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First came the hullaballoo over the “mosque at Ground Zero.” Then there was Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, grabbing headlines as he promoted “International Burn-a-Koran Day.” Most recently, we have an American posting a slanderous anti-Muslim video on the Internet with all the ensuing turmoil.
Throughout, the official US position has remained fixed: the United States government condemns Islamophobia. Americans respect Islam as a religion of peace. Incidents suggesting otherwise are the work of a tiny minority—whackos, hatemongers, and publicity-seekers. Among Muslims from Benghazi to Islamabad, the argument has proven to be a tough sell.
And not without reason: although it might be comforting to dismiss anti-Islamic outbursts in the US as the work of a few fanatics, the picture is actually far more complicated. Those complications in turn help explain why religion, once considered a foreign policy asset, has in recent years become a net liability.
Let’s begin with a brief history lesson. From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, when Communism provided the overarching ideological rationale for American globalism, religion figured prominently as a theme of US foreign policy. Communist antipathy toward religion helped invest the cold war foreign policy consensus with its remarkable durability. That Communists were godless sufficed to place them beyond the pale. For many Americans, the cold war derived its moral clarity from the conviction that here was a contest pitting the God-fearing against the God-denying. Since we were on God’s side, it appeared axiomatic that God should repay the compliment.
From time to time during the decades when anti-Communism provided so much of the animating spirit of US policy, Judeo-Christian strategists in Washington (not necessarily believers themselves), drawing on the theologically correct proposition that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God, sought to enlist Muslims, sometimes of fundamentalist persuasions, in the cause of opposing the godless. One especially notable example was the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979 to 1989. To inflict pain on the Soviet occupiers, the United States threw its weight behind the Afghan resistance, styled in Washington as “freedom fighters,” and funneled aid (via the Saudis and the Pakistanis) to the most religiously extreme among them. When this effort resulted in a massive Soviet defeat, the United States celebrated its support for the Afghan Mujahedeen as evidence of strategic genius. It was almost as if God had rendered a verdict.
Yet not so many years after the Soviets withdrew in defeat, the freedom fighters morphed into the fiercely anti-Western Taliban, providing sanctuary to Al Qaeda as it plotted—successfully—to attack the United States. Clearly, this was a monkey wrench thrown into God’s plan.