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Engaging Extremists Doesn’t Mean You Agree with Them

A recent PJM article by Patrick Poole harshly criticized a number of government-funded groups for cooperating with militants. The president of one of the organizations in question fires back.

by
Douglas Johnston

Bio

April 21, 2008 - 12:00 am

On April 8, PJ Media carried an article by Patrick Poole attacking the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) for dealing with individuals and organizations allegedly tied to terrorism.

In the process, he chastised several other organizations (ours being one) and individuals as well. Beyond a number of factual inaccuracies and exaggerated implications, there is a disconcerting theme underlying all that he says which deserves a thoughtful response.

Poole’s fundamental premise is that all who in any way associate with an organization or person suspected of wrongdoing are ipso facto suspect themselves. Extrapolating this kind of “guilt by association” would call into serious question the very act of diplomatic engagement with countries that are known (not merely suspected) to have committed unacceptable acts. Moreover, if part of our task is to address a clash of world views, it only makes sense to engage the other side.

For over a decade, Defense planners have been wrestling with the challenges of asymmetric threats like that posed by Bin Laden on 9/11. Regardless of whatever potential the newly conceived and highly promising concept of “Irregular Warfare” may have, it is clear that there is insufficient money in the U.S. Treasury to protect our country against the full spectrum of possible asymmetric threats to which disadvantaged opponents can resort in seeking to do us harm. What is needed is an asymmetric counter to these asymmetric threats, one that displaces the ideas behind the guns. This, in turn, requires engagement with those who can communicate with the extremists, if not directly with the extremists themselves. That is what our center, the International Center (not Council) for Religion & Diplomacy (not Democracy), has been doing since its inception 8½ years ago, with considerable evidence to show that it works.

This is what Abubaker al-Shingieti, who Mr. Poole attacks at great length, helped us do in Sudan as we worked behind the scenes to bring an end to the long-running civil war between the Islamic north and the Christian/African Traditionalist South. He was also instrumental in establishing an Inter-religious Council and a Committee to Protect Religious Freedom in Sudan which, as the U.S. Institute of Peace can readily confirm, has measurably improved the lot of non-Muslims in that strife-torn country. Having resolved that he could no longer abide many of the actions of his own government, Mr. Shingieti left government service in order to work with our Center where he has proven to be an invaluable asset.

Another attempt to tackle the ideas behind the guns is the work we have been doing in Kashmir to help defuse the world’s leading nuclear flashpoint. For the past seven years, we have engaged militants and non-militants alike in cultivating a cooperative spirit between and among next-generation Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders of that troubled state.

On yet another front, we have been on the ground in Pakistan for the past four years reforming the madrassas (religious schools), with a particular focus on the hard-line Diobandi madrasas in Balochistan, which gave birth to the Taliban, and the Wahabbi madrasas in Punjab, that are feeders into al-Qaeda. At this point, more than a thousand madrasas have agreed to (1) expand their curriculums to include the physical and social sciences (with a special emphasis on human rights and religious tolerance) and (2) transform their pedagogy in order to develop critical thinking skills among the students.

This work, in turn, opened the door for us to play a pivotal role in securing the release of the Korean hostages from the Taliban last summer (featured in the January 9, 2008 edition of the Washington Times).

It was in recognition of this kind of potential, that IDA agreed to partner with us and with the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) two years ago in a project that focused on the American Muslim community (also severely criticized by Mr. Poole). The catalyst for this effort was a shared understanding that this community represents one of the more formidable strategic assets that our country can bring to bear in its global contest with militant Islam. The project involved bringing selected American Muslim leaders alongside an equal number of U.S. government security officials and foreign policy practitioners to determine how they could begin working together for the greater good. A key goal was to ascertain how the USG could capitalize on the considerable talents of this community and the extensive paths of influence that it has into Muslim communities overseas, many in areas of vital interest to us (and to them as American citizens).

Another goal of this project was to gauge how best to provide U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy with a Muslim perspective, one that could enable U.S. policymakers to avoid the adverse consequences of uninformed security and foreign policy decisions. In the early years of our Iraq involvement, for example, we all but totally ignored the overwhelming religious imperatives that dominated the concerns of most Iraqis, and we paid a huge price for doing so in terms of lost lives and treasure. That is why opening the doors of U.S. government agencies to its Muslim citizens is something to be sought, not avoided.

At the end of this project, Al-Arabiya television sponsored a panel discussion on the state of the American Muslim community. The panelists included a member of the U.S. intelligence community, an FBI official, the Vice President of IIIT and myself; and the program was broadcast to 35 million viewers throughout the Middle East. Any perception that American Muslims are a persecuted community plays directly into the hands of the terrorists, which is why attempts like Al-Arabiya’s to set the record straight are critically important.

I could speak at length about the many superb qualities of Abubaker al-Shingieti and others at IIIT and elsewhere with whom our Center has worked to advance these and other projects that directly benefit this nation’s security. Not only do they deserve the nation’s appreciation, but this kind of Track Two outreach is a vitally important complement to official U. S. national security initiatives. Whatever discomfort Mr. Poole may feel about this kind of intellectual and spiritual engagement and the questionable bedfellows it sometimes involves, there is no denying that the best antidote for bad theology is good theology.

Although Mr. Poole is undoubtedly a patriot whose criticisms are well-intended, this does not give him the right to impugn the patriotism of others who disagree with his approach. Even he would have to concede that the stakes are too high to ignore the proven benefits of direct engagement, especially in light of the looming specter of religious extremism married to weapons of mass destruction.

Douglas Johnson, president of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, is an expert in national security and pioneer of faith-based diplomacy

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