It is coincidental but telling that Emile Nakhleh’s post supporting U.S. “engagement” with Muslim communities appeared the same week as the disclosure of a new directive authorizing clandestine military operations in both friendly and unfriendly countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa. The Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, signed September 30, 2009, by General David Petraeus, aims primarily to disrupt terrorist groups and to “prepare the environment” for armed assaults. Of particular relevance to the Chicago Council Report, the Execute Order reportedly calls for using, not only special forces, but also “foreign businesspeople, academics, or others,” to “identify militants and provide ‘persistent situational awareness,’ while forging ties to local indigenous groups.”

Alongside this and numerous other recent U.S. policies, the Chicago Council Report looks increasingly futile and, in key places, wrong-headed—even if, doubtless, well-intentioned. One of the Report’s aims was to elaborate on President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech offering a new opening to Muslims worldwide—a wonderful idea, but one that, only a year later, already appears moribund. As a core proposal, the Report suggested that the U.S. government, under the aegis of the National Security Council (NSC), should pursue an international “religious freedom” agenda. As a key tactic, the government should use American civil society to engage religious—particularly Muslim—communities abroad, helping them stave off “extremism,” and helping us protect our national security.

It is encouraging that at least one recent audience in an unnamed Gulf Arab country would still welcome American engagement, as Nakhleh relates. But a May 26 New York Times article paints a less rosy picture. Pakistan, the world’s second largest Muslim country, is pervaded with conspiracy theories about American perfidy toward the country and toward Muslims generally. Disturbingly, as Glenn Greenwald documents, many of these rumors have at least some colorable basis.

To date, Obama’s Cairo promises of improving relations with the Muslim world and with ordinary Muslims have gone unmet. We remain in Iraq. We remain in Afghanistan. We maintain our detention centers in Guantanamo and Bagram. We continue unmanned drone strikes with substantial “collateral damage.” We have done little to pressure Israel to withdraw settlements from the West Bank or to bargain seriously with the Palestinians. Suspicions of the U.S. therefore remain strong. It is true that Obama recently appointed a Muslim as special envoy to the OIC (as President Bush did too). Sadly, there may not be much else that is positive to report, since the Obama administration has continued or intensified many of the Bush era policies that have harmed our relations with the Muslim world.

Unless these key policies change, a government-managed plan of “engagement” with Muslim communities will not work. This goes first and foremost for the charmingly euphemized “kinetic” (read: military) option we have favored thus far. Almost ten years since 9/11, the U.S. mainland has suffered the highest number of terrorist attacks ever (if we believe the Department of Homeland Security)—though their actual impact on “national security” has been minimal. And, in Obama’s view, this approach will likely leave the U.S. fighting terrorists for ten more years—undoubtedly an understatement, since terrorism as a tactic cannot be “defeated.”

Yet it is equally unlikely that the more peaceful engagement envisioned by the Chicago Council Report will work in these circumstances. Certainly, religion should be recognized as an important factor in international politics. The U.S. government would also do well to improve its understanding of religion in world affairs, and diplomats and others should continue to interact with religious leaders abroad. Any such interactions, however, will pale before the worldwide attention sparked by continued use of the “kinetic” option. The Report’s proposal therefore comes off sounding like the Bush administration’s much ballyhooed, but ineffective, public diplomacy campaign toward the “Arab street”—that is, a public relations fig-leaf, this time carried out by representatives of American civil society.

Worse, the suggestion that the government, in the form of the NSC, should “coordinate” American civil society’s engagement is more than futile. If implemented, it could dim one of the few bright spots in American relations with the Muslim world: our civil society’s rich, pre-existing, and—most importantly— autonomous engagement with the Muslim world. A few examples of this engagement include the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to Tariq Ramadan to join their faculty; the work of left-leaning NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, which report on human rights violations by all sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict; and the efforts of right-leaning NGOs, such as C-FAM and Brigham Young University’s World Family Policy Center, which work with Muslim scholars and diplomats to promote their own, admittedly debatable, vision of “family values.”

These diverse interactions are already put at risk by the government’s continuing overt and covert military operations, occurring potentially anywhere in the world, against people whom our security agencies unilaterally (and, given their track record on related issues, often wrongly) label as “terrorists.” The Chicago Report heightens that risk, imagining civil society “partners” “coordinated” by the NSC, which would be charged with “identifying . . ., training, and tasking the appropriate American interlocutors/sectors” for specific “assignment[s],” and highlighting the “responsibility of nonstate, nongovernmental actors” to ensure “widespread ‘ownership’ of a national engagement effort.” If implemented, this vision would destroy what the Report ostensibly values—the “unequivocally indigenous and autonomous” networks of engagement that already exist. It would raise the specter that any civil society interaction with religious communities may be directed by the NSC, and usher in the “securitization of religion.”

(In an earlier post, William Inboden cavils that the term “securitization of religion” inappropriately mixes national security issues with one of the supposed causes of the economic crisis. In fact, the phrasing is apt, given how the American security establishment has misjudged, misplayed, or just plain missed important developments in recent international politics—in a way reminiscent of the shortsightedness with which our financial wizards misjudged the securitization of financial instruments. Inboden also suggests that any NSC role would be largely administrative. Yet, even if true—and the terms of the Execute Order suggest otherwise—appearances matter very much in this area, particularly when Islam is clearly targeted as the primary religion for “engagement.”)

In many countries, Muslim civic and community leaders already challenge secular or Islamist authoritarians. As Nakhleh also states, “vast majorities of Muslims . . . abhor violence and the killing of innocent civilians.” For these groups, interactions with American NGOs potentially or actually coordinated by the NSC would be poisonous—even if many Muslims long for an end to dictatorial regimes. In fact, few actions could more quickly puncture the credibility and erode the influence of indigenous democrats. Even on its own terms, the Report’s proposal is illogical: its central idea is to “empower” majorities to improve their societies “from below,” yet the source is to come “from above”—from American civil society, under the watchful eye of the NSC.

Nothing inherent in Islam prevents democracies from developing and economies from flourishing. Of course, democracies in Muslim countries will differ from America’s, not least with regard to ideas of religious freedom. Many Americans will disagree with the laws and policies of Muslim democracies. But, as Nakhleh points out, Islamic political parties in Turkey, Morocco, Malaysia, and Indonesia have won power democratically and have proceeded to advocate for civil rights, gender equality, and religious freedom. By contrast, a number of Islamic dictatorships continue to be heavily supported by the U.S.

But we should not be deluded into thinking that bringing development or democracy to the Islamic world will necessarily make for harmonious relations between Muslim countries and the U.S. To take just one example, the Iranian democracy movement—like the Ahmadinejad regime—favors Iran’s nuclear program. Nor is it the case that development, or even democracy, will necessarily allow peaceful Muslim majorities to “face down” extremists. If by “face down” one means extirpate them, the experience of developed and democratic countries, where indigenous extremists still exist, suggests that this is impossible. If by “face down” we mean marginalizing them, this has, to a large extent, already been accomplished in the Muslim ummah.

Why, then, do the extremists seem to dominate the airwaves? Why, in particular, when there are so many other peaceful civic organizations working on myriad issues in most Islamic countries—as the Task Force Report itself recognizes? The primary and perverse reason is that the U.S. foreign policies noted above create popular anger and support the perception that the U.S. is anti-Islamic. This lends credence to radical voices in the Muslim world. Only a tiny fraction of those voices or their listeners in fact take action, let alone violent action, let alone against Americans, let alone in the U.S. itself. But on those rare cases that they do, what Colin Powell has termed our “terror-industrial complex” leaps into action.  By throwing the full weight of the Presidency and the national security establishment against common criminals and obvious losers—men literally holed up in caves and deluded twenty-something students—we vastly exaggerate their importance, distort our view of the Muslim world, and harm ourselves. Unfortunately, the Report itself contributes to this threat inflation with its loose and inaccurate talk of “vast terror networks” and “extreme religious views” empowered by globalization.

If the Chicago Report is really only a pragmatic effort to implement Cairo’s ideas, and especially the improvement of U.S. relations with Muslim communities, its best approach would have been to boldly advocate changes to the key policies noted above—namely, an unending and misguided “war” on terror, which distorts key aspects of foreign and domestic policy, and a mistaken belief that American and Israeli national security interests coincide. It might also have behooved such a distinguished panel to question some of the assumptions of the “war on terror,” starting with the quasi-religious basis on which it is being waged: in apocalyptic language, against unseen and eternal devils, with nary a thought to its effects.

Another idea would be to balance the emphasis on Islamic extremists with more coverage of those who use violence in the name of other religions—Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for example. Of course, these extremists may not pose a threat to the U.S. (though if the U.S. became serious about promoting a two-state solution in the Middle East, some of them unfortunately might). Yet, highlighting their violence in proportionate measure with that of Muslim extremists would go far in aiding the report’s legitimacy in Muslim eyes.

At a minimum, the Chicago Council Task Force should rethink its conception of government management of civil society engagement with religious communities overseas. There is every reason to treat religion as a key issue in international politics. Indeed, our government should learn as much as possible about religion as an important political force, and Americans’ interactions with the Muslim world should be encouraged. But suggesting that the NSC should in some way manage civil society’s interactions with religious groups abroad risks harming the many “authentic” interactions that already occur and retarding the indigenous development of Muslim democracies.