Scholar Points to Growth of Islam as a Tool of International Affairs

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, “religion has replaced ideology” in international affairs, Georgetown University scholar Shireen Hunter said in a Dec. 1 talk at the Sanford School. Hunter said she finds more peril than promise in the use of Islam as an instrument of foreign policy.

Hunter is a visiting fellow at Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and is also affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown.  A native of Iran, she began her career as a member of the Iranian foreign service, with postings to London and Geneva.

There has been a shift from the historical role of Islam in the external affairs of Muslim countries, she said.  The expansion of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the spread of Islam, but that was a result of “acting as empires do,” not a goal of the expansion.

“From the 1960s onward, there were changes in the Muslim world, as the Shah of Iran and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia found the utility of using Islam against socialism,” she said.  “By the 1970s, the House of Saud consciously began promoting the Wahhabi strain of Islam to advance their state and dynastic interests.” Other countries countered by promoting other strains of Islam, she said.

In Iran, the ground was prepared for revolution by political groups inspired by Marxist views, who used Islam to justify their policies and thought they could control the Ayatollah Khomeini after his return from exile. 

“You can’t control religion, it is like a forest fire,” she said. Religious factions “lay claim to divine truth, and then they can’t compromise. How can you compromise on God’s truth?

“It’s is my position that one the worst things that happened was Muslim countries romanticized jihad,” she said.  During the Soviet-Afghan war, the U.S.-backed mujahedeen fostered the notion that religious zealotry was a way to success, but it wasn’t religious training that enabled them to fly jets. After the war, the mujahedeen, who had become used to being adored, lost their status. “Osama bin Laden couldn’t just go back to being a rich Arab,” she said.  Instead he became involved with al-Qaeda.

The war also “ruined Pakistan,” she said, by causing a culture shift within the country that encouraged sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite. She ended her remarks by comparing the use of religion for political ends to Jurassic Park, where the combination of unintended consequences and human error led to bad ends.

Hunter is the author of several books, including Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era and Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity.  Her talk was co-sponsored by Duke Islamic Studies Center, American Grand Strategy, Triangle Institute for Security Studies and A World Together Initiative.