In Iraq, the US State Department has a religious blindspot


Iraq’s first election since the defeat of extremist group ISIS resulted in significant wins for the coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Once portrayed as a radical cleric leading an insurgency against the U.S. and British occupation of Iraq, he now leads a coalition of Sunnis, Shias, former Baathists, and nationalists and campaigned on tackling corruption, unemployment, and slow economic development.

During the last four years of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s tenure, al-Sadr has been a visible figure. He formed what he called the Peace Companies to fight ISIS. Last year, al-Sadr met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia to discuss circumventing Iran’s influence in the region. He ran a pro-nationalist ticket, stressing the need to bring jobs and increasing commercial trade to Iraq.

{mosads}However, his background prompts the question: Does the U.S. State Department know how to work with religious political actors who are operating both in the interests of their nation and from a faith-based worldview?


Since the election of President Donald Trump, Washington has been forthright with its Christian alliances. The administration actively promotes the freedom of religion as a core foreign policy priority. But it does not understand that historically, the U.S. State Department has not had the capability or institutional expertise to engage effectively with religious and religious-political actors.

With strong statements by Vice President Mike Pence on religious freedom, it is not clear how prioritizing religious freedom in conflict zones, like Iraq and Syria, as a primary foreign policy will establish trust between warring parties or trust in the United States’ ability to be a honest partner in regional stabilization.

This is not to say that the State Department does not have experts following Shiite religious leaders and their key beliefs or institutions. But collecting data and translating data into to policy relevance are two different skills. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has yet to have a strategic and meaningful diplomatic relationship with leading clerics in Iraqi Shiite Islam.

One cannot believe that these critically important stakeholders are insignificant for political relationships. Since the de facto termination of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs by former Secretary Rex Tillerson, the department does not possess essential expertise and strategists to work with religious leaders in the context of fluctuating internal religious, political, social dynamics, and the importance of their trans-regional networks. The exhausted and trite categories of “moderate,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and “traditional” applied to religious actors, particularly Muslims, are effectively meaningless and do not help diplomats navigate the complicated landscape of religion and international relations.  

The seismic shift of a religious leader like al-Sadr from leading an insurrection to being a prominent nationalist figure means that there is a nexus between faith and being a rational political actor, and the United States needs to define a specific diplomatic strategy to work with leaders like al-Sadr. Indeed, the department is lagging behind European Union (EU) allies and regional players like Iran and Turkey who have strong ties to these rising religious politicians.

The moderate voice that diplomats seek — one that can magically intervene to eviscerate extremism and the rising appeal to extremist ideology — is a fantasy. Washington’s emphasis on “moderate Islam” as the solution to radicalism has thus far been ineffective. To truly compete with religious-based extremist organizations, it is far wiser to invest in well-defined partnerships with historically mainstream leaders and institutions to promote the common values of tolerance, pluralism, democracy, gender equality, freedom of expression, and the rights of minorities.

Religious leaders and religious political actors are acutely aware of their value in regional politics; they understand that local governments and global coalitions are seeking them out to counterbalance the weight of violent extremism. They understand their own leverage in the political arena. The key issue is whether they can deliver to their constituents.

Religious political actors have to ensure that their communities become immune to the culture of extremism and terrorist acts. Their constituents look to them to develop, design, and implement new preventative strategies to deal with creeping radicalization. And yet, as with other politicians, religious political actors are also judged by their ability to adopt economic and ethical, political policies that prioritize social cohesion, reconciliation, fair property rights, access to healthcare, and the operation of local municipalities to ensure security, education, and transparent governance. Luckily, such policies can fulfill the leaders’ mission of preventing the spread of extremism.

The State Department is crippled without religion and foreign affairs experts to provide tactical and judicious policy guidance on Shiite political activism and insight on ways in which religious leaders maneuver in their social hierarchies.

Qamar-ul Huda is the director of Security and Violent Extremism Program at the Center for Global Policy. He was a senior policy advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department, an office established by John Kerry. Follow him on Twitter at @qbhuda.

Tags Donald Trump Iraq War Islam Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant John Kerry Mike Pence Politics of Iraq Rex Tillerson Terrorism

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