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Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy: Implications for Asia

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Trans-Pacific View

Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy: Implications for Asia

Insights from Robert W. Hefner

Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy: Implications for Asia
Credit: The White House

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Robert W. Hefner Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Boston University, who has authored or edited eighteen books, most recently including Global Pentecostalism in the 21st Century (Indiana 2012); Shari‘a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World (Indiana University Press 2011); and Muslims and Modernity: Culture and Society Since 1800 (Cambridge University Press 2010) – is the 43rd in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

What is the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy?

U.S. foreign policy is influenced by religious actors and concerns in several, not entirely consistent ways. Established by Congress in 1998, the Congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has served to give questions of religious freedom a heightened prominence in U.S. foreign policy concerns. The commission is bipartisan, and its commissioners are selected by the President and the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties. The annual reports required of all embassies and published in summary form each year have at times created tensions between the Commission and State Department officials, since some in the diplomatic corps argue that emphasis on religious freedom has to be balanced against a menu of competing rights and interests. In addition to these formal governmental structures, U.S. foreign policy is also deeply influenced by lobbies and non-governmental organizations, some of which put religious interests and concerns to the fore.

What are three salient trends of extremist Islam in Asia? 

The first trend is that Daesh or the so-called Islamic state has established a small network of activists and media resources in Asia, most significantly in Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, and this network will continue to encourage or inspire attacks like that seen in Jakarta in January 2016. The second trend or characteristic of extremist Islam is that its influence in East and Southeast Asia is likely to remain considerably weaker than in Central and South Asia. In fact, countries like Indonesia offer striking examples of how to combine effective security measures with political engagement with the broader Muslim community as a whole, thereby pre-empting the broad-based polarization Daesh and al-Qaida hope to provoke. The third and most obvious trend with regard to Islamist extremism is that, even after the collapse of Daesh state in Iraq and Syria, countries across the breadth of Asia will have to deal with returning jihadist fighters. A similar process in the aftermath of the Russian war in Afghanistan took years to contain, and the challenge across Asia is likely to remain similarly long-term. 

How does religion factor into identity politics and civil society across Asia?

There is no single pattern, because religions’ role in politics and civil society differs significantly by country, largely as a result of path-dependent religious and political legacies. However, there are some general trends. First, although some countries (Japan, North Korea) have had an only modest uptick in religious observance, across most of the Asian region there has been a notable surge in new forms of religious observance over the past generation. Second, the civil and political impact of the religious resurgence varies, as a result of different state policies on religion, and because, as they become more publicly prominent, faith traditions prioritize different concerns. Some new varieties of religious observance dedicate most of their attention to the health, prosperity, or salvation of individual believers. Others devote relatively greater attention to matters of public ethics and creating a community of moral citizens. Finally, a few new religious currents — a small minority – seek to mobilize their civil resources for the purposes of changing or capturing the state. The dominant varieties of public religion in Asia for the near future are likely to remain the first two types.

What does the next U.S. president need to understand about the semantics and symbolism of religion in strategic messaging?

The greatest religion-related policy challenge facing the next U.S. president has less to do with religious symbolism in general than with, far more specifically, how to respond to Islamist extremism in a manner that works with rather than alienates our friends and allies in the global Muslim community. The rise of Daesh, the failure of Arab-spring efforts at democratic renewal, and the specter of future terrorist attacks in the West have made sober public discussion of Islam and Muslims more difficult than ever in Western countries. Level-headed policy discussion has been made additionally problematic as a result of campaigns by populist Western politicians intent on winning political advantage by stoking popular fears of Muslims and Islam. The fact that most victims of Daesh terror have been Muslims, and that our most steadfast allies in campaigns to destroy the so-called Islamic state have also been Muslim, makes this narrative bitterly ironic. The next U.S. president has to show the intellectual capacity and moral courage to contain or repair the damage done by certain anti-Muslim populist politicians in the U.S. and Western Europe.

How should the next U.S. administration reconcile the rhetoric of religion with U.S. global leadership? 

Actually, I don’t see the U.S. as having a consistent rhetoric of religion as such. What the U.S. has as opposed to, say, Western Europe, is a citizenry with levels of religiosity comparable to those in countries across the global south. America’s religious citizenry is also more diverse than ever, a cultural fact that, if engaged intelligently, again gives the U.S. significant civil and intellectual advantages for engaging religious actors and movement in the global south. The U.S. also has a Muslim citizenry that is well-educated (with higher levels of educational achievement than the Euro-American population), democratic-minded, and theologically plural. So the challenge for the next administration is not so much to reconcile with any particular rhetoric of religion, but to engage our own religious diversity in a pluralist and democratic matter, so that we might serve as an example to the world as to how to live with deep religious difference in a democratic manner. Recent developments in some of the U.S. electoral campaigns, cause me concern in this regard. But I remain optimistic that our democratic values will yet prevail.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.