I have been following the contributions and “debates” on The Immanent Frame in response to the Chicago Council report.  My initial reaction to the ongoing exchanges is that a) the intense interest in the report seems to indicate that it has something to say; b) some of the respondents seem to read their own ideological orientation into the report, rather than read what the report really says; and c) other respondents criticize the report for, in their view, advocating a specific ideological position on religious freedom, secularism, and religion in general.  The report, in my judgment, offers a pragmatic policy approach to the growing influence of religious groups in the policy realm; it is not, nor does it purport to be, a theological treatise on religion, secularism (however defined), or religious freedom.

The views below are based on discussions I had with other Task Force members during the writing phase of the report.  They are also colored by my experience in government, my familiarity with the thinking of some folks at the NSC on the topic of engagement, and my conversations over the last decade with hundreds of Islamic activists, NGO-types, Islamic political party officials, and Muslim thinkers across dozens of countries.  I concur with the argument made in the report, and in President Obama’s Cairo speech, that engaging religious organizations across the world would empower them to improve their societies from below and to serve the common good of their compatriots, and would also, indirectly, serve the interests of the United States, broadly defined.  In order for this approach to succeed, however, it must be pragmatic, nuanced, and not terribly doctrinaire or ideological.  Speaking from the perspective of the Muslim world, which has been my focus in the government for almost two decades, I want to emphasize that many Muslims are suspicious of this effort, particularly because of their experience with our policies since 9/11.  Many Muslims, however, have been elated by President Obama’s approach to engagement, and are eagerly interested in improving their relations with the U.S., knowing full well that the process will be fraught with challenges.

On a recent trip to a Gulf Arab country, I was gratified and pleasantly surprised by the response to the President’s focus on engaging Muslim “communities,” as opposed to “regimes,” and to the broad scope of such an engagement strategy—in economics, education, health, energy, rule of law, political reform, women’s rights and opportunities, entrepreneurship, and human rights.  Following the talk on engagement that I gave in that country, one person said, “Now that your government realizes that vast majorities of Muslims do not support radicalism and violence, let’s work together to remove the suspicion, anxiety, and mistrust from our relations and create better futures for both of us.”  In fact, I mentioned the Chicago Council’s report on this issue as an example of how the private sector in the U.S. is engaged in the process.  One thing that was apparent during the Q&A period was the audience’s interest in having a broad swath of engagement strategies across the U.S. government, as compared to the traditional role of the State Department and USAID.  The discussion focused on three points, which, in their view, underpinned the President’s Cairo speech:  that Muslim disagreements with the United States have been driven by specific policies, not values of good governance; that the low standing of the United States in Muslim countries, which has been largely driven by perceptions of a “war against Islam” in the previous administration, is reversible; and that effective U.S. engagement must be balanced, pragmatic, and based on mutual respect, justice, and fairness.

The report, I think, has succeeded in highlighting the rise of religions as a driver of the policy of states and non-state actors; in explaining why the U.S. should engage religious groups; and in delineating the who, how, and what to engage.  A few commentators on this blog have made important points about religious freedom, secularism, and the role of religion in the public sphere.  I view the report, on the other hand, not as a treatise on these issues, but as a pragmatic policy proposal that aims at implementing some of the key themes of the Cairo speech.  Improving the lives of average people through their community organizations by providing better health and education, cleaner water, higher paying jobs, and entrepreneurial opportunities would help empower these communities to seek a different form of government and, ultimately, to have a say in what’s happening in their countries.  Engagement for the common good and for a better life is a sure way to achieve social and civic peace, a more hopeful young generation of men and women, domestic stability through dialogue, and international peace.  Starting the engagement with a frontal advocacy of religious freedom will likely be misunderstood in many Muslim societies and will make many indigenous communities more suspicious of our intentions.

In fact, any talk of religious freedom as a key driver of the new engagement strategy will be rejected outright.  Saudi Arabia will not play if they hear we are pushing for the rights of the Shia minority—neither will Egypt, with its Coptic minority; Malaysia, with its Darul Arqam minority; nor Turkey, with its Alawite minority.  Religious freedom, broadly defined, is a worthy goal that I wholeheartedly support, but it should not drive the proposed engagement policy.  Regimes are already suspicious when they hear U.S. talk about engaging communities vice regimes; they will become doubly suspicious if they think we are trying to empower their minorities, whom they do not trust in the first place.  Some Muslim regimes would welcome our emphasis on majority rights, but not on minority rights.  Islamic political parties themselves—for example, AKP in Turkey, PJD in Morocco, PAS in Malaysia, and PKS in Indonesia—once empowered from below, and now active participants in the political process, would begin to push for civil rights, gender equality, and, yes, religious freedom.  In Indonesia, Nahdaltul Ulama and Muhamadiyya, the world’s largest Islamic NGOs have been pushing for these ideas without being forced to do so from above.

The report does not aspire to be either a definitive document or a theoretical treatise on the linkage between democracy and religious freedom.  Nor is it intended to be a defense of the democratic nature of the American political and social system.  Instead, the report is a set of useful proposals to policymakers in the Obama administration as they endeavor to translate President Obama’s Cairo speech into tangible programs and strategies for engagement.

I would like to offer a few concluding comments:

First, religious communities have emerged all over the world as active participants in the shaping of public policy in their societies. Thus, if the United States and other Western countries plan to pursue initiatives to help those societies improve themselves, they must engage religious communities.  As President Obama and his senior counterterrorism advisor have said both before and since the Christmas Day 2009 and Times Square 2010 failed terrorist plots, U.S. national interest dictates that we engage broader segments of Muslim societies in an effort to delegitimize the radical paradigm and undercut the extremist message of al-Qa’ida and its regional affiliates. Many Muslims agree that in order to undercut the radical ideology of a small minority of extremists, we would need to engage the vast majorities of Muslims who abhor violence and the killing of innocent civilians.  The report affirms this global view without becoming an apologia for a specific U.S. foreign policy.

Second, the report correctly recommends that the United States expand its civilian capacity through the involvement of numerous government departments in engaging the Muslim world, under the strategic direction of the National Security Council.  Whereas USAID and the Department of State have traditionally been the main, and often sole, players in global development projects, building a whole-government approach would mean that such other departments as energy, labor, education, commerce, and justice should also be involved in development projects ranging from education to micro-investment and good governance. The recent appointment of Rashad Hussain, an American Muslim attorney, as Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is but one example of American Muslims’ involvement in the U.S. government’s outreach to the Muslim world.

Third, engaging the Islamic world would a) serve the national interests of the United States; b) give credible mainstream Islamic organizations a stake in the future of their societies; and c) empower mainstream Muslims to face down the narrow, intolerant worldview of extremists and to offer a more inclusive vision as an alternative.  Religious groups—many of which are indigenous, credible, and influential—are already involved in a myriad of activities at the local level that touch people’s daily lives, including schools, hospitals, relief programs, and social services.  I concur with the report’s statement that “religion should not be viewed only as a problem, but also as a source of creativity, inspiration, and commitment to human flourishing that can and often does provide enormous opportunities.”

Fourth, The challenge of empowering indigenous Muslim communities is global and therefore must be addressed through global partnerships—perhaps including both European countries and a couple of modernizing Muslim countries, such as Turkey and Indonesia. Empowering civil society communities from below is the first step in the process of building a democratic culture conducive to good governance, the rule of law, and the freedoms of expression, association, and religion. To be credible, engagement also must include working with Islamic political parties across the Muslim world, including, for example, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Palestine’s Hamas, Lebanon’s Hizballah, Turkey’s AKP, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement, Bahrain’s al-Wifaq, Yemen’s Islah Party, Malaysia’s PAS, Indonesia’s PKS, and Kenya’s Islamic Party.

Fifth, while al-Qa’ida continues to target Western countries as well as recruit potential “jihadists” from those countries, the most effective way to face down, and ultimately defeat, such a threat is by reaching out to the vast majorities of Muslims across the globe. President Obama’s speech and his recent appointment of a distinguished American Muslim as Special Envoy to the OIC reflect his belief that we cannot defeat terrorism by the force of arms alone.  Helping Muslim communities attain their potential and empowering them to serve their societies through tangible initiatives—including economic development, job creation, modern education, new and cheaper sources of energy and, most importantly, clean water—promise to be a strong defense against hate and a promoter of domestic stability and good governance.