One often hears that America’s foreign policy elites don’t understand religion. Mostly secular themselves, they dismiss religion as a factor in world events; at most, they believe, religion operates as a pretext for other, deeper motivations, like politics and economics. This attitude can blind policymakers to reality. Even after 9/11, some foreign policy experts continue to minimize the religious roots of Islamism.
Some of this attitude is on display in the most recent National Intelligence Council Report, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, released earlier this month. The report, prepared every four years for the incoming administration, is meant to highlight medium and long-term trends in world affairs. Global Trends 2030 has received a lot of attention, primarily for its prediction of a decline in American power and a shift to a multipolar world. The report is also noteworthy, though, for the way it downplays religion’s role in shaping events.
It’s not that Global Trends 2030 completely ignores religion. The report discusses political Islam — we’re now paying attention to that phenomenon, at least — though some of the analysis might strike readers as optimistic, for example, the assertion that the protesters of the Arab Spring “acted in the name of democratic values, not in the name of religion.” (Apparently the report was prepared before recent events in Egypt). The problem is that the report minimizes religion. In 140 pages, Continue reading
From Columbia University Press, a new book by Laurence Louër (research fellow at CERI/ SciencesPo in Paris), Shi’ism and Politics in the Middle East (forthcoming May 2012). The publisher’s description follows.
Laurence Louër’s timely study immediately precedes the recent outbreak of unrest in Bahrain, triggering the escalation of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. In addition to issues relating to the role of Shiite Islamist movements in regional politics, Louër provides background for the Bahraini conflict and Shiism’s wider implications as a political force in the Arab Middle East.
Louër’s study depicts Bahrain’s troubles as a phenomenon rooted in local perceptions of injustice rather than in the fallout from Shiite Iran’s foreign policies. More generally, her work argues that although Iran’s Islamic Revolution had an electrifying effect on Shiite movements in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf, in the end local political imperatives are the crucial driver of developments within Shiite movements—though Lebanon’s Hezbollah remains an exception. In addition, the rise of lay activists within Shiite movements across the Middle East and the emergence of Shiite anticlericalism has diminished the overwhelming influence of the Shiite clerical institution. Ultimately, Louër dispells the myth that Iran determines the politics of Iraq, Bahrain, and other Arab states with significant Shiite populations. Her book couldn’t be more necessary as revolution continues to spread across the Middle East.