Three Phases of Relationship Between Islam and the USA

by Martin Brooks


The last couple months I've been trying to finish up my master's thesis at Near East University. The thesis is on how the U.S. government interacts with international religious entities. Principles of separation of religion and government do not apply in many places, but the U.S. has laws that limit the roles of religion in government. Are U.S. laws applicable in other countries? The State Department seems unsure. How do our government workers respond to international faith-based organizations and people who are motivated by various world religions? Should we ignore the faith of other countries and their citizens? Should we marginalize their influence? Should we insist that people in other countries follow our establishment and separation laws? These questions have hampered our State Department’s ability to function. We can “insist,” and we may get agreements from governmental elites that understand the nuances of U.S. law and the inherent politics, but very probably the majority of the people in other countries will still refer to their religious preferences when deciding how to live.


One interview I conducted was with an advisor to the Grand Mufti of Egypt. This man, Amr, trains imams and is responsible for deciding if a fatwa, issued by a Muslim cleric somewhere in the world, is legitimate. If some Muslim cleric says vaccinations are un-Islamic or that true Muslims should not smoke cigarettes, Amr is tasked with advising the Grand Mufti about whether the fatwa is consistent with Islam or not. A fatwa is essentially an application of Islamic teachings by a respected Islamic scholar. The Grand Mufti of Egypt does not speak for all of Islam, but in Sunni circles, he is one of the most respected authorities. Amr visited my house as part of a State Department delegation, and when the topic of my thesis came up, Amr said there had been three stages so far in the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Of course, this was only his opinion, but given his level of influence, I was very interested in his perspective.


Pre 9/11

The first stage, according to Amr, was pre-9/11. In that era the U.S. government acknowledged that there were many Muslims in the world but insisted that religion was not a part of good governance. Islam was marginalized or ignored.

In my studies I found that international agreements were made based on economic concerns and international law. From the perspective of the U.S. government, faith was a personal matter and should not interfere with the relationships between nations. The U.S. government tended to build partnerships with secular or pragmatic leaders that would esteem international law and economic development more highly than religious values. Maybe that is not entirely fair; perhaps these leaders of religiously motivated counties found ways to promote economic development in ways that were consistent with their understanding of faith, but the problem was that even though the governments agreed on these principles, the people living in the countries were still largely motivated by their faith traditions. 


Post 9/11

The second phase of U.S. relations with the Muslim world happened just after 9/11. The U.S. realized, according to Amr, that religion is a motivator that sometimes supersedes economic concerns and international law. U.S. government officials were caught flat-footed. They did not have the resources or understanding to engage religiously motivated people, so the second phase became to identify, isolate or eliminate terrorists. Religion, in particular Islam, was seen as a problem to be addressed. Relationships deteriorated between the West and the Islamic world.


The “Arab Spring” Difference


The third phase of the relationship between the Islamic world and the U.S. government is in process now. According to Amr, it began with the “Arab Spring.” These uprisings indicated a divided and deeply dissatisfied Muslim world. With one and a half billion Muslims, Islam is not going away anytime soon. It is a segment of the world’s population that needs to be engaged, not isolated or marginalized. Change is happening, and the U.S. government is realizing that if they hope to influence this change, they need Muslim partners.

One problem with the goal of developing partners is that the U.S. has placed people on “terrorist” lists that they now want as partners. Painting with too broad a brush and labeling too many people as belligerents in the second stage of Amr’s relationships has damaged the trust between the U.S. and the Muslim world. The Muslim world can help fix these damaged relationships from within the Muslim community, but those that want to repair relationships need to have their voices amplified. The rationale needs to come from within Islam instead of being imposed by external economic or military sources.

Amr’s presence at my dining room table as a guest of our State Department was an attempt to repair some of these broken relationships. According to Amr, the State Department is still trying to figure out whom they can trust. The days of supporting country leaders apart from the will of the people is not a viable option. In this time of open access to information and “whistle-blowers” releasing classified information to the masses, the population is more informed and less likely to be manipulated. Good faith integration is the only viable path forward. To do that, we must understand each other and value the contributions of all.

It is encouraging to me to see our government reassess their relationship both to Islam and all faith-based people. There really are good people in all faiths, and there really are some bad people in the various religions of the world, Christianity included. Religion has been a part of the problem; however, drawing on the best tenants of faith, it can also be a part of the solution.

As Amr explained his perspective on the three phases, it occurred to me that many in the churches are still in stage two, wanting to isolate and, if possible, eliminate Muslims. As followers of Jesus we are instructed to seek peace and pursue it. We are called to love God and love others. We are told that if we sow in peace we will raise a harvest of righteousness, and we are called to share this hope that is within us. Jesus was not called the Prince of Peace without reason. He came to reconcile all things to God, including our Muslim neighbors.


Seek the peace of the city

I’ve recently been thinking about living in the city and seeking blessing for the city. Louisville has a lot of internationals, many of whom are Muslims. Acts 17 tells us that God determines the times and places that people will live so that they might find Him. So when people ask, “why are all of these foreigners moving here?” part of the answer is that God is working. We can either join Him in his attempts to reach out to, bless and reconcile all men to him, or we will find ourselves fighting against His plans to do so. Important conversations need to happen about the differences between Christianity and Islam and what it means to follow Jesus. Those conversations cannot happen as long as people are talking about each other rather than to each other. Seek peace. Pursue it. God has given us a ministry of reconciliation.