Part of our ongoing discussion of international religious freedom, and the latest in a series of companion pieces by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and Peter Danchin (written in conversation with one another and Saba Mahmood), the following is the first of three posts by Danchin on the intellectual roots of the Chicago Council Report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.”—ed.

I read the Chicago Council Task Force Report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” as a student of the history and politics of international law. From this perspective, the report evokes Immanuel Kant’s famous denunciation of Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel in his 1795 essay Toward Perpetual Peace as the “sorry comforters” of the law of nations. For Kant, the principles and doctrines of the early modern natural lawyers not only lacked all “legal force” in restraining the belligerence of nation states, but, by appropriating the voice of international legality to the interests of power rather than right, they were ultimately apologists for such belligerence. Kant accordingly denounced these juristic advisers to historical states as “political moralists,” who, by basing their conceptions of justice on the political governance of conflicting interests in an attempt to humanize relations between warring nation-states, subordinated principles to ends and became thereby accomplices to war, imperialism, and colonialism.

As Martti Koskenniemi has recently argued, the perspective of the political moralist is one of strategic action and rational/managerial control. The ends are not called into question having already been received from natural law—the normative framework guiding and limiting sovereign action is in place. Rather, the only question is one of means: how most effectively and accurately to reach the targeted audience; whether compliance is best achieved with sticks or carrots, hard coercion or soft power; which techniques of governance or “engagement” to employ in order to achieve the necessary ends (self-preservation, security, social peace)? Accordingly, if force is to be used, it must be compatible with and in the service of future peace and security. This turns political judgment into an exercise of technical skill (politics as technē), assuming full knowledge of what there is to comply with.

The degree of instrumentalism of this kind in the report is breathtaking. On the basis that “[r]eligion—though its motivating ideas and the mobilizing power of its institutions—is a driver of politics in its own right,” we are told that today’s challenge is to “isolate those that invoke the sacred to sow violence and confusion,” while at the same time to “better understand and respond to religiously inspired actors and events in a way that supports those doing good.” The United States should “avoid trying to change religious societies through direct action or to promote an uncompromising secular alternative,” as these approaches would “likely backfire with dangerous consequences” (presumably because they will be, or have already been, ineffective, or come at too high a cost, or both). Rather, the U.S. should adopt “an indirect approach that builds, cultivates, and relies upon large networks and partnerships—which will vary by degree—with religious communities.” This new effort to engage religious communities “must be broad and deep” and should be directed by the National Security Council, an ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (preferably a “distinguished American Muslim”), and “ambassadors to countries where religion plays a significant role.”

From such a policy perspective, the problem with international law—the system of formal rules and customs existing between sovereign states—is that it is unable to achieve peace and security under the conditions of globalization. This critique has had two main strands since the end of the Cold War in 1989 and has become more starkly apparent in post-September 11 debates concerning the role of law in international relations. First, the disaggregating forces of globalization and the burgeoning role of subjects apart from states (individuals; peoples; nations; minorities; religious, ethnic, and linguistic communities; non-state terrorist groups) put in question the state-centrism of the Westphalian international system. The anachronism of the old law of nations must therefore give way to a new Natural Law of global justice. Second, traditional notions of state sovereignty seem at once too broad and too narrow: too broad because they fail to encompass the claims of, and prevent outside engagement with, non-state actors—both good (religious and ethnic communities, as well as civil society actors more broadly) and bad (terrorist organizations and their sponsors); and too narrow because they fail to respond to global threats (terrorist groups and ideologies operating within and beyond territorially defined nation-states) and opportunities (religious and other communities existing within and beyond traditional nation-state boundaries).

What is needed then is a managerial vocabulary, not about sovereignty or formal rules, but rather above sovereignty and about the objectives, values, and interests presumed to lie behind and override the formal validity of sovereignty and existing international legal rules. The challenge for the political moralist is how most effectively to use coercion and other forms of state power to achieve compliance. This is best done through the language of legitimacy deployed skillfully in the name of natural social ends (peace, security, human rights) in a way that neither relies on moral principle nor is frustrated by formal legal rules. By avoiding the twin perils of moralism and formalism, the policy analyst can in this way both avoid marginalization and sound convincing to those in power. The Prince will thus be told: the effectiveness of “hard force” (military action, drone strikes, indefinite detention) might be undermined if he does not also use “soft power” (informal pressure and persuasion through discussion, assistance, reporting, engagement) to achieve a degree of consensus in target communities to give his actions legitimacy.

The two critiques mentioned above define the analytical logic of the Chicago Report. The legitimacy of the use of force (and presumably its legality as well, although this is not expressly stated) by the U.S. and its allies against terrorist and insurgent groups is simply assumed. A “more serious and thoughtful engagement with religion across a host of issues and actors” is thus necessary because, otherwise, “U.S. foreign policy will miss important opportunities,” will be “less capable of waging successful counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and will “undermine our ability to protect citizens from violence perpetrated by religious extremists.” The real challenge is “to marginalize religious extremists, not religion.” The strategy proposed in the report is thus to continue to kill religious extremists while simultaneously engaging Muslim communities through all possible bilateral and multilateral means—through, e.g., the machinery brought into existence by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) or international organizations such as the UN and its specialized agencies. The aim of this “more serious and thoughtful” engagement is accordingly to articulate religious freedom “in a way that is not viewed as imperialism, but as a means to support religious agency to undermine religion-based terrorism and promote stable democracy” (my emphasis).

There are two latent and interrelated assumptions underpinning this proposed strategy. The first is that terrorism is “religion-based,” i.e., that there is a necessary (although unexplained) causal link between Islam and Islamic extremism. But as Winni Sullivan points out in her companion piece, “for a report about religion there is not much religion in this report.” Rather, the report opens with a dramatic retelling of Al Qaeda’s bombing in 2006 of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, apparently in an effort to foment civil war between Shia and Sunni groups, who, it was hoped, would “rally around their extremist elements” in the wake of the destruction of one of the two holiest sites in Shia Islam. The report tells us that in this moment, “AQI had spectacularly thrust a religiously laced dagger into the heart of Iraq,” but that the U.S. government “completely missed its significance” because it had a “blind spot.” And what was this blind spot exactly?

It would not be the first time that ignorance about the role of religion in world affairs has inhibited smart strategic thinking, whether in the deployment of foreign aid, relationship building with other nations, or the tackling of transnational challenges.

I shall return to this point shortly.

The second latent assumption, as Mahmood Mamdani has argued in a different context, is that the world can be divided roughly in two. There are the moderns and the premoderns: the former are creative makers of their own culture, who can rationally distinguish and separate the good from the bad in their culture and religion; whereas the latter are born into, and are thus prisoners of, their culture and religion, which inescapably determine their identity and politics. The aim of much post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy has been to identify with the former group and to encourage them to confront and contain the latter group in the hope of fomenting a civil war within the Islamic world. This war is to be fought by good Muslims, who accept the basic precepts of modernity (e.g., secular liberal notions of religion as belonging in the “private sphere,” and religious texts as to be understood only metaphorically or figuratively), against bad Muslims, who habitually obey founding religious texts, which thus dictate all aspects of their politics and behavior, and who irrationally bring religion into the public sphere.

Something like this, I believe, is the pretext for the Chicago Report’s call for a renewed, smarter strategy. The only way to deal with the bad Muslims, and the serious security threat that they pose, is to continue with external military intervention (the foreign policy objective of a “global war on terrorism,” adopted by Republican and Democratic administrations alike). At the same time, American security crucially depends on more effective engagement with, and support for, the good Muslims, not only to save them from the extremists but also to create stable, peaceful, and cooperative partners in a strategically and geopolitically vital part of the world.

Both of these assumptions are open to serious question; in my subsequent two posts, I will consider each in turn.

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