Foreign policy is overrun by a “religion avoidance disorder” so severe that foundations must offer grants in order to encourage international affairs departments to integrate faith issues into their curriculum, argues Thomas F. Farr. “I’ll tell you a dirty little secret: this is precisely why I am teaching at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. They received a grant from the Henry Luce foundation,” said the Georgetown University Professor.
The Henry Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs has given grants to numerous universities, think tanks, and other organizations in order to “deepen American understanding of religion as a critical but often neglected factor in international policy issues.” Universities receiving grants to date include:
· University of Denver ($390,000)
· University of Washington ($300,000)
· Harvard University ($400,000)
· Yale University ($400,000)
· University of California at Santa Barbara ($30,000)
· Columbia University ($380,000)
· Emory University ($480,000)
· Syracuse University ($370,000)
· University of Minnesota ($360,000)
· University of Southern California ($370,000)
· Boston University ($275,000)
Georgetown received a $350,000 two-year grant to establish a program on “Religion, Foreign Policy, and World Development,” under which Farr teaches.
“My students, the ones that I get at Georgetown, are fascinated, I think, many of them because they happen to be religious people themselves. My mission in life is to take it beyond that,” said Farr at an Ethics and Public Policy Center conference. “[Of] course I welcome anybody for any reason that wants to come to one of my classes but I want people who may be atheists or agnostics or followers of Christopher Hitchens to come in because they think this is a national security issue that we need to deal with,” he continued.
Farr was the first Director of the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom. His recently published Foreign Affairs article criticizes the State Department and other foreign policymakers for their ongoing religious blind spot, a “religion avoidance syndrome” which has contributed to American missteps in the Middle East.
“Human beings are religious by nature,” argues Farr, “And if this is true, religious freedom is utterly necessary to human dignity and human flourishing.” He blames “garden-variety” secularism for diluting the impact of religion on foreign policy.” “What you’re talking about is just the garden variety secularism that is endemic to old guys like me that were raised in the 1960’s, went to school in the 60’s and 70’s—we’re still in charge of the universities,” said Farr.
He argues that this “religion deficit” has heightened American missteps in the Iraq and Afghan wars first by heightening the cultural disconnect and then by shifting the emphasis off of religious freedom and onto secular democratization. “When the first American Administrator arrived in Iraq—General Jay Garner—he had been briefed by the State Department. He had been briefed by everyone in Washington—White House, State Department, Defense Department, CIA. He did not know who Grand Ayatollah Sistani was. When told that he needed to meet this guy, he said ‘Who is this?’,” exclaimed Farr. Garner’s leadership preceded that of L. Paul Bremer, who is infamous for the Debaathification laws.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is one of the four most influential Shia religious figures, and enjoys immense support in both Iraq and Iran.
Scholars such Mehdi Khalaji track the strength of Irani Shia support for Al Sistani as a key indicator for whether radical Shiism is waning or increasing in Iran.
Colonel James McGinley of the U.S. Marine Corps, speaking of his time in Iraq, told a Heritage audience that “Actually, I had a couple of watchstanders tell me that they were more comfortable with me because they flt that I was a man of faith. If I had not had any faith whatsoever—I might not be Muslim, but as long as I had some faith they found a common background.” In other words, religion can easily provide a common ground between distinct American and Middle Eastern cultures; the absence of religious belief, in turn, can be quite alienating.
According to a recent publication by Freedom House, Iranian textbooks cast atheism as “deviant” behavior. “Not believing in a specific religion is considered either impossible or a form of ‘abnormality,’” they write. (pdf)
Farr views the Iraq and Afghan wars as failures, not because of the level of insurgency, but because the current governments lack protections for religious minorities. He also criticized the State Department for troubleshooting religious persecution while failing to create the circumstances by which such persecution could be prevented, namely, through religious freedom. Farr expressed his astonishment that only now, with Congressional pressure, had the fund started allocating money for religious freedom advocates. Speaking of the State Department’s human rights and democracy fund, he said “For ten years we have been promoting religious freedom, granting money to people without anybody thinking that we ought to be granting to groups who want to promote religious freedom.”
“Without religious freedom you can never have a consolidated democracy. This is why we ought to be focusing on this in our democracy promotion and our religious freedom policy.” Farr argued. “So I think you can point to virtually every unconsolidated democracy in the Middle East, namely, Iraq and Afghanistan, and say that our failure to take religion seriously has harmed us,” he said.
While arguable for the Middle East, with its fledgling democracies and religious turmoil, religious freedom may not take such a central role in democratic consolidation worldwide. Using criteria based on religious and political freedom rankings, Freedom House nonetheless lists many unconsolidated Latin American democracies as “free.”
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.