An Interview with Professor Peter Mandaville on Religion and US foreign policy

With the new administration in place in the US, the issues surrounding religion, identity and security have once again became 'hot topics' in the media. Beyond headlines and breaking news, however, the US foreign policy structures have been utilising academic and diplomatic expertise to address these complex issues. We talked to Professor Peter Mandaville , who engaged with these issues both as a respected scholar and as a US diplomat that served at the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the US State Department. 


Peter Mandaville is a Professor of International Affairs in Schar School of Policy & Government at George Mason University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. During the Obama administration, he served in government at the U.S. Department of State on two occasions: first as a member of Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff during the Arab Uprisings of 2010-11, and then later as part of John Kerry’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (2015-16) where his portfolio focused on ISIS and sectarian conflict in the Middle East. He is the author of the books Islam and Politics (2nd edition, 2014) and Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (2001) as well as numerous edited co-edited volumes, journal articles, and media commentary pieces.

1.You are an internationally renowned scholar who served at the State Department. Can you tell us how that shift happened, and how the scholarly and diplomatic worlds may differ?

As a scholar of contemporary Islamic social and political movements based in Washington DC, I became increasingly active as an advisor and consultant to policymakers in the years immediately following 9/11. Given my own intellectual and ethical formation, I was initially very wary of becoming too closely involved with the national security apparatus of the United States for fear of how my expertise and input might be misused—particularly by a U.S. administration that I disagreed with in very fundamental ways. However, when I saw some of the other people who were coming forward at that time as supposed experts on, for example, European Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamism—figures, by the way, who had little in the way of academic training on these topics but a clear political agenda to advance—I came to feel that it was actually my professional responsibility to be present and engaged in such discussions. The United States is perhaps unique in terms of the range of pathways and fellowship programs available that permit academic specialists to spend a period of time working directly for government. So once there was a U.S. administration in place in which I felt comfortable serving—and, I should add, with the generous support of George Mason University, who allowed me a leave of absence, I availed myself of the opportunity to spend a year working full time as a member of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff during the Arab Uprisings. Later, after going back to my academic endeavors for a few years, I was asked to come back to the State Department to work on the challenge posed by ISIS while based out of the new Office of Religion and Global Affairs established by John Kerry in 2013. I’m now making the transition back to university life.

How do the worlds of diplomacy and scholarship differ? Well, other than the obvious fact that the core functions of the two spaces are quite different, one thing I had to adjust to was the fact that each of them values something different when it comes to writing. Where scholars are rewarded for continually generating new, original content—meaning that reusing or recycling previous work is generally frowned upon—I learned in my State Department work that verbatim repetition between memos is regarded as a sign of policy consistency! You also have to develop a thick skin in terms of watching potentially dozens of different people wordsmithing your text as a policy document moves through the bureaucracy. The idea of authorship seems to disappear entirely.

2.The United States’ Office of Religion and Global Affairs has been a fascinating acknowledgment that religion matters, and that United State’s foreign policy should engage with the topic. Do you think the office fulfilled its mandate and helped wider foreign policy machinery engage with religion? 

The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has been a tremendously important experiment on multiple levels. On the one hand, its work focuses on a topic—religion—that most policymakers tend to shy away from because of the inherent sensitivities that accompany it. I think religion is often viewed as something strange and categorically unamenable to rational policy discourse—an effect compounded by the U.S. legal requirement for separating church and state, a statute frequently (but incorrectly) read as forbidding interaction and partnership between the federal government and religious actors. Second, the work of the office is about trying to add a new resource to the diplomatic toolkit, and it’s always a tricky proposition when you ask large bureaucratic organizations such as the Department of State to alter standard operating procedures to accommodate new approaches—all the more so when the subject matter involved is one that makes many uncomfortable!

The work of the office is not and never has been—or, legally speaking, ever could be—about pushing any particular normative approach to religion. Our work never departed from the assumption that religion was an inherently positive or negative force in society. Rather, it began from the recognition that religion is a very influential factor shaping social attitudes, political processes, and institutional landscapes in many societies around the world. It therefore stands to reason that it would be important for diplomats to be aware of these dynamics and to have the capacity to engage with religious actors in order to advance the full range of U.S. policy priorities. In the nearly four years the office has been in existence, I think it has had a significant albeit uneven impact on policy. By this, I just mean that there are certain bureaus and offices at the State Department that quickly recognized how partnership with the office could help them to do their jobs more effectively, while others have remained somewhat more skeptical.

3. What are some of the opportunities and challenges in engaging with religious actors for United States diplomats? Can you share a success story, as well as examples of counterproductive approaches?

We’ve already touched on some of the challenges: general wariness of religion, concern that such engagement is legally prohibited by U.S. law (it isn’t), a sense that religious actors are somehow “different” and unamenable or unable to discuss political affairs or worldly issues (sometimes correct with respect to the former assumption, hardly ever on the latter). A large proportion of the work of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore focused on training and capacity-building, and on helping the various regional and functional bureaus within the State Department to develop initiatives involving religious actors that can help to support things they already care about. Using this kind of approach the office has made very tangible progress with respect to issues such as controlling corruption, combatting climate change, and public health.

4. There is a tendency for the topic of religion to be only seen through the lens of a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) focus. Does such a starting point help, or should governments take religion seriously beyond CVE? 

Well this question takes us directly into an area that has been more challenging. With respect to groups such as ISIS, I think the default assumption of many national security policymakers is that the U.S. government should be partnering with religious leaders who can create and disseminate something like “theological antidotes” designed to discredit Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding both of how religious authority works in Islam and also a faulty analysis of the extent to which the “correctness” of how ISIS interprets Islamic teachings bear on the calculus of those looking to join or support such groups. There’s also just a basic credibility problem here insofar as I suspect that a religious scholar whose views are supported or promoted by the U.S. Government would have close to zero legitimacy in the eyes of many young and politically conscious Muslims. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore tried to emphasize instead the idea that religious actors who want to play a role in countering violent extremism are likely to be more effective by making their voices heard in the context of initiatives that deal with some of the underlying societal causes of terrorism – such as localized violence and conflict, corruption and other deficits in governance, and certain forms of socioeconomic deprivation and societal alienation.

5. What are some trends you see globally on both religion and global affairs, and how do Western governments understand and respond to these?

One policy development that really worries is the fact there are some rather powerful figures within the new U.S. administration—people very close to the President himself—who view Islam in categorically negative terms. This is more than just worrying disproportionately about Islamically-inspired terrorism. It’s about the return of civilizational grand strategy and the idea that Islam, by virtue of its teachings, somehow poses an existential threat to the United States. I worry not only that this will lead to misguided and ineffective national security policy (as already seems to be the case with respect to the recent Executive Orders restricting immigration and refugees) but that it will lend credence to the narrative of groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS who posit an inherent conflict between Islam and the West. By mirroring their discourse, I fear we will only assist such groups in their recruitment efforts.

If I wanted to emphasize something positive—and who doesn’t right now—I would point to the idea that in many settings religion is increasingly becoming a space (and sometimes the only space) that stands apart from the prevailing global political and economic order, and demands that we hold the agents and institutions of that order to account for the moral failings of their conduct. In this sense, I dare say there are functional symmetries with the role traditionally played by scholars and universities, even though the two—religion and the liberal academy—often depart from rather different epistemological foundations. The person and style of Pope Francis has, I think, been of enormous importance in this regard. While his positions on many issues important to progressives and advocates of social justice are doctrinally constrained (e.g. reproductive health), I think it is fair to say he has managed to transcend the boundaries of Catholicism and establish himself as an extremely important catholic (in the small ‘c’ sense of that term) leader by embodying and speaking to the near-universal experience—particularly in the developing world—of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. With respect to Western policymaking, I think this means we should expect to find religion more present in the public sphere and more influential with respect to shaping and informing the socio-political worldviews of many communities around the world.