The Unintended Effects of Government Outreach to Religious Communities After 9/11

Responding to: Religion and Violent Extremism: Contending Perspectives

By: Annelle R. Sheline

May 3, 2019

The post-9/11 period witnessed enhanced awareness of the political and social impacts of religion. The American foreign policy and scholarly communities expanded their analysis of religious actors, and institutions like the U.S. government, the United Nations, and the World Bank sought to increase partnerships with faith-based organizations. In a Berkley Center event on religion and diplomacy in September 2016, Dr. Azza Karam, a senior advisor to the UN Population Fund, referred to the trend by saying, “The shift is so strong that everyone is trying to do the religion thing.” The Trump administration has abandoned certain Obama-era initiatives like the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, and instead engages with religious communities under the auspices of “religious freedom.” Whether under Trump, or a future administration, U.S. policy officials should be aware of certain pitfalls that have characterized government intervention in the religious sphere.

Government interaction with faith organizations is motivated in part by the recognition that such groups are embedded in communities and therefore are well-placed to address local challenges. Yet in practice, outreach generally involves partnership with religious leaders, which tend to be older men. As a result, such initiatives often reinforce the visibility and primacy of male elders, thereby strengthening the patriarchal power structures frequently reflected by formal religious institutions. Women, young people, queer people, and other individuals may play important roles in the lived experience of a spiritual community, especially in efforts to address local challenges, but they may not hold official positions in the institutional structure. Organizations like the United States Institute for Peace have documented this dynamic, specifically pertaining to ways in which institutional interaction tends to systematically disempower women. The observation that institutions rely on and reproduce existing power structures is hardly groundbreaking, yet it appears to have been overlooked in the attempt to support the local efforts of faith-based organizations. Outreach to a religious community may be more effective if it is not conducted primarily through institutionalized leaders, but such an approach may also have the unintended consequence of destabilizing existing social systems.

Post-9/11 outreach to faith-based communities in the United States focused in particular on American Muslims. Both the Bush and Obama administrations declared their intention to build partnerships with the American Muslim community. However, many American Muslims reported intense scrutiny, such as resulted in the case of Hassan v. City of New York, which established evidence of discriminatory actions by law enforcement against Muslims. Although outreach allegedly intended to build partnerships, many citizens experienced surveillance and targeting, which reinforced suspicion of the U.S. government. Actions by the current administration have accentuated mistrust.

Arguably the most influential aspect of U.S. involvement in Muslim communities relates to American support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Since 9/11, Middle Eastern rulers have faced strong incentives to regulate the religious sphere, and have used international anxiety about religious extremism to justify the repression of alternative expressions of Islam.

Islam is the official religion in almost all countries in the MENA region, with the exception of Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel. In general, populations in the MENA region support state involvement in the production and dissemination of religious messaging, the regulation of religious spaces, and the training of religious leaders, as the imperative to promote moral values was and remains seen as a core responsibility of governance. The regulation of religious institutions and production of state-sponsored Islamic messaging is regarded as especially important following a rise in acts of extremist and sectarian violence. However, in many cases, regimes use a logic of countering extremism to suppress religious expression that does not conform to the state-approved message, which often discourages political activism. 

The 9/11 attacks provided an excuse to curtail the influence and activities of Islamist activists in the name of combatting violent extremism. After 2001, and with renewed urgency after the mass protests of 2011, Arab regimes expanded oversight of institutions like the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education, departments of religious studies at universities, and local mosques: arenas that previously had provided space for a more free and open discussion of religion. In order to make their crackdown appear more palatable to their American allies, many regimes claimed that they had to take decisive action against extremists in order to promote “moderate Islam” and “religious tolerance.” When a regime asserts a monopoly over the legitimate expression of religion, even “promoting tolerance” can be inherently intolerant, as the official interpretation of religion drowns out or actively suppresses alternative forms by labeling them “extremist.” This is problematic from a policy perspective, as extreme repression tends to generate extremist responses, perpetuating state violence, further excusing the lack of democratic reforms, and reinforcing the authoritarian tendencies of ruling regimes.

Both in the United States and in the Middle East, the post-9/11 push to engage with religious communities has produced unintended and sometimes pernicious effects. Although abandoning U.S. government engagement with faith-based organizations is hardly the solution, future initiatives should follow the recommendations of former officials in order to learn from errors and observations. Best practices would likely result from appointing individuals with the expertise necessary to protect equal rights and democracy, as core components of promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

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The Unintended Effects of Government Outreach to Religious Communities After 9/11