Trump administration should use key diplomatic tools for religious engagement

(RNS) By overemphasizing the links between Islam and extremism, the administration has fueled Muslim anger, obscured the complex roles that religious institutions play in global affairs and ignored important lessons from the past.

President Donald Trump looks up while signing an executive order at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2017.  Trump has relied heavily on executive actions during his first month in office. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

(RNS) In its approach to religion in U.S. foreign policy, the Trump administration has focused on violent extremism in majority-Muslim countries and has so far all but ignored diplomatic instruments at its disposal to understand and deal with religion in all its complexity in foreign policy.

This is a serious mistake.

By overemphasizing the links between Islam and extremism, the administration has fueled Muslim anger. It has obscured the complex roles that religious institutions play in global affairs, including much that is positive. And it has ignored important lessons from the past.

Instead, the new administration should make use of the powerful tools it inherited from previous administrations to engage constructively with the world’s religions and religious institutions, among them Islam.

President George W. Bush created some of those tools when he launched a White House initiative in 2001 to foster collaboration between government and religious institutions in providing social services. President Barack Obama maintained “faith-based offices” in departments including Homeland Security, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development.

Three years ago, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. State Department was created to provide essential religious perspectives on U.S. diplomatic efforts.

The office helped expand training of foreign service officers in religious engagement, broadened networks of religious leaders and faith-based organizations worldwide, and drew on the expertise of faith communities in the U.S.

It also encouraged embassies to enhance their understanding of the key religious ideas and players in their countries.

In places like Ethiopia and Burma, the office helped define strategies to prevent and counter violent extremism tied to religious groups. In Nigeria, the office partnered with influential Christian and Muslim religious leaders to advance a much-needed campaign against widespread corruption, a grievance that had enhanced the appeal for some of the militant group Boko Haram.

With more than 80 percent of the world’s population professing religious beliefs, the office’s work is vital in shaping policy priorities for everything from fighting extremism to development and democracy-building efforts.

Americans are more religious than people in many Western countries and their government is well positioned to work with religious groups as allies to advance peace and development.

But how the U.S. government relates to religion is also critical. Without thoughtful management, it can fuel tensions and alienate potential allies.

Perceptions of favoritism toward certain groups such as persecuted Christians often turn into grievances. Religious engagement should also not come at the expense of other human rights, including the rights of women.

And it is wrong to assume that authentic and influential religious authority can be found only among “old men in big hats,” or senior male clerics. Women leaders may seem invisible but they play critical roles in religious communities. State Department efforts such as the International Visitor Leadership Program strengthen the voices of religious youth and women.

U.S. diplomats have made significant progress in encouraging enormously influential religious institutions and leaders in foreign countries to align with American security interests. Failing to build on those gains would needlessly harm U.S. and global security. 

(Susan Hayward is director of religion and inclusive societies at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Katherine Marshall is professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion at Georgetown University. Both served on working groups supporting the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Their views are their own and not those of their institutions)

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