18 June 2017

*** Winning the War of Ideology: Leveraging Religious Commonalities

By John J. Houser

Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all worlds if there were no religion in it!' But in this exclamation I would have been…fanatical…without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell. - John Adams writing to Thomas Jefferson

Leveraging common principles found in different religions forms a foundation to undermine those using religious differences as a weapon. Expressing a deeper sense of religious understanding paints the U.S. as a pluralist society in a world where “more than eight-in-ten people identify with a religious group.”[1] Some assert Samuel Huntington prophetically warned about a pending “Clash of Civilizations” citing religiously inspired violence ranging from organized terror groups to “lone wolf” incidents as evidence of a world bound for a cultural collision. Although terrorists represent only a small portion of a religious population, their ability to project global influence indicates the current international framework of nation-states is reaching a tipping point.

Restricting the U.S. national security response to kinetic action and physical barriers for defensive purposes represents an unbalanced approach towards defeating those who use religious difference as a weapon. It enables those exploiting religious differences to build a successful strategic narrative undermining U.S. actions and foreign policy objectives. The U.S. national security community by promoting commonalities that exist in different religions sets a baseline to defeat those using religion as a divisive tool. By establishing a strategic message and educating its personnel on the value of recognizing the commonalities found in different religious traditions, the U.S. national security community would offer a balanced approach complementing its actions.

In our increasingly globalized world, we are witnessing a resurgence of religiosity that requires a fresh look at the role of religion as it relates to national security. Extremist groups, in part inspired by religion, are taking full advantage of an interconnected world to advance their agendas by exploiting religious differences. This is not constrained to any one faith group.

Taking place on the global stage, those involved with U.S. national security have a choice: they can either allow religious differences to hinder relations and create more threats to the homeland, or they can embrace under-leveraged commonalities. The adversaries the U.S. is currently engaged with on the battlefield use religious difference as the driving force behind their strategic messaging. They leverage it to penetrate U.S. homeland defenses. Yet, “[religions] share fundamental concerns about the human condition, poverty, human relationships and our responsibilities to each other.”[2] Knowledge and familiarity of different religious commonalities allow U.S. strategists a means to begin to “know[ing] the enemy as thyself.”[3] Recognizing common basic religious principles between different religions sets the conditions to undermine the messages of extremists, while ignoring it fuels tensions.


International customs and laws related to the conduct of war and the sustainment of peace changed significantly as a result of the Thirty Years War. Prior to the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, religion played a leading role in international engagement within European politics. Despite power struggles between the Church and political leaders, religion maintained a consistent influence. However, ill-defined territorial sovereignty based on religious difference after the Protestant Reformation led to a major conflict yielding enormous civilian casualties, which required a more equitable balance of power following that conflict. As a result, the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, established territorial sovereignty and insisted on the right of self-determination within recognized boundaries.[4] The outcome also established religious freedom, if only in Christian terms, and its separation from politics. While the former represents a fundamental belief in western culture, the latter presents a challenge today.

The centuries old treaty acknowledged defined territorial integrity that political, not religious, alliances between European partners protected. Those secular alliances backed by military force created a new balance evolving into modern nation-state sovereignty and international law. Today, transnational groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and others within majority Muslim countries feel their religious sovereignty is threatened. Christian-based groups burn Korans, bomb abortion clinics, and protest military funerals. Even Buddhists monks are conducting violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka. To defend against perceived threats, many are "rallying to those with similar ancestry, religion, language, values, and institutions and distance themselves from those with different ones."[5] They exacerbate religious differences by exploiting a reluctance to leverage religious commonalities. This creates conditions where religious alliances threaten secular-political alliances as Huntington suggested, while simultaneously hindering U.S. national security efforts to navigate religiosity on the global stage.

The current system for international engagement holds a multitude of divisive qualities, many of which primarily focus on secular concerns; however, disregarding the influence of religion on state and non-state actors only intensifies pre-existing tensions and hampers national security efforts. This could be attributable to the notion of “othering,” which refers to the human tendency to view others and out-groups who are different as wrong.[6] Groups promoting religious difference take advantage of this innate human trait. In foreign affairs focused on secular matters, recognizing competing national interests frames the decision making process. Consequently, political alliances are formed for mutual benefit. Nations identifying their political and national interests sets a baseline for whether they share a common secular interest such as economics or security. In this sense, acting out of national interest provides a counterbalance to humanity’s natural inclination to conduct “othering” because commonality exists in economic and security based interests at the governmental level. However, not addressing religious concerns presents challenges to offset “othering” as people from different cultures and associated religions progressively co-mingle in the physical and virtual domains. On an individual level, it discounts religious motivations that often exist beyond national interest. Religion can strike at the heart of an individual, whereas nationalistic influence is often comparatively limited. U.S. actions not accounting for religious concerns invite unintended consequences by excluding a key component of an individual or society’s identity. This omission bolsters groups focused on religious difference to characterize it as a rejection of their religion. That narrative left unanswered portrays the U.S. as exclusionists, which weakens the effectiveness of decisions focused on national security.

Groups such as the Islamic State will continue to exploit religious difference to achieve their objectives until the armed forces side of the U.S. national security arena takes a fresh approach. To counter these types of methodologies, it should liken the ability for Islamic State-like groups to spread their ideologies to airborne weapons delivery systems capable of global reach. In response, the U.S. national security community must create anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) like programs to disarm those using religious difference as a weapon. Promoting religious commonality becomes a natural foundation to foster greater cultural intelligence to build a denial system.


This framework already exists within the Armed Forces. For example, the U.S. Army’s Culture, Regional Expertise and Language vision is to:

Create a sustainable advantage for regionally aligned forces in any combination of indigenous cultures including host nation militaries and populations to execute our strategic role to “prevent, shape and win.”[7]

Major religions transcend national borders. Religion serves as the basis for many cultures. Therefore, realizing common elements between different religions offers our forces a starting point on how best to prevent, shape, and win within a multitude of nations and cultures. Greater familiarity with the commonalities amongst different religions becomes the baseline for our forces to understand the enemy as themselves. To be clear, a different culture does not represent the enemy, but our foes live within an array of different cultures where religion plays a significant role. Resident religious experts, such as Chaplains, could reinforce doctrinal and training publications that educate our forces on the commonalities between different religions. This would facilitate forces, specifically leaders, who recognize opportunities to undermine those who use religious difference as a weapon.

Unintentionally projecting an exclusionary, even secular, position mistakenly promulgates a dehumanizing attitude toward others. This strengthens the argument for those already engaged in religiously inspired lethal actions to recruit more members and perpetrate more violence, causing further backlash from those who feel under attack. This cycle will continue to spiral: “as the internet erases the distance between countries, we [will continue to] see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers.”[8]

In response to this concern, President Trump has taken steps temporarily halting people from seven countries with predominantly Muslim populations. At the time, as a presidential nominee, Trump “[called] for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. until [the] country's representatives can figure out what is going on,"[9] based on public outcry following a series of “lone wolf” religiously inspired violent events. Physical barriers represent a key aspect towards securing our homeland, but are greatly diminished without a balanced approach. The U.S. national security community also needs to build barricades against divisive ideologies from penetrating our pluralistic society to ensure the U.S. remains viewed as an inclusive nation. To counteract propagating an exclusionary view, leveraging the common denominators between different religions becomes the response to those using difference as a catalyst to form an ideological A2/AD architecture. Using religious differences to fight its weaponization is self-defeating.

Understanding the commonalities between religions signifies a crucial element to counterbalance the narrative of focusing on religious difference. Religion or a similar type of faith shapes the basis of many societies and influences the value system that exists within them. A 1994 Center for Strategic and International Studies publication asserted, “Religion was the missing dimension of statecraft.”[10] Accordingly, Madeline Albright asserted that, “Faith-based diplomacy is not only a useful tool of foreign policy, it is essential.”[11] She promoted this approach in the 1990’s as Secretary of State, which coincided with the U.S. government struggles to transform from a traditional focus on regionally centered issues to a new dimension of transnational-related topics. Religion, which is generally not constrained to political borders, can provide a medium to enhance U.S. efforts in international engagement. A lack of religious familiarity limits our diplomatic and military leaders to counter religious fundamentalism, as some populations feel increasingly trivialized in response to a travel ban or other decisions made in the interest of national security.

The preponderance of conflict that the U.S. has been involved with or witnessed recently is marked by a religiously charged undercurrent. Using conflicts such as the Balkans and “Global War on Terrorism” as contemporary examples, the genesis or perpetuation of major conflicts that the U.S. has been involved with over the last 20 years forms a strong religious undertone. Some governments ostensibly advocate for a complete separation of religion from politics, whereas others overtly incorporate religious heritage into their political systems. Regardless, many people form their worldview and moral foundation based on their religious beliefs indicating that, “religious motivations do not disappear simply because they are not mentioned [in international engagement].”[12] Therefore, U.S. representatives identifying common threads between religions and injecting them into the decision making process strengthens U.S. influence because politics and religion are inevitably linked.


Recognizing the value and influence of religion, the U.S. Department of State implemented a strategy towards making it more prevalent within diplomatic efforts. Former Secretary of State Kerry created the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA) in the fall of 2015 to implement the National Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement. The S/RGA consolidated existing offices that focus on religious matters, many of which were created during the Clinton and Bush presidencies. Merging these non-partisan offices, the S/RGA advised the Secretary on policy matters as they relate to religion.[13] The office incorporated the National Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community engagement that seeks a “more robust engagement with religious leaders and faith communities, as part of a broader effort to reach out to a diverse set of civil society actors.”[14] The third objective relates mostly to preventing conflict by seeking to “Prevent, mitigate, and resolve violent conflict and contribute to local and regional stability and security.”[15] This objective, the overall strategy, and Secretary Kerry’s initiative to implement them through the S/RGA provided a positive step towards incorporating religiosity into foreign affairs. However, serving as the central hub to “support [U.S.] posts and bureaus in their efforts to assess religious dynamics and engage religious actors” suggests a solution that could leave diplomats in the field largely unfamiliar with the nuances of religious influence in their area of responsibility.[16] As the, “first point of entry for individuals, both religious and secular, who would like to engage the State Department in Washington on matters of religion and global affairs” the S/RGA seems a Washington-based solution without sufficient decentralization to preempt those using religion as a weapon at the field-level.[17]


The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created mechanisms to incorporate the religious dimension into its mission at the field-level. The USAID mission is to, “Partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing [U.S.] security and prosperity.”[18] In 2009, USAID released a toolkit designed to “help USAID staff and their implementing partners understand the opportunities and challenges…where religion is a key component.”[19] This field-focused initiative aimed to “help lower the discomfort of USAID staff in making analytical and programmatic connections between conflict, religion and peacebuilding.”[20] Intended to have their staff to address religion more directly, USAID admitted that: “1) religion often transcends geographic boundaries to reach a greater network of followers; 2) two-thirds the world identifies with a religion; and 3) religious teaching can provide a justification for extreme violence or peace.”[21] Despite USAID’s recognition that the religious element has value for international development, their staff faced enormous legal challenges.

The USAID toolkit for Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding recognized that the Establishment Clause prevents the U.S. government from endorsing religion in general or favoring one group’s beliefs over another. Therefore, the 2009 USAID toolkit clarified that, “In a 1991 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded the Establishment Clause (separation of Church and State) was applicable to USAID grants under the American Schools and Hospitals [Abroad] program.”[22]

The decision regarding the Establishment Clause seemingly caused reluctance to work with non-state religious actors and organizations despite their recognized value. Essentially, the decision appears to have provided a level of confusion on procedural constraints or allowances when a foreign nation has interwoven religious-governmental identities. To remedy this, the USAID toolkit recommended that the staff should seek legal guidance before proceeding when religious issues could potentially conflict with the Establishment Clause. The court’s decision asserted that USAID could not use projects to advance or promote religion, which rightfully prohibits favoritism. However, determining what “promotes favoritism” could be a somewhat subjective process. The world has considerably changed since the court’s 1991 decision. A reexamination of the Establishment Clause and leveraging religious influence within the globalized world could advance international development efforts. Until equilibrium occurs, U.S. national security will remain hindered to use international development to the fullest extent possible as a means to combat those exploiting religious differences. This sets the stage for missed opportunities to weaken those exploiting religious difference.


Islamic leaders denouncing the Islamic State’s activities offer an unrecognized opportunity for strategic messaging. 126 leading Islamic scholars sent a letter to the state’s leader Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri, more commonly known as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The 23-page letter begins with an executive summary detailing 24 points that the Islamic State has violated from an Islamic perspective. Point number eight focuses on, “Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct.”[23]

This letter authored by Islamic community leaders and asserts that the Islamic State is wrongfully conducting their actions. Despite overt attempts, such as the aforementioned letter from Muslim leaders to denounce ISIL activities, the December 6, 2015 U.S. strategy to destroy the Islamic State consisted of the following:

First, our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters [anywhere] necessary;

Second, provide training and equipment to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL;

Third, work with friends and allies to stop ISIL’s operations — to disrupt plots, cut off their financing, and prevent them from recruiting more fighters;

Fourth, establish a process — and timeline — to pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war.[24]

Notably, the strategy did not include religious outreach, education or familiarization. No doubt, the new administration’s strategy will have many common themes with its predecessor. In strategic terms, a strategy could, “prevent ISIL from recruiting more fighters” if it included greater engagement with the religious establishment for inter-faith dialogue. Accomplishing this first requires religious expertise that already exists within the military, and other national security components, to educate our personnel internally. This sets the stage for an A2/AD-like program to prevent their ideology from infiltrating the U.S. and other societies in counterproductive ways. It provides the U.S. national security community a strategic message to weaken recruiting efforts that rely on exploiting religious differences. To achieve this, education that provides the backgrounds of different faith groups offers a starting point.


U.S. national security education on religious commonality builds a defense against religious difference exploitation, which places the U.S. on the offense. Strategic messaging occurs on both sides of a conflict. Although on the surface many religions seem different, fundamentally they share basic similar qualities. Teaching commonality allows those unfamiliar with different religions greater insight to understand them through their own faith experience. Essentially, it offers an individual the opportunity to learn about another faith by comparing it to their own. Seyyed Hossein Nasr asserts more commonalities than differences exist between Islam and Christianity because each religion foundationally has more similarities than differences. Comparing the fundamental beliefs of the two religions and their popular doctrines side-by-side illuminates parallels based on a common ancestry. Nasr points out identical theologies for Islam and Christianity:[25]

Acceptance of sacred scripture

Reality of the Spirit within us

Existence of a spiritual world beyond

Immortality of the soul

Efficacy of prayer; religious rites

Necessity of ethical character

Ultimate judgment by God

Reality of good and evil

Interplay of mercy and justice in God

Basic instruction comparing various religions need not be academically challenging or too theologically complex. A simple narrative pointing out similarities diminishes an ability to exploit differences. It diffuses an opposing side’s strategic message focused on dissimilarity by showing a level of resemblance for beliefs that strike at the heart of an individual.

Broadcasting a better understanding of comparable fundamental religious beliefs allows the U.S. national security community greater control over the strategic narrative, while also facilitating more collaborative global partnerships. One religion can transcend political borders because religious affiliation can remain unchanged regardless of where it geographically resides. Focusing on religious commonality presents an opportunity to solidify cohesion amongst international partners and in the court of public opinion. Embracing religious commonality allows the U.S. national security community to garner support against those seeking to divide the world based on religious difference. It also places the strategic message for those exploiting religious difference in a defensive posture by asking: “could we not try to stand together on the side of truth, justice and compassion… without claiming blindly that God is always on ‘our side’ no matter what ‘our side’ does.”[26] Projecting a notion such as this strengthens U.S. national security by forging relationships beyond mere national interest. Regardless of how each religion defines God, truth, justice and compassion, fundamental religious beliefs appeal to the core of an individual, which can serve as a unifying concept.

Basic religious scriptures offer critical insight on how to form a strategic message promoting the U.S. as an inclusive society concerned with cultural understanding: “Religious traditions, embodied in texts, laws rituals, myths, and metaphors, offer us a unique perspective on cultural problems and cultural possibilities.”[27] They can deliver unifying qualities that promote harmony within serving as an influential means to maintain relations.

The Abrahamic faiths share a mutual ancestry that forms a commonality between those major religions. Islam, the most recent Abrahamic religion, historically established in the 7th century, declared that, “[God] has established for you the same religion enjoined to Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus.”[28] This shows the Jewish Tanakh, Christian Old Testament, and Muslim Quran all share related features. Despite numerous ancestral similarities, one key set of principles serves as an example that binds all three religions: the Commandments. For the Abrahamic faiths, the Commandments represent a social pact for interpersonal relations and a binding contract with God. The Tanakh, the fifth book of Moses, states, “And it will be that if you listen to My commandments which I command you today to love YHVH your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul…”[29] The Quran states that, “We gave Musa (Moses) the book [Taurat (Torah)], to complete Our Favor upon those who would do right, and explaining all things in detail and guidance and a mercy that they might believe in the meeting with their Lord.”[30]

In the New Testament, Jesus stated, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments [referring to those provided to Moses].”[31] The Commandments present shared ideals for proper social conduct for humanity that is in keeping with common divine direction for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Diplomacy and military personnel execute U.S. national security within an international framework of laws that most of the commandments convey. As a baseline of similarity, well over 50 percent of the world’s population ascribe to the norms of the Commandments. Arguably, the leading world religions have one common message related to interpersonal relations that provides a simple and relatable commonality in the treatment of their fellow man.


The Golden Rule represents an ideal norm crossing the five leading world religions and secular politics. Christianity constitutes 32% of the world’s population; Islam, 23%; Hinduism, 15%; Buddhism, 7%; and Judaism, 0.2%.[32] Christianity representing almost a third of the world’s population teaches, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets.”[33] The Golden Rule in Islam states, “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself;”[34] and in Judaism, ““If a man does damage to his neighbor, as he has done, so let it be done to him.”[35] As noted, the Abrahamic traditions share a common ancestry, so it remains reasonable that they would have a similar notion of the Golden Rule. However, Buddhism teaches, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."[36] Hinduism, the oldest of all the world religions presented here, asserts that, “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”[37] This very ideal exists in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states, “… that [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”[38]

Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, the first major Faylasuf or ‘Philosopher’ of the Muslim world, believed that the revealed teachings were “parables of abstract philosophical truths, which made them accessible to the masses.”[39] Karen Armstrong provided a simplified analogy that, “revealed religion was a poor man’s philosophy.”[40] All five religions teach a basic ideal consistent with the Golden Rule representing the initial means to discover the commonalities between different religions.


A national security community strategic message acknowledging these basic religious teachings about one shared principle sets the stage to counter those exploiting religious difference. Similarly, those charged with U.S. security familiarized with inter-faith similarities creates a workforce better equipped to recognize opportunities to foster relationships in global affairs. It reaffirms the U.S. as a moral compass, not just in Christian terms, but also as a pluralist society embracing different religious traditions. Groups such as the Islamic State will continue to exploit religious differences based on an ignorance of commonalities. To defeat this enemy and their narrative, U.S. representatives must leverage the commonalities between different religions to serve as counter-fire and salve against those using religion as a divisive weapon.

John J. Houser is a Department of the Army civilian. He spent 11 years on active duty in the Marine Corps deploying to the Middle East and Africa. Most recently he deployed as a reservist to Afghanistan in 2012.


[1] Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life: The Global Religious Landscape,http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec, accessed 15 Dec 2016.

[2] Kerry, John, Religion and Diplomacy, http://americamagazine.org/issue/religion-and-diplomacy, 14 Sep 2015, accessed 03 DEC 2015.

[3] Paret, Peter, Gordon Alexander Craig, and Felix Gilbert, Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986), 200-201.

[4] Parker, Geoffrey, and Simon Adams, The Thirty Years' War, 2nd Edition (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997).

[5] Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 126.

[6] Gopin, Marc, Holy War, Holy Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 67.

[7] CREL Vision, http://usacac.army.mil/organizations/cace/lrec, accessed 1 Feb 2017.

[8] Presidential Address, 6 Dec 2015.

[9] CNN politics, “Donald Trump: Ban all Muslims Travel to the U.S.,” http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/07/politics/donald-trump-muslim-ban-immigration, accessed 8 Dec 2015.

[10] Albright, Madeleine Korbel, and William Woodward, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 73.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Office of Religion and Global Affairs, https://www.state.gov/s/rga, accessed 1 Feb 2017.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[19] USAID toolkit, “Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding,” 2009, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/Pnadr501.pdf, accessed 1 Feb 2017.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Open Letter to Baghdadi,” http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com, accessed 1 Feb 2017.

[24] U.S. Strategy to Destroy ISIL, 2015, www.whitehouse.gov, accessed 15 Dec 2016.

[25] "A Common Word," Seyyed Hossein Nasr, http://www.acommonword.com/professor-seyyed-hossein-nasrs-address/Web, 27 Sep 2015.

[26] Ibid.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

No comments: