Today's date:
Fall 2003


Religious Freedom and Foreign Policy

Jack Miles is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of God: A Biography and a recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation award. He was formerly editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. This essay is based on a talk to the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Los Angeles -- A story has been circulating about President George W. Bush's visit to Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula. It seems that during a break in the deliberations the president wandered to the edge of the compound, where he caught sight of an august figure in a flowing white robe. "Moses!" the president cried out, but the man ignored him. "Moses!" he cried out again, "I would know you anywhere, and do we ever need your help!" but still the man ignored him. Finally, stymied, the president asked, "Are you Moses or not?" and this time he got an answer: "Yes, I am Moses, but the last time I listened to a bush I spent 40 years wandering in the desert!"

Policy intellectuals called upon to discuss religion are not unlike Moses called upon to engage in conversation with a bush. They are uncomfortably aware that a conversation about religion can go on endlessly -- into the desert or into the swamp. To change the metaphor, policy intellectuals see themselves as players with a deck of 52 cards, while they see not just the clergy but also theologians, philosophers of religion and the like as players with 52 cards plus a joker, a wild card. And this is just the beginning, for each religion adds a different wild card to the deck, and each wild card adds an intractable new certainty to the discussion. The several certainties are often mutually contradictory, and there exists no universally recognized authority to adjudicate among them. Is it not wiser, then, policy intellectuals argue or, more often, assume, to agree in advance that whatever wild cards any participant may privately hold in his hand will not be played when the game is international policy? Can we not have a perfectly good game, they ask, can we not develop a perfectly adequate policy, playing only with the 52 cards?

The answer, of course, is yes unless and until someone breaks the rule and plays the religious wild card. This is what happened to the game on Sept. 11, 2001 when an extensive, transnational terrorist network attacked the United States not for political or economic, 52-card reasons but for a religious reason -- namely, because, in its view, the US had become the enemy of Islam. In the long run, can the US adequately respond to this terrorist attack without adverting to its religious motive?

The question of Islamist terrorism and how to respond to it is, to be sure, much smaller than the question of the overall place of religion in American international policy. The US has diplomatic relations with every nation in the world. Every nation has its distinctive religious tradition. In every case, the tradition may impinge in some way on the relations of the nation in question to the US. Beyond international relations understood as relations among nations, there are the relations that any nation, and ours in particular, may have with internationally organized religion. No force in history has been more prolific than religion in generating powerful, durable, internationally organized NGOs. Moreover, because religion and morality are so closely related, whenever international policy becomes morally debatable, it is likely to become religiously charged as well. But are any or all of these factors enough to justify building religion, in some way, into international policy formation?

The Islamist terrorism of 9/11 put religion on the agenda in what so many vaguely sense is a new way? Wherein, precisely, does the novelty of the present moment lie? My tentative answer to that question begins with the history of religious warfare among Christians.

In the West, after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, religion virtually ceased to be a motive for war among Christian nations, despite continuing intense religious differences and severe religious persecution within national borders. After Jan Sobieski's defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683, Christian-Muslim warfare faded as well -- at least warfare of a sort that might rally Christians across national lines.

From the Muslim side, there began at about that point a long and humiliating retreat that, however, did not entail any conceptual break with religious war corresponding to Westphalia's famous Cuius regio eius religio. When Christian Russia took over Muslim Central Asia, when Christian Britain took over Muslim South Asia, when Christian Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece took over the Muslim Balkans, when Christian France took over Muslim North Africa, and so down the long list, these defeats were still construed on the Muslim side as defeats for Islam in an unfinished war of religion. Then were laid the foundations for an immense historic misunderstanding that has continued to the present moment, for in Western eyes these victories were not construed as victories for Christianity but rather as victories for the affected nations as nations. Think, for example, of Lord Byron dying for Greece: Byron would not have died for Christianity. When a more than nationalist agenda was admitted during the 19th century, it was "civilization" or, at most, "Christian civilization" rather than mere Christianity. True, the Western powers continued to swathe themselves in explicitly Christian imagery at moments of national solemnity down to the end of World War I. (I invite anyone who doubts this to view the recently restored mosaics in the Gedachtniskirche on the Kaiserwilhelmstrasse in Berlin.) Yet it matters that even in that very war, Germany was demonized as "the Hun" -- as cultural barbarian, in other words, rather than as religious infidel. This shift matters because as the Western powers projected their own ever more secular nationalism upon the rest of the world, they assumed that if a counter-attack were ever to come from defeated Turks, Arabs, or Punjabis, it would come in the name of a nation rather than of a religion.

But this is not what has happened. Al Qaeda is a Muslim power but not a nation. That point can scarcely be stated too often or too emphatically. Its key support comes not from Arab governments, which fear it for good reason, but from a thin but widespread stratum in Muslim society. Perhaps the differences among terrorism as practiced by a militant sect like Al Qaeda, by a criminal cartel like the Mafia and by a nationalist movement like the Basque ETA do not matter in the end. But the working assumption of our consultation is that such differences do indeed matter. In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin blames much of the instability of the modern Middle East on British and French overestimation of Arab nationalism and underestimation of Muslim religiosity. The comparable error in our day would be to assume that there are, there must be, government sponsors of Al Qaeda such that to eliminate the one is to eliminate the other. That assumption reflects an a priori disbelief that a religion, relying only on its own social resources, can ever generate a grave challenge to a world power.

The sweet dream of American political thought -- reborn in each generation, it seems -- is that cultural factors will shrink into insignificance as blessed pragmatism finally comes into its own. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many were eager to go beyond religion and announce that even secular ideology had now become that about which no war would ever again be fought. But something close to the polar opposite has now occurred. The West is confronted with an extra-national, religiously self-defined entity with something ominously like a nation's power to make war.

Al Qaeda is a novelty because it is a throwback. It is not that the West has never faced anything like it before. It is just that the West has not faced such a thing for a very long time -- not, in fact, since before the US came into political existence. Novelties sometimes fade quickly, but we cannot yet know whether this one will do so. One French observer of Islamism has spoken of a hundred years' war. All we know at this point is that the end is not in sight.

Given a virulent challenge of potentially long duration, how is the US to respond? If religion constitutes all or much of Al Qaeda's reason for attacking the US, should the US advert to this religious motive in framing its continuing campaign against Al Qaeda? How much, if anything at all, should the US say about Al Qaeda's claim to be, in effect, the only true form of Islam? Need we care how many just now accept that claim? Is a dismissive phrase enough, or will a more extended refutation and a counter-campaign eventually prove necessary? Just as important, how much, at such a juncture, should the US say to the world about its own religious polity and the relation thereto of its own dominant religious traditions?

The formulation I used a moment ago for Al Qaeda -- "extensive, transnational terrorist network" -- is Samuel P. Huntington's in a 2002 interview in NPQ. Before speaking that nicely balanced phrase, Huntington had pointedly observed to the interviewer, Nathan Gardels, that Osama bin Laden is an outlaw expelled from his own country, Saudi Arabia, and later Sudan. The Taliban, which supports him, was recognized by only three of 53 Muslim countries in the world. All Muslim governments except Iraq -- but including Sudan and Iran -- condemned his terrorist attack. Most Muslim governments have at least been acquiescent in the US strategy to respond militarily in Afghanistan.

Huntington went on, however, to note that despite widespread official condemnation, Bin Laden had extensive popular support in the Muslim and, especially, the Arab world and that "just as he sought to rally Muslims by declaring war on the West, he gave back to the West its sense of common identity in defending itself."

I believe that Huntington was quite right in this assertion. Paradoxically, 9/11 was a stroke that simultaneously split apart the Muslim umma and knit together the Western international community, weakening the one and strengthening the other, much against the intentions of the suicidal hijackers themselves. Eighteen months later, alas, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have functioned as an anti-9/11, splitting apart the West and knitting together the umma, at least temporarily. Yet rather than linger over that matter, let me instead draw attention to Huntington's reluctance to be drawn into the deep theological or philosophical waters to which Gardels, quoting Octavio Paz and Jean Baudrillard on the spiritual condition of modern man, clearly sought to lure him. Huntington declined to linger over such larger questions and tacked sharply back toward the practical issue of intolerance. "Appropriately," he said to Gardels, "the US thinks of its response not as war on Islam, but as a war between an extensive, transnational terrorist network and the civilized world." In that endorsement of the Bush administration's conception of the threat posed by Al Qaeda, one detects no appetite whatsoever for any deeper engagement with religion as a policy issue. Religiously motivated terrorism in such a view is simply intolerance intensified, and there the matter may safely rest. In this I believe Huntington is altogether typical of his profession.

Saying this, I do not mean to fault either the man or the profession for deliberately restricting engagement with religion in policy formulation. On the contrary, I want to underline the intellectual coherence of this stance and to concede in so doing the same coherence to the core of the Bush administration's response to 9/11. The administration's response to that event, like Huntington's to Gardels, is much in the American grain. Americans, by and large, would surely have been made exceedingly uncomfortable by a president who saw fit to take sides in a Muslim debate, sorting out the ideological underpinnings of Islam as differently understood by mainstream Islam and by Al Qaeda. This is simply not the sort of thing that American presidents do, this one least of all.

And yet if the outcome of a contest between contending Muslim ideologies or theologies bears heavily on whether or not there will be continuing traumatically violent attacks on the US, then does this contest not merit a good deal of American attention, even at the level of policy? At a comparable moment in the struggle with militant communism, the American foreign policy establishment certainly did not hesitate to engage its opponent intellectually. It was judged crucial in the 1950s to distinguish carefully and publicly between democratic socialism as practiced by several of America's most important allies and undemocratic socialism as practiced by the Soviet Union. Had that distinction not been made, some of our friends might have thought themselves our enemies, and our enemy would not have understood the basis for our enmity. Numbing as the Cold War debate may seem in retrospect, it had much to do at the time with winning an international battle for hearts and minds. In our day the rallying of Muslim allies and the isolation of the Islamist enemy would seem to call for an analogous effort, particularly so if the enemy can only be isolated by close police cooperation with Muslim countries. Granting that the making of theological distinctions is not a task that falls exclusively or even principally to the president, it may nonetheless be an urgent task and properly part of any American diplomatic response to the Islamist threat.

If such an intellectual engagement should begin, where should it begin? The term Islamism, to the best of my knowledge, was coined by the Egyptian Koranic scholar Sayyid Qutb to refer to an Islam reformed or, perhaps better, mobilized to function as a superior ideological and sociological alternative to communism, capitalism, nationalism and such other -isms as have attracted modern Muslims. In his recent book Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman sees Qutb as at once the Calvin of this fiercely puritanical Muslim reformation and the Marx of its attempt to transform Islam into a totalitarian ideology. Berman proposes that while responding militarily to Al Qaeda and its ilk, the West and above all the US must respond ideologically to Sayyid Qutb and his ilk. But this, in turn, means taking this thinker and the inner intellectual drama of Islam itself with a new seriousness.

Qutb reads the intellectual history of the world as a drama in which, in effect, Jews, Christians and Muslims are the only actors of consequence. Secular modernity is simply Christian error writ large. The Western divorce of science from faith, the core flaw of modernity, continues and exaggerates Christianity's earlier, fateful sundering of body from spirit. Muslims suffer from this essentially Christian spiritual disease only because Western imperialism has infected them with it. The promise of Islamism, then, is, in the first instance, the liberation of a Muslim spiritual recovery and, in the second, a counter-imperialism or jihad that will rescue the rest of the world from jahiliya or ignorance.

Qutb gives bold Muslim expression, Berman says, to something "that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely -- the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds." Perhaps Qutb can be ignored as deviant and ultimately marginal, though his thinking has venerable Muslim precedent. But if Qutb's way of engaging this modern dilemma and Al Qaeda's way of applying Qutb threaten to become dominant within the Muslim world, then the challenge not just within that world but also within ours must be to formulate and propagate a better response to the same dilemma. And who is to do this?

Berman writes:

The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.

But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world?...Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding -- one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

One knows whereof Berman speaks. Everything has been said, as a desabuse French writer once put it, but nothing has been heard. The reservoir of available political thought in the West may be hugely impressive in the abstract, but it has not been tapped very well for anything approaching practical policy. In governmental relations between Western nations and nations of Muslim majority, whether nominally secular or floridly religious, religion has been passed over in the usual, agreed-upon silence in favor of more mundane matters.

The trouble is that diplomatic relations are in this regard a poor representation of societal relations, for a powerful stratum of Muslim society is evidently in the mood not just to talk tough about religion but also to join tough talk to lethal action. If what is called for after 9/11 is a response that reaches societies and not just states, then introducing religion into policy discussion at the state level alone -- difficult as that may be in itself -- may not suffice.

A force that in the long run may have more impact on Muslim cultures than anything undertaken by the State Department is the experience and, tacitly, the example of Muslim subcultures flourishing in Western countries. The American Muslim subculture, though not the largest, may be the best integrated and most prosperous, a fact that the State Department has recently and quite appropriately sought to advertise. But leadership from that quarter will take time to mature. Meanwhile, if a more serious and mutually revealing kind of cultural exchange between the West and the Muslim umma can be launched in the interest of a more peaceful and mutually beneficial kind of coexistence, state auspices of any kind may not be the best. In all its intractability, this is the conversation that so many in so many different extra-governmental forums are now trying to ignite.

It is instructive at a juncture like this one to recall that the most effective intellectual leaders during Eastern Europe's liberation from communism did not see themselves as dissidents. They were not Communists, of course. But just as Gandhi called on his followers to be affirmatively Indian rather than to be merely and trivially anti-British, so Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel and others of their generation did not want their political agenda to be reduced to something so puny as anti-communism. In his new book The Unconquerable World, Jonathan Schell lays great stress on this Eastern European form of Gandhian satyagraha, quoting a famous saying of Jacek Kuron to Poland's Solidarity: "Don't burn down Party Committee Headquarters; found your own."

The lesson of the velvet revolutions for the US in its confrontation with Islamism is both cautionary and salutary. Though a larger acknowledgment of religion in American international policy may well facilitate a superior response to Islamism, a constricting, mirror-image response must be rejected here as it was in Gandhi's India and Michnik's Poland. Unfortunately, wherever Islamism has emerged, there have been those non-Muslims whose pulse has quickened at the prospect of just such a mirror-image response.

Thus, in India, those who want to respond to Islamist terrorism originating in Pakistan by reasserting the secularity of the Indian state have steadily been losing power to Hindu religious nationalists of India's Bharatiya Janata Party. "Muslims are cancer to this country," BJP leader Bal Thackeray said in a speech quoted in a recent issue of The New Yorker; "Cancer is an incurable disease. Its only cure is operation. O Hindus, take weapons in your hands and remove this cancer from the roots!" Thus is the Hindu wild card put into play.

In Israel/Palestine, the progressive Islamicization of the once secular Palestinian liberation movement has prompted an attempt to turn Israel from a secular into a confessional state or, if you will, from a Jewish state into a Judaist one. After the Six Days War, David Ben Gurion, a secularist then out of power, favored giving the West Bank and the Gaza Strip back to the Palestinians. Recently, Ahuvial Nizri, a Judaist settled in the tiny West Bank outpost of Givat Assaf, told the Los Angeles Times: "We believe this land is ours. It's written in the Bible that it is ours, and it's hard to argue with the Bible." Thus is the Jewish wild card put into play.

As for the US, I might begin with the recent announcement of a special program at a Christian college near Los Angeles under the title "God vs. Allah: Who Will Win?" Topics to be discussed included the following:

Was the war against terror predicted in the Bible, and who will win?

Does the present conflict in the Middle East mean the end of the world is near?

When will God make wars to cease, as He has promised, and nations build plowshares instead of swords?

What do Bible prophecies, written thousands of years ago, say about Islam versus Christianity, and how that conflict will affect our lives and the lives of our loved ones?

The Bush administration's careful abstention from any such inflammatory Christian rhetoric as well the president's own rare but still helpful gestures toward Muslim groups have to be balanced against diplomatically consequential Christian activism beyond the beltway and beyond the scope of millennarian speculation on Christian campuses. During the Ottoman era, the US insisted upon and received from Istanbul a grant of extra-territoriality for Christian missions staffed by Americans. If most Americans have forgotten this partnership between the American state and the Gospel, we must not assume that Muslims living in the territory of the former Ottoman Empire have done so. Nor should we assume that Christian missions even today would not seek or accept such protection were it offered. Various evangelical Christian groups -- including at least the Southern Baptist Convention; Samaritan's Purse, a relief operation headed by the professedly anti-Muslim Franklin Graham; and the Christian and Missionary Alliance -- are poised to offer humanitarian relief in Iraq while preaching the Gospels. Can we doubt that these groups count on close relations with the American occupation force? What impends is an unholy identification of Christianity with American power at a moment when what is most called for is a sharp disidentification.

Trusting for the moment that no attempt to make one of the American religious traditions normative for the American state as a whole has any real chance of success, what other kind of address to the topic of religion within American international policy is called for? Though the present moment, with American influence at a low ebb both in the West and in the Muslim umma, does not seem at all an apt one for a major new effort in public diplomacy, I submit that we have no choice but to begin. On the one hand, the US needs to infuse new vigor into its own practice of freedom of religion, its own commitment to the First Amendment. On the other, American international policy requires public and vigorous support for those abroad who favor the same combination of non-establishment and free exercise that we practice at home.

"The problem is that we always want them to look like us," comments one CIA veteran with extensive experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East. "In all the countries I've lived in, I never saw one that could afford American democracy. We're going to have to get a lot smarter than to just say, ?eGet a copy of the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, and you're going to be okay.'"

We do need to be smarter than that, and we need as well the saving grace of humility. "Power always thinks it has a great soul," John Adams wrote, "and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak." But when all such cautions have been registered, we must recognize that democracy is more like soccer than it is like American football: It is a world game. I vividly recall the polite but unmistakable indignation of Kim Dae Jung, years before he came to power, at the notion that his was an authoritarian culture that could not realistically aspire to democratic governance. If our question is how effectively to respond to the appeal of Islamism, we need to recall that Islamism is tyrannical toward other Muslims; total control is the condition of its operation. Accordingly, no offensive against its religiously motivated terrorism will be more effective in the long run than the promotion of freedom of religion in the nations from which it recruits.

Is it realistic to promote freedom of religion in Muslim countries? Ah, realism! Realists predicted in 1975 that the Helsinki accords would be violated, and the realists were right. But the various Helsinki accords monitoring groups were nonetheless a seed well-planted. They took root and became a kind of government-in-waiting as communism was overtaken -- how very Marxist an outcome -- by its own internal contradictions. Democracy in Eastern Europe is scarcely imaginable without the Helsinki monitoring groups. May we not imagine, then, some Islamic equivalent of the Helsinki Conference? Imagine, if you will, a Cairo Conference on Muslim Pluralism.

The encouragement of free trade and free elections -- which is to say, of the American model in commerce and politics -- has long been unabashed American policy. But American international policy has included no comparably unabashed encouragement of freedom of religion. I am prepared to take as a premise that worldwide freedom of religion is even more an American national interest than free trade. The ideologues of Al Qaeda regard freedom of religion -- that is the separation of political from religious power -- as the mother of all sins, the vice that enables all other vices. Accordingly, militant Islamism, acting as it supposes in the defense of Islam and of virtue, has been prepared to take violent action to prevent the spread of this freedom, crushing Muslim diversity no less than religious diversity beyond Islam. The US, even as it addresses such other legitimate Muslim grievances as injure the cause of peace, should make freedom of religion the first item on its diplomatic agenda -- not a dream endlessly deferred but the most urgent and practical first order of business.

Democratic capitalist states, we are accustomed to hear, do not make war on other democratic capitalist states in the pursuit of political or economic power. I submit that societies in which there is freedom of religion do not make religious war on other societies in which there is freedom of religion. I stress, though, that the unit of comparison is not the state but the society. Religion is much older than and clearly could survive the demise of the nation state. State-to-state diplomacy, as it touches religion, is a kind of asymmetrical diplomacy. Society-to-society diplomacy at least approaches symmetry.

If worldwide freedom of religion is the goal, it matters greatly that the Muslim world at this point in time may be almost as exhausted from internecine warfare as the West was just after the Thirty Years War; and that grim and blood-drenched moment in Western history was, paradoxically, the moment when a great cultural liberation was accomplished. Western freedom of religion may have been rationalized by the brilliance of the Enlightenment, but the necessary condition for it was the misery of the West's Wars of Religion and the mood of revulsion and surfeit that these wars created. By a similar paradox, the religious civil wars that have wracked the Muslim world in recent decades in Afghanistan, in Algeria, at the border between Iraq and Iran, in Saudi Arabia after the Shiite attack on Mecca, in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood's assassination of Anwar Sadat and elsewhere may have fostered a new determination to find a way out. It can scarcely have escaped all Muslim notice that every one of these bloody conflicts has reflected the determination of some to establish a fusion of religious and political power at the expense of others. Muslim intellectuals never tire of pointing out that the Muslim past was more pluralist than is the Muslim present. Will leadership for a revival and rationalization of this pluralism emerge from Western Muslims protected and supported by sympathetic and informed Western non-Muslims? Once again, the Cold War experience may not be beside the point.

The dream of the restored caliphate lives on, to be sure, but this dream closely matches another seemingly immortal dream that finally did die -- namely, the Caesaro-Papist dream of the West in the various forms it took. Until the end of the Thirty Years War, it seemed that the West would die at its own hand rather than surrender this dream. But once the dream was in fact surrendered, it seemed a nightmare from which all had blessedly awakened. If Al Qaeda represents, in cultural terms, a return to the first decades of the seventeenth century, then let us be bold enough to think ahead to the middle and the end of the seventeenth century as we imagine futures and conjure up diplomacies.

The West and the US are not synonymous, a fact that Europe is recalling just now with a vengeance but a fact that Americans too need to remember. And yet the US in its religious polity is heir to the common Western history, a matter that Kevin Phillips recently documented exhaustively in his book The Cousins' Wars. Each Western nation, to the extent that it regards its own way of implementing this most difficult lesson of Western history as a lesson suitable for export, becomes a potential teacher to the whole world. Belgium, Canada, even, latterly, Ulster all have something to contribute in this classroom, something to teach. I would claim no more than this for the US but also no less.

The ultimate goal of an American national policy on religion must be, I submit, to make each nation seem no threat to any other nation's religion by making each religion equally secure in every nation. This happy state of affairs must not only obtain, it must be seen to obtain, for perceived danger provokes war, while perceived security preserves peace. Support, then, must be rallied not just for practice of freedom of religion but also for the inculcation and public celebration of the practice. Freedom of religion is not the default position of culture any more than flight is the default position of an airplane. Freedom of religion, on the contrary, is a craft kept aloft in a culture only by constant and highly self-conscious maintenance. Government cannot do all the needed work, but it can do some of it.

Some years ago, I asked a Palestinian professor of modern Arabic and modern Hebrew literature at Berkeley to comment for the Los Angeles Times Book Review on the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature to the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Muhammad Siddiqi wrote something for the occasion that I continue to ponder. He said that Mahfouz was not just the greatest but also the first novelist in the Arab world. In the West, fiction as what W.H. Auden called "feigned history" occupies a midpoint between falsehood and truth, fantasy or pure fabrication and factual report. Siddiqi was pointing out that Arab literature had only lately, only in the very person of Mahfouz, recognized this midpoint.

Siddiqi's comment made sudden sense for me of the baffling accusations that so many Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, had made -- sometimes over the telephone to the Book Review -- that Salman Rushdie had told lies about Muhammad in his novel The Satanic Verses. Perhaps what was true of Arab culture was true to some extent of all Muslim culture. Western commentators as well as Rushdie himself, at first, had greeted this charge of outright mendacity with a shrug and a smile: "Come now, can a novel lie?" But on a mental map in which there is no middle kingdom between truth and fabrication, a story that is not -- like a fable -- a transparent and total invention must necessarily be a deceptive report, and its author cannot be other than an outright liar.

Secularity is, like fiction, a middle kingdom. It lies between religion and irreligion, between belief and unbelief. Those who occupy this middle kingdom may seem to those who recognize no such realm to be necessarily irreligious unbelievers -- enemies of religion as Rushdie seemed an enemy of truth. This is what I detect in what little I know of Sayyid Qutb. If the hunch is right, then an effective counter-offensive against Sayyid Qutb's kind of thinking will properly involve demonstrating that secular man, though he is free in principle to be an enemy of religion, is not necessarily such. As for secular society, once it prohibits the prohibition of religion, which is what American society does by the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment, not only is it not necessarily anti-religious, it is necessarily not anti-religious. These double-negatives do make the head spin, and that they do is, in effect, the point I want to make. We know -- because for us it is a matter of experience -- that a secular state can coexist, as the American state does, with a flourishingly religious society. Our sworn opponent may not so much have rejected this truth as failed to grasp it.

If all diplomacy contains some element of pedagogy, it is on this point that I should think the pedagogy of Western diplomacy ought just now to be concentrated. The US with its colossal arsenal is, empirically, a threat to the world. No power so heavily armed can fail to be a threat. But we are not the threat that we are perceived to be in the Muslim world: We are not a religious threat. This is a point that American diplomacy, unofficial as well as official, must learn how to make, but Americans must first perhaps make this very point to themselves with a new insistence.

Islam and the West do not, in the end, divide the world between them. China is another world. So is India. Yet large as they are, India and China will not aspire to turn all the world's people into Indians or Chinese. Islam and the West -- the Christian West and now the secular West -- have historically had just such aspirations. Each aspires to be not a guest, not even an honored guest, but alone in the role of host.

This being the case, if a reconception of the place of religion in American international policy can foster peace between these two historically aggressive actors alone, then the dividend in peace for the world as a whole may be large.