This essay, part of our ongoing discussion of international religious freedom, belongs to a series of companion pieces by Danchin, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, written in conversation with one another and Saba Mahmood.—ed.

In my previous post, I suggested that one of the latent assumptions underpinning the Chicago Report is that terrorism is “religion-based,” i.e., that there is a necessary (although unexplained) causal link between Islam and Islamic extremism.  In this post, I seek to consider the coherence and plausibility of this assumption.

Consider again story of the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. In using this example to illustrate American ignorance of the role of religion in acts of terrorism, the Chicago Report is curiously silent about one salient fact: that the U.S. is militarily occupying a Muslim country, which, following its earlier intervention and continuing presence in Afghanistan, it has unilaterally invaded in violation of both the UN Charter and international law. The report is similarly silent on the fact that the U.S. project of “occupation as liberation” violates the occupatio bellica (the international law of occupation), which restrains the occupant’s authority to unilaterally transform Iraq’s political order.

Today, we interpret the refusal of Great Powers in an earlier time to recognize “uncivilized” non-European states as equal sovereigns as a moral failure that vitiated the possibility of an inclusive international legal order. We similarly view colonialism as an imperial attempt to impose a Eurocentric standard of constitutional order on peoples and territories lying outside of the jus publicum Europaeum. The argument that Iraq is an outlaw, or “rogue,” state, whose political order must be transformed in order to bring it within the law of “civilized nations,” is thus eerily familiar. By simply eliding the identity of the state in this formula with that of a “liberal democratic governance regime,” Iraqi sovereignty is held to be irrelevant—in other words, the legal status of Iraq as a sovereign state under international law is denied a priori.

But perhaps the most striking reinterpretation of the preservationist ethos of occupatio bellica in the Iraqi occupation has been the suggested right of the occupier to institute sweeping reforms of the political order in accordance with human rights norms. This assertion gets to the heart of the paradox of “occupation as liberation.” The belligerent occupant’s authority to create a new political order based on democracy and human rights derives from force—that is, from its prior achievement of military control over a subject people. As Nehal Bhuta has argued:

The occupant’s ability to legitimate a new order in place of the old depends on his capacity to engender among the occupied population the belief, post facto, in the legitimacy of the occupant’s ‘naked power’ as a precondition for the new basic norm to which the occupied is subjected.

How to achieve this legitimacy? The project of transformative occupation ineluctably turns on a precarious dialectic of subordination and legitimation: the military occupier has to subordinate before it can effectively legitimate, and the more it tries to subordinate, the harder becomes the legitimation. As recognized in the Chicago Report, force alone, though necessary, is insufficient for the new order to become firmly established. The subjects of occupation must cease their resistance and either acquiesce or consent to the basic norms that define the new order. The desperate struggle for the occupier is to convince the occupied population not to resist its military dictatorship on the promise of the justice and legitimacy of the normative order being instantiated thereby.

The desperate struggle we have witnessed against the U.S. occupation, and the ensuing brutal conflict it has produced, must be understood against the background of this dialectic. If so, might we find reasons for the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra other than a supposed link between Islam and Islamic extremism, and the attempt to get religious communities to “rally around their extremist elements”? As Mahmood Mamdani has argued, rather than seeing politics as an outcome of archaic cultural and religious traditions, should we not perhaps see it as an outcome of contemporary conditions, relations, and conflicts?

Instead of ignoring or dismissing history and politics, especially the history and politics of Western imperialism in the Middle East—a topic conspicuously absent from the Chicago Report—there is a desperate need to situate cultural and religious debates in their historical and political contexts. Viewed in this way, terrorism is not a pre-modern “cultural residue” persistent in modern politics. It is, rather, a distinctly modern construction, which, even when it harnesses tradition or culture, does so in the service of a modern project. It is only if we can begin to understand this history—our history and ourselves within it—that I believe we may start to understand the origins and causes of terrorism and its relationship to issues of culture and religion.

To view international politics and relations in this way, however, requires us first to understand and engage ourselves. If undertaken seriously, an inquiry of this kind would require us to draw the culture of Western imperialism out of the shadows and to explore its deep roots and pervasive implications in multiple domains. This is no easy task. In the vast literature on the role of Enlightenment in the making of Western civilization and its discourse—and I refer here to the rich debates on, for instance, rationalism, secular liberalism, democracy, and individual rights as aspects of Enlightenment—there is a remarkable tendency not to mention the influence of imperialism and settler colonialism.

Might we not see the distinctive contours and shape of the Bush doctrine—preemptive strikes and expansion/projection of force as the path to security—as parallel to the historical experience of European colonists in the Americas and Africa? If so, might not contemporary forms of political Islam and attendant violence be better interpreted in terms of different forms of response and resistance to the colonial condition? Recently, Nir Rosen made this point in the following terms:

[If the objective is to stop acts of terrorism, then stop] supporting dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and elsewhere. Stop supporting the Pakistani dictatorship or quasi-dictatorship. Stop supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Be perceived as a fair player in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Stop killing Muslims and Muslims will not want to kill you.

However one views such arguments, they are not to be found in the Chicago Report. If they were there, the easy assumption of the legitimacy (and, presumably, the legality) of killing or capturing “radical Muslim extremists” would need to be comprehensively revisited.

Even a cursory review of U.S. foreign policy in the region over the last thirty years seriously puts in question the report’s two central policy findings, viz. first, that American “ignorance about the role of religion in world affairs has inhibited smart strategic thinking”; and second, that the imperative of U.S. foreign policy is therefore to “engage religious communities abroad.”  Was it not President Reagan who in 1985 “constructively engaged” the mujahideen in Afghanistan, calling them “the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers”? Looking back, we can appreciate today how effectively U.S. foreign policy was able to harness one version of political Islam to the cause of armed struggle (“holy war”) against the Soviet Union and, following the Iranian revolution against the Western-backed Shah, to convert a religious schism between Sunni and Shia Islam into a political schism. (Tellingly, the report attributes this schism to the “volatility and instability produced by the rise of Al Qaeda, the terrorist attacks on the United States, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which created the first-ever Arab, Shia-governed state.” Myopia of this kind is illustrative, not of ignorance regarding “the role of religion in world affairs,” but simply of history.)

The war in Afghanistan killed more than a million Afghans, turned one third of the Afghan population into refugees, forced the abandonment of more than half of the country’s farming villages (due to aerial bombardment), and ensured the complete collapse of the economy. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. provided $2-3 billion in weapons (65,000 tons of arms per annum by 1987) and supplies through the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) as part of the largest U.S. covert action program since the end of the Second World War. Notably, the CIA and the Pentagon worked with the ISI to create a network of deeni madrasas (religious schools) in Pakistan to train legions of young men to join the ranks of the mujahideen.

During this period, militant religio-political groups and madrasas proliferated in Pakistan. By the early 2000s, there were 58 registered religious political parties and 24 armed religious militias in the country. As is often observed, many of these past recipients of U.S. support and engagement are today’s “bad Muslims,” described in the Chicago Report as those responsible for religion-based terrorism and thus constituting legitimate targets for elimination. This history too, and its explanatory potential for today’s patterns and matrices of political violence in the region, is completely absent from the Chicago Council’s narrative and imaginary of violent Muslim extremism, i.e., any notion that contemporary fundamentalism is in fact a distinctly modern project that seeks to unleash terror in the name of liberation.

The point is that U.S. engagement with religious communities for specified strategic ends is hardly new and, far from exhibiting ignorance about the role of religion in world affairs, suggests instead a high level of skill and understanding in harnessing the power and influence of religion in the lives of the people in the region.  All that has changed in our time are the strategic ends. Now that the Cold War proxy battles have been eclipsed by the tasks of transformative occupation and transitional administration, the challenge is for “religious communities to play even greater roles in the positive transformation of their societies” and for the U.S. to foster and channel “vital and autonomous religious agency.” As Winni Sullivan observes, this time, the man for the job of projecting a softer version of American power and influence is not the CIA or the Special Forces, but the National Security Council, which “will serve as the guardian and the definer of the strategic parameters of engagement.” Beth Hurd refers to this in her companion piece as the “projection of American power through the global securitization of religion.”

Sorry comforters indeed.

Read Part III of “‘Sorry comforters’ and the new Natural Law” here.