the year 2015 some 25 percent of U.S. oil imports will come from that continent?

Christian evangelicals have also made deep inroads into the American military.

Lt. Gen. William Boykin, currently a deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, argues that the fight in Iraq is between a “Christian nation” and “Satan,” and can only be won “if we come against them in the name of Jesus.”

The Pentagon is a strong supporter of Operation Straight Up (OSU), which delivers entertainment and sermons to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. OSU describes its mission as a “crusade”-an incendiary word in the Middle East-and distributes a “left behind” video game where players fight the Antichrist represented by the United Nations. Former Air Force Academy graduate Mickey Weinstein, who heads up the Military Freedom Foundation, describes OSU as “the Christian Taliban.”

According to a 2006 study for the U.S. War College by Col. William Millonig, Christian evangelical influence in the armed forces began during the Vietnam War. He concludes that “conservative Christian and Republican values have affected the military’s decision making and policy recommendations,” warning that “America’s strategic thinkers, both military and civilian, must be aware of this and its potential implications on policy formulation.”

Again, however, are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan driven by a religious agenda, or the fact that 65 percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East?

Religion has long played a role in the West’s relationship to the rest of the world, but more as a way to divide populations than convert them. Ireland and India are cases in point.

England invaded Ireland in 1170, but for the first 439 years it was a conquest in name only. In 1609, however, James I founded the Plantation of Ulster, imported 20,000 Protestant settlers, and introduced religious strife as a political tactic. By favoring Protestants over the native Catholics in politics and economics-the so-called “Ulster Privilege-the English pitted both groups against one another.

The tactic was enormously successful, and England used it throughout its colonial empire. Nowhere were the British so successful in transplanting the Irish model than in India.

But in India’s case it was unnecessary to import a foreign religion. The colonial authorities had India’s Muslim and Sikh minorities to use as their wedge. As the historian Alex von Tunzelmann argues in “Indian Summer,” it was the British who defined India’s communities on the basis of religion: “Many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.”

Muslims and Sikhs were favored for the few civil jobs and university slots open to Indians, a favoritism that generated tensions among the three communities, just as it had in Northern Ireland. The colonial regimes exploited everyone in both countries, but for some the burden was heavier. When communities in both countries fell to fighting over the few crumbs available to them, the British authorities stepped in to keep order, sadly shaking their heads about the inability of people in both countries ever to govern themselves.

While Sir John Davis was describing the Irish as “degenerate” with the “heart of a beast,” Lord Hastings was arguing that “the Hindoo appears a being nearly limited to animal functions and even in them indifferentwith no higher intellect than a dog.”

Lest one dismiss the above characterizations as typical 19th Century colonial racism, Winston Churchill once commented, “I hate the Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Churchill’s intolerance, however, had a very practical side to it. As prime minister he once said that he hoped that the tension between Hindus and Muslims would remain “A bulwark of British rule in India.”

The British were not alone in using religion as a tactic to divide and conquer. The French employed it quite successfully in Lebanon and Vietnam. In the former, Paris favored Maronite Christians over Muslims (and Sunni Muslims over Shiite Muslims), and in the latter, Catholics over Buddhists.

No colonial tactic is successful forever, however, and in the aftermath of World War II the empires collapsed. But the use of religion as a device to divide and conquer leaves considerable wreckage in its wake.

The current peace between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster is holding, but it took countless lives and almost 400 years to achieve.

The partition of India on religious grounds cost more than a million lives and displaced some 12 million people. Pakistan and India have fought four wars since 1947, and the last one came distressingly close to going nuclear.

And tensions between communities in India are still high. The right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party led nationwide riots over a 16th Century mosque in Ayodhya, and five years ago, 2000 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat by Hindu extremists.

Exploiting religious differences hardly ended with the demise of the great colonial empires.

The French continue to exploit religious divisions in Lebanon, and the U.S. is currently trying to cobble together a Sunni united front to confront Washington’s three opponents in the Middle East: Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Syria is mostly Sunni, but Bashar al-Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, a variety of Shiism. Some 60 percent of Lebanon is Shiite.

But Shiites only constitute about 12 percent of Islam, and while Washington talks of a “Shiia crescent” as if it constituted some kind of united front, in fact there are enormous differences between Arab Syria and Lebanon, and non-Arabic speaking Iran.

Islam is a polyglot of cultures and ethnicities-the largest Muslim country is Indonesia- but that point gets lost in the current culture war directed at Islam.

Historian Bernard Lewis recently told the Jerusalem Post that Muslims “seem about to take over Europe” because Europeans have
“surrendered” to Islam in the name of “political correctness” and “multi-culturalism.” Philosopher Francis Fukuyama argues that France’s opposition to the Iraq War was “in part to appease Muslim opinion,” and Omer Taspinar of the Brookings Institute claims that European Muslims “are becoming a more powerful political force than the fabled Arab street.”

But as Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University points out, since only 10.25 percent of the Muslim population in Europe can vote, there is “very little cost” for political parties to ignore the concerns of Muslim communities.

Researchers Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, who studied France’s Muslims, conclude there is “no such thing as a Muslim community,” and polls found that French Muslims listed “economic inequality” as their first concern. Foreign policy came in twelfth.

Indeed, as Patrick Weil of the Sorbonne points out, the myth that Muslims somehow influenced France’s foreign policy “is the same argument as saying the Bush decision to go to Iraq was because of the Israeli lobby.” Muslims did oppose the war, as did most Europeans.

If religion influences foreign policy, it is because it dovetails with the policies of powerful economic interests, which is not to say that religion always defers to secular self-interest. Once conjured up, it can take on a life of its own.

In “Les Blancs,” Lorraine Hansberry’s edgy play about colonial Kenya, the play’s central character, Tshembe, points out that while concepts like race and religion are indeed instruments which men use to rule over one another, those contrivances create their own reality. “Men invoke the device of religion to cloak their conquests,” Tshembe tells a clueless American reporter. “You and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he refuses to become a Moslem or a Christianis suffering the utter reality of the device. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist-merely because it is lie.”

In the Middle East and Sudan, religion certainly appears to be the “continuation of politics by other means.” Whether it is President George Bush invoking the threat of a world-wide Muslim Caliphate, or Pope Benedict XVI warning that Islam promotes violence, religion is increasingly being used to ramp up the fear factor in international politics. But as with Europe’s great religious wars, in the end religion in foreign policy is a device that allows the strong to seize the resources of the weak in the name of a higher power.

CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a winner of a Project Censored Award, and did his PhD dissertation on the history of insurrectionary organizations in Ireland.


Conn Hallinan can be read at 

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