The United States and the ‘Fight for the Future of Islam’

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Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul (Ben Lieu Song photo)

Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut sent out a mass email asking for feedback on a speech on United States relationships in the Middle East that he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations last January. Murphy is a Democrat who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has styled himself as the leader of a movement for a progressive foreign policy.

Murphy’s foreign policy goals are a marked difference from the early 2000s Neoconservative foreign policy of preemptive war and this decade’s Neoliberal foreign policy of endless covert war. Murphy calls for increasing foreign aid spending versus defense spending, the end the president’s authority to wage limitless war, and reigning in mass surveillance and drone strikes.

“Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance?”

In his speech about US policy in the Middle East, Murphy makes it clear that he understands how our ally, Saudi Arabia, makes the world less secure by investing enormous amounts of money in spreading Wahhabism, a Saudi form of Sunni Islam that is considered intolerant by the West. At the end of his speech, he argues that it is time to stop being myopic when it comes to our relationships in the Middle East:

“If we are serious about constructing a winning strategy to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda, then our horizons have to extend beyond the day to day, here and now, fight in Iraq and Syria.

We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines. Both parties in Washington need to acknowledge this reality, and the U.S. needs to lead by example by ending our effective acquiescence to the Saudi export of intolerant Islam.

And we need to be careful not to blindly back our friend’s plays in conflicts that simply create more instability, more political and security vacuums, into which ISIS and other extremist groups can fill, like what is going in Yemen today.”

I commend the Senator on his unusually canny understanding of the Middle East and Central Asia. It is refreshing to see frankness instead of mealy-mouthed support of least bad options in our relationships there. After all, often it is our allies who cause many of the problems we attempt to solve, from Pakistan protecting the Taliban (and the US-designated terrorist Haqqani network, and perhaps Osama Bin Laden), to Israel and its illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, to the Gulf States arming jihadist groups in Syria.

However, sandwiched between two great points in the quote above, the Senator makes a very troubling remark: “We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines.”

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Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut (US Senate photo)

Murphy should reflect about what that statement means. Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance? Does it have the right to get off the “sidelines” (and is a sports reference appropriate)? The separation of government and religion is a cornerstone of American democracy. While the US does have some history hypocritically prohibiting the free exercise of religion abroad, Murphy must understand that making a statement about the US’s role in the “fight for the future of Islam” is exactly the type of shortsightedness that he is rejecting.

It should be plainly obvious that most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims would not support the government of the nominally secular, culturally Christian United States making any decisions on the future of their religion. If he thinks the anti-Americanism in madrasas is bad now, just wait until they find out that the US is getting off the sidelines in fight for the future of Islam.

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Men praying in Afghanistan (Wikimedia Commons photo)

I think Murphy is an ambitious, smart guy who truly wants the best for the US and I admire the type of world he is attempting to create. Perhaps the sentence in question was simply a phrasing error — I would like to think that he does not believe the US government should have a prominent role in shaping a religion. Nonetheless, Murphy must be aware of how that type of messaging will backfire among the people he is attempting to fight for.

Murphy’s team asked for feedback on his speech. I urge them to consider this point when talking about Middle East policy in the future.

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