This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
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 1979-1989. 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.
With the launching of the Global War on Terrorism, Islamism succeeded Communism as the body of beliefs that, if left unchecked, threatened to sweep across the globe with dire consequences for freedom. Those who Washington had armed as "freedom fighters" now became America's most dangerous enemies. So at least members of the national security establishment believed or purported to believe, thereby curtailing any further discussion of whether militarized globalism actually represented the best approach to promoting liberal values globally or even served US interests.
Yet as a rallying cry, a war against Islamism presented difficulties right from the outset. As much as policymakers struggled to prevent Islamism from merging in the popular mind with Islam itself, significant numbers of Americans—whether genuinely fearful or mischief-minded—saw this as a distinction without a difference. Efforts by the Bush administration to work around this problem by framing the post-9/11 threat under the rubric of "terrorism" ultimately failed because that generic term offered no explanation for motive. However the administration twisted and turned, motive in this instance seemed bound up with matters of religion.
Where exactly to situate God in post-9/11 US policy posed a genuine challenge for policymakers, not least of all for George W. Bush, who believed, no doubt sincerely, that God had chosen him to defend America in its time of maximum danger. Unlike the communists, far from denying God's existence, Islamists embrace God with startling ferocity. Indeed, in their vitriolic denunciations of the United States and in perpetrating acts of anti-American violence, they audaciously present themselves as nothing less than God's avenging agents. In confronting the Great Satan, they claim to be doing God's will.
Waging War in Jesus's Name
This debate over who actually represents God's will is one that the successive administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have studiously sought to avoid. The United States is not at war with Islam per se, US officials insist. Still, among Muslims abroad, Washington's repeated denials notwithstanding, suspicion persists and not without reason.
Consider the case of Lieutenant General William G. ("Jerry") Boykin. While still on active duty in 2002, this highly decorated Army officer spoke in uniform at a series of some 30 church gatherings during which he offered his own response to President Bush's famous question: "Why do they hate us?" The general's perspective differed markedly from his commander-in-chief's: "The answer to that is because we're a Christian nation. We are hated because we are a nation of believers."
On another such occasion, the general recalled his encounter with a Somali warlord who claimed to enjoy Allah's protection. The warlord was deluding himself, Boykin declared, and was sure to get his comeuppance: "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." As a Christian nation, Boykin insisted, the United States would succeed in overcoming its adversaries only if "we come against them in the name of Jesus."
When Boykin's remarks caught the attention of the mainstream press, denunciations rained down from on high, as the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon hastened to disassociate the government from the general's views. Yet subsequent indicators suggest that, however crudely, Boykin was indeed expressing perspectives shared by more than a few of his fellow citizens.