Douglas Johnston has a clear and important message for American policymakers and the American people: America needs to deal with the philosophical ideas behind the guns that spark so much violence around the world.
Let there be no confusion: Johnston, head of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, is no pacifist. The Naval Academy graduate made that clear in a recent address to the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth.
Yet military responses, while necessary, don’t get to the root causes of conflicts. We particularly shouldn’t overlook their religious roots. It is in our best interests as a country to understand them, deal with them and even reconcile them, whether through the work of U.S. diplomats or private institutions.
Johnston’s words make sense when you look at some of the most pressing international head-lines: Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. Religion is wrapped up in the tensions surrounding each country.
In Iran, the conflict within modern Islam is a central part of the storyline in the nation’s rise to power. The strength of Iran’s Shiite Muslims creates anxiety among Sunni Muslims across the region, to put it mildly.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s ultra-strict views of the Quran clearly pose a threat to that country’s stability. Some Taliban members are less ideological than others. But Afghan women could encounter awful circumstances again if the repressive leaders of the Taliban return to power.
They once used religious doctrine to cruelly suppress Afghan women. They could do so again if the Taliban destabilizes Afghanistan.
For that reason alone, we need to keep some military presence in the country. U.S. training of Afghan troops and our counterinsurgency work could provide a bulwark against the Taliban’s more brutal elements.
But, ultimately, the conflict in Afghanistan is a war of ideas. The nation’s stability eventually rests upon the forces of Islamic moderation and even secularization. If they prevail, they will create room for many voices in modern Afghanistan.
Finally, in Syria, while the struggle largely may be about raw political power, an element of religiosity is at play. Those trying to construct a peace conference to resolve Syria’s civil war are looking for “confidence building” measures. Part of this will involve resolving tensions between Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims.
As much as we may wish it, there is no formula for resolving the religious dimensions of these conflicts. They are deep-seated and intertwined with the human desire for domination.
But Johnston is correct. We need to understand the ideas behind the guns. And that leads to grasping the religious elements.
He is not the only one delivering this message, especially when it comes to the challenges presented by radical Islam. Former British prime minister Tony Blair made the connection between religion and the Mideast conflict a theme of his 2010 autobiography, “A Journey: My Political Life.”
Blair described the tensions created by Islamic extremism this way:
“You have to take on the clerics who foment the extremism, not just the people who engage actively in terrorism; and empower those clerics that will stand up for what is right. The ideology is not born of a desire for military domination; it is born of a world view based on belief in God’s will.”
Blair’s views on this challenge, which he spoke about last month at the United Nations, have led him in his life after Downing Street to form the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Its work focuses on religious extremism, prejudice and conflict. As an example, the foundation’s Faith and Globalization Initiative draws upon the research of eight international universities to help students and policymakers understand how religion impacts the world.
Johnston’s organization is involved in education, too. It is now working on a plan to train at least 500 teachers in Pakistan madrasas — or schools — in ways to create religious tolerance. The goal is to encourage students to learn respect for other faiths, instead of the intolerance that has come out of some Pakistani madrasas.
To be sure, religion is a force for solidarity and compassion around the world. It is not just about conflict. But religion is underpinning many disputes around the world.
We need to keep facing that reality.