How Foreign Policy Leaders can Generate, Replicate, and Propagate Evolving Interpretations of Islam
Challenging the claims of secularization theorists that modernization and religiosity are antithetical to one-another, my research will build upon the work of scholars like Peter Berger, Noah Feldman, Timothy Shah, Jeffery Haynes, Scott Thomas, and Monica Toft, to examine how foreign policy makers can strategically engage religion as a permanent fixture in the global landscape. Then, applying the latest empirical research in adult psychological development, I will move beyond already existing scholarship to explore (1) how the stages of adult psychological development influence religious interpretation, (2) how this new framework of analysis can allow us to make nuanced evaluations of healthy and pathological expressions of Islam, giving agency to address socio-religious environments with deeper understanding, and (3) how foreign policy can be designed to ensure that evolving interpretations of Islam continue to be replicated and propagated.
Although the theories in this proposal apply to all religious traditions, I narrow my focus here to Islam due to both its prominent place in the government of several strategically relevant countries (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan) and the fact that intolerant interpretations of Islam currently serve as one of the greatest barriers to more open and democratic societies.
Utilizing systematized evidence and examples to connect a metric of religious interpretation to the stages of adult development provides policy makers with several critical advantages. First, applying this new methodology to religion and international affairs will help decision-makers craft foreign policy that empowers religious leaders to promote evolving expressions of Islam; validating that expressions of Islam are constantly changing to accommodate historical, cultural, and technological changes. With the gates of ijtihad (Islamic interpretation) open and as more fluid expressions of Islam increase in ubiquity in “countries of particular concern”, it will create what CFR president, Richard Haass, calls a “gradual opening”2 in traditional societies. Not only will more evolved expressions of Islam include pluralistic values such as tolerance, cooperation, and cross-cultural dialogue but because worldviews are so strongly influenced by religion, evolving interpretations will also help to shift societies away from the tendency to forcibly limit women's rights, promote blind obedience, and perpetuate intolerance, to views that are more likely to encourage gender parity, human rights, critical thinking, and democracy.
Second, this project will have immediate implications for counter-terrorism and international security strategies. As foreign policy specialists learn how to use a developmental model to preserve the integrity and key principles of Islam, they can simultaneously more actively help interpretations to gradually move away from radical perspectives to those versions of Islam more aligned with modern values. By working in cooperation with organizations like the United States Commission of International Religious Freedom (1) to condemn censorship in countries where more liberal approaches to Islamic interpretation are banned due to laws that designed to prevent religious defamation (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.), (2) to curb the exportation of extremist education and literature and (3) to promote the publication and protection of those voices from within religious communities that hold more moderate views, foreign policy can create the necessary conditions for a new type of positive change to emerge; a type of change that, by its very nature, reduces the potential for terrorism and instability.
Furthermore, when a developmental psychological lens of interpretation is applied to religious analysis, it helps to clarify why such diversity exits within each religious tradition. With this clearer perspective, policy makers can use evidence and examples to work directly with Islamic leaders worldwide to establish a more substantial foundation for religious freedom, as articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An understanding of religious freedom that is aligned with developmental stages of interpretation will have two positive repercussions. (1) Not only will religious freedom continue to more effectively protect the integrity and diversity between different religious traditions (a right desperately needed in countries like Saudi Arabia), but perhaps more importantly, (2) because an evolving lens is validated by empirical research in the stages of adult development a new understanding of religious freedom will also protect the integrity and diversity of all progressive views within each tradition. Policy designed to enforce a more nuanced approach to religious freedom that includes the protection of intra-religious diversity, will help to prevent the dominance and hegemony of Islamic fundamentalists who seek to suppress and silence alternative, moderate views. With a background in religious studies, a deep understanding of the nuances of religious interpretation, and professional experience working directly with religious leaders navigating the intersection between international affairs and diplomacy, I am strategically positioned to contribute to this specialized area of analysis.
A concrete example helps to ground these ideas. The practical experience of pioneers like Ambassador Robert Seiple, Douglas Johnston, Thomas Farr, and Marc Gopin, demonstrates that the sheer potency of religious belief are often dramatically underestimated. Failure to recognize and utilize Islamic strength may be directly linked to why the strategies implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan are only partially effective. Using a developmental lens to view the current situation in these countries, one notices that when Islam is interpreted though an ethno-centric, intolerant, and exclusivist perspective (all characteristics of lower stages of adult development) it serve as an invisible blockade to progress. Modern structures like democracy will continue to be unstable unless the internal beliefs of Islamic populations are also reinterpreted through a modern lens. If there is to be true social progress in countries that align with traditional forms of Islam (e.g. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.) or in territorial conflicts that, at least in part, involve dispute over holy land (e.g. Israel and Palestine)3, policy makers must engage pragmatically with Islamic leaders to shift religious interpretation up the developmental spectrum. In short, we do not need to force Islamic countries to secularize, ridding them of religion, rather we need to help set the conditions for more evolved forms of each religion to organically emerge. This project shows one powerful way such a goal can be accomplished.
With the recent completion of a full-length manuscript on religious interpretation, I have the capacity and know-how necessary to turn this proposal into a book if it is so desired by CFR. Similarly, with several shorter pieces already published, I also have the skills needed to develop the recommendations and research findings into a succinct report for CFR, scholarly articles for academic journals, or presentations oriented to the general public appropriate for Foreign Affairs magazine.
My IAF work product will include both theoretical research and empirical evidence to support its claims. In addition to providing examples of each stage of Islamic interpretation as it relates to psychological development, I will also make recommendations as to how the research might be implemented for immediate action through coordination with both Islamic Institutions such as the World Muslim League and trans-national organizations like the World Council of Religious Leaders. Depending on the interest and needs of CFR, I am pleased to focus my project on Islam as a global phenomenon or to offer a more specialized study of Islam and foreign policy in relation to a single region or country (i.e. Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.).
As Director of Integral Affairs, at the World Council of Religious Leaders, I consistently gain practical experience working on the cusp of the emerging field of religious diplomacy. With full appreciation for my position, I also recognize its limitations. Thus far, although I have gained exposure to many religious leaders and the types of religious diplomacy already underway, my work experience has not provided me with sufficient exposure to the intricacies of policy analysis. Adding a more nuanced understanding of foreign policy to my current repertoire of intellectual frameworks (academic, diplomatic, religious) will directly serve my professional strength and aspirations.
Clearly, an opportunity for professional experience in foreign policy analysis can unfold via a number of channels and I welcome the feedback of the Council as to where they feel it might best be accomplished. The most ideal situation would allow me to work as a fellow in residence with CFR at its offices in New York or Washington, DC, while simultaneously maintaining the support of Harvard University faculty.
Taking residency at CFR with periodic visits to Cambridge, MA offers the experience and flexibility necessary for both an excellent work product and successful career development. Dynamic interaction with CFR staff, its networks, and its members will offer a window into policy analysis to which I might not otherwise be exposed. Concurrently, maintaining support at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard’s Center for the Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, will ensure that I have access to many of the various scholars whose work I hope to bring into a constructive dialogue.
I have devoted my entire career to understanding how we can make concerted effort to shift religion into a more positive role in international affairs. Thus far, I have had the fortunate opportunity for interaction with some of the most well respected university faculty and religious leaders worldwide. These interactions will directly translate into my International Affairs Fellowship (IAF) project. Through my study with Professor Jocelyne Cesari at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, I gained a deeper appreciation of the many complexities involved in weaving together various streams of Islam with modernity. Similarly, study with Professor Paul Hanson at Harvard Divinity School has deepened my understanding of the interaction of the religion and politics and the importance of a sophisticated look at hermeneutics (religious interpretation). Finally, the support and mentorship of Bawa Jain, Secretary General of the World Council of Religious Leaders, has showed first-hand how religion and diplomacy intertwine in practical application.
The International Affairs Fellowship provides the next natural step in my professional development by exposing me to areas of study and practice that would otherwise not be possible. If offered an IAF, it will allow me to make the crucial link between a nuanced approach to religious interpretation and the implementation of foreign policy. Surprisingly, despite the desperate need for this type of approach, the vital connection has not yet been brought to the attention of decision-makers.
Bridging the gap between theory and action, I plan to write several more books over the coming years. After gaining several more years of professional experience in policy analysis, I hope to return to academia to pursue a PhD in Political Science. As my career unfolds, I plan to continuously marry theoretical ideas with pragmatic application at think tanks and policy research institutions. Riding the inevitable trend of globalization well into the future, I hope to engage the practical ways that religion might play a role in what Princeton professor Richard Falk calls a “Humane Global Governance”.4 Ultimately, I am determined to find a way that both the core teachings of our world’s religious traditions and secular models of human dignity and universal rights might be harnessed together to catalyze a more compassionate and ethical world order.
(As is obvious from this proposal, I am currently looking for funding for this project. If you know of available resources or are personally interested in funding this project please contact me directly firstname.lastname@example.org.)