National Press Club

Johnston: To counter Jihadists, put religion at center of foreign policy

June 27, 2011 | By Arshad Mahmud |

(l-r) Edwin Meese, James K. Glassman, Douglas M. Johnston, Sally Quinn, Rev. David McAllister-Wilson

(l-r) Edwin Meese, James K. Glassman, Douglas M. Johnston, Sally Quinn, Rev. David McAllister-Wilson

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The best way to address Jihadist terrorism is to make religion a central component of American foreign policy, according to Douglas Johnston, an expert on foreign policy and religion, who spoke at the National Press Club on June 23.

“We’re dealing with symptoms and not the real cause," Johnston said in a critique of current U.S. policy. "And that’s the problem."

The International Correspondents Committee hosted the event to coincide with the launch of Johnston's new book, "Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement."

The book argues that what is required today is a longer-term strategy of cultural and religious interaction, backed by a deeper understanding of how others, especially the Muslims, view the world and what is important to them.

As a first step, the State Department must immediately appoint religion officers at its embassies overseas, just like the military attaches, according to Johnston. They must be given a prominent role with clear-cut policy directives based on the fundamental American principle of tolerance and accommodation with other religions.

In this context, he suggested the experiment should begin at home with American Muslims. He lamented the fact that they feel alienated and shunned.

“It’s a shame that we’ve failed to embrace them wholeheartedly," Johnston said.

As a first step, he said efforts should be made to arrange for Imams of mosques in America to deliver sermons at churches, and pastors should go to mosques to talk about their religion.

Johnston, who runs the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, added that the whole approach should demonstrate the essence of what he called “organic suasion,” meaning "change and healing from within."

He also advocated spreading Madrassa education with emphasis on critical thinking.

“We’ve got very positive results through our projects in Pakistan and how it can change the attitude of Madrassa students," said Johnston, a former Naval officer and veteran of the intelligence community who holds a Ph.D. in political Science from Harvard.

Most of the panelists essentially agreed with Johnston’s premise, saying religion should take center stage, rather than a back seat, in the formulation of American foreign policy.

Edwin Meese, a former attorney general under President Reagan, said the lack of proper understanding of the First Amendment contributed to the misconception about the critical role of religion in policy.

He argued that the separation of church and state doesn’t mean that religion should be avoided in formulation of policies.

James Glassman, who served as under secretary of State for public diplomacy in the George W. Bush administration, endorsed Johnston’s views, saying he advocated incorporating religion in U.S. foreign policy during his brief tenure in the government.

Sally Quinn, founder and moderator of On Faith, a Washington Post blog, said that although she is a former atheist, she gradually realized the critical importance of religion in private and public life.

But when a questioner asked whether the emphasis on religion in foreign policy would be enough to counter the widespread perception in the Islamic world that America was out to crush Muslims, most panelists agreed it was difficult to determine.

“We can never win the hearts and minds of the Muslims unless we seriously address that issue," Meese said.

Indeed, the perception that America is anti-Islam is a critical problem.

"We must tackle the perception head on instead of denying the issue," Glassman said.

One important case in point is Pakistan. After spending more than $20 billion in the past decade in military and humanitarian aid, more than 80 percent of Pakistanis still consider America as the No 1 enemy, according to several opinion polls.