On Foreign Policy and Seeing the Big Picture—Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Northwestern University

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Episode Notes

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is a professor of political science and religious studies and the Crown Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, where she co-directs the Global Religion and Politics Research Group. The author or co-editor of six books, she specializes in religion in U.S. foreign and immigration policy, the global politics of secularism and religious freedom, religion and the American border, and relations between the U.S., Europe, Turkey, and Iran.

Elizabeth visited campus as part of a series of policy discussions marking the 20th anniversary of September 11th presented by Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and Ansari Institute for Global Engagement With Religion. Her keynote, the second event in the three-part series, focused on what she calls the “religion-heavy” foreign policy of the United States’ War on Terror.

With a patio outside Notre Dame’s Morris Inn as our backdrop, Elizabeth talked with us about some of the issues she addressed in her presentation at the Keough School and why she believes the government should rethink the emphasis it places on religion when acting on the world stage. Her recommendations there draw from testimony she gave to the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year and, it’s worth noting, do not suggest that religion is unimportant, either.

But before we got to where we are now, we started with a little bit of history.


Episode Transcript

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Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. We started out as the show that invited scholars, makers, and professionals to brunch for informal conversations about their work. But last season, we needed to record remotely. This year, we're excited to be able to bring back in-person interviews while still taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by our remote setup. But whether we're literally sitting down with a guest or talking with them virtually from that trusty old walk-in closet, we hope you'll find that you're glad you stopped by. Thanks for listening.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is a professor of political science and religious studies and the Crown Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, where she co-directs the Global Religion and Politics Research Group. The author or co-editor of six books, she specializes in religion in US foreign and immigration policy, the global politics of secularism and religious freedom, religion and the American border, and relations between the US, Europe, Turkey, and Iran. Elizabeth visited campus as part of a series of policy discussions marking the 20th anniversary of September 11 presented by Notre Dame's Keough School of Global Affairs and Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion. Her keynote, the second event in the three-part series, focused on what she calls the "religion-heavy" foreign policy of the United States' War on Terror. With a patio outside Notre Dame's Morris Inn as our backdrop, Elizabeth talked with me about some of the issues she addressed in her presentation at the Keough School and why she believes the government should rethink the emphasis it places on religion when acting on the world stage. Her recommendations there draw from testimony she gave to the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year and, it's worth noting, do not suggest that religion is unimportant, either. But before we got to where we are now, we started with a little bit of history. (end voiceover)

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  2:12  
Thank you so much. It's good to be with you.

Ted Fox  2:14  
So I wanted to start by asking you to contrast the United States' foreign policy approach to religion during the Cold War to that during our kind of current, ongoing War on Terror. I don't know that we always think about that maybe there's been a shift in the approach, but how has the approach changed?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  2:38  
You know, it has changed pretty dramatically. It's pretty hard to compare because the Cold War was just a completely--everything was driven by that bilateral relationship between the US and the Soviet Union. And it was very much us versus them, black versus white, good versus evil, godly versus ungodly. And so the register in which the US created and pursued and implemented foreign policy was a different one from what it is during the War on Terror. It was an anti-communist, pro-God, pro-spirituality, and communism was seen as almost like a spiritual illness, like it was something that was physical; it was a malignancy that would take over the body politic as well as the individual body, and it would infect people. And so the US needed to undertake, it was almost like a public health campaign. And it had more of that kind of language and sort of tone to it than we see with the War on Terror. So it was a public health, global spiritual campaign in order to improve the world's spiritual health. And the idea was that if people's spiritual health was in good form, and they were attuned to their spiritual side, then they would be less susceptible to the communist influence when it would inevitably creep up behind them and tap them on the shoulder and say, Hey, why don't you come and join our team, you know, be a red. And if they had their spiritual cards in order, as they should, they would be able to resist it, almost like now with the COVID vaccine, like they would be resistant to this urge to be infected with communism. And they would kind of find that they would recognize, in this kind of Kantian sense almost, this moral truth that is freedom and anti-communism and democracy.

And this is a really powerful logic. So I don't mean by any stretch of the imagination to, you know, suggest that it was, you know, to make fun of it or to denigrate it. People really bought this, in the same way that today, there is this, you know, fear of Islamism  and a kind of sense of it being this irrational thing and you need to kind of inoculate yourself against it. And you need to create governments abroad and organizations at home that are working abroad that will ensure that people are not susceptible to the pull, this magnetic pull of Islamism. And so there are similarities. And it's actually, it is an interesting comparison to make. Because I do think that while the Cold War discourse was much more health-oriented, I think today we see much more of a kind of fear of the religious, rather than the use of the religious against the bad guys. So it's almost like we flipped the coin over.

Ted Fox  5:26  
And would I be right in saying that there's more of--regardless of what maybe was there implicitly during the Cold War--that explicitly, there's more of an explicit emphasis on religion now than there would have been before, would you say?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  5:42  
I think that's probably fair to say, yeah. There was some emphasis, but the US is also--I mean, in part because of 9/11, but also as a result of the Cold War and of the global kind of power dynamics that ensued where the US did emerge as this great superpower economically and politically and militarily, we have so many bases, hundreds of bases, I mean, just the scale of the American presence globally has changed so much--everything we do is on a bigger scale and is more inflated and is more in your face. And so definitely that's the case now as compared to then. It is also the case, I think, that there's been more, I guess, weight put on religion as a factor that is a problem. Whereas during the Cold War, it was seen as more of a solution to the problem, and so when religion becomes the problem and becomes the target of reform, it becomes the object of concern, and the object of securitization, meaning programs to make sure that people are secure. And those programs are then defined in relation to particular kinds of religions and religious quote-unquote "threats."

Ted Fox  6:48  
Right. So I know from reading some of your work that you think this religion-heavy foreign policy is a misguided way to approach our foreign policy. And I'm wondering why, and if you can talk about what your research has shown are the implications of privileging a notion of religious freedom kind of over everything else maybe?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  7:14  
Yeah, so that is definitely at the core of my last book, Beyond Religious Freedom, where I'm looking at this concept and trying to understand, What kind of world does it create, what happens when the government makes this a priority and goes out and identifies people as either, you know, good religionists--so people who support American foreign policy--or bad religionists? So bad religionists are people who oppose us or who are getting in the way or who somehow don't line up with American foreign policy objectives. Now, you can see from the start, that we're not only just talking about some abstract thing called religion; we're talking about political religion because it's the government programs that I'm looking at. And so we are seeing an emphasis on religion in these programs. For example, you see a lot of talk about religious minorities being persecuted. And you see a lot of talk about the need to protect the religious rights and individuals who've had them abrogated by the state or by other actors globally. And what my point is really, that it is not to suggest that these people are not suffering or that they're not somehow victims of oppressive states. Of course they are. The problem, however, is what do we not see when we focus exclusively on the question of religion? And my concern there is that there are a lot of things we don't see.

For example, we don't often--take the case of like the Rohingya in Myanmar. We do not see the role of the state in persecuting the Rohingya. Why would they do that? Because the state is interested in their lands. It's really simple. With the economic transformations going on there and the kind of opening up to the world in the free market liberalization policies in Burma right now, there's an enormous amount of pressure on the government to have control over the lands and the external border regions of Burma. And so the state has every interest in taking their lands. And what we see with the religious rights narrative and the religious persecution narrative is an emphasis on the Rohingya as simply a persecuted Muslim minority--which they are that, but there are also a whole bunch of other things. And if we put the the onus on religious persecution, and we talk about Oh, the Buddhist monks and Buddhist majoritarianism is a problem, yeah, it is a problem. It's a real problem. But there's also a whole lot of other parts of that puzzle. And my argument is if we want to have a balanced foreign policy that actually grapples with the world as it is rather than one single dimension of that world, then we want to consider the whole field of play. And that field involves not only religion, but land rights, colonial history, questions of who controls what territory, intraethnic rivalries, family relations, economic interests--all of those factors need to be brought into the equation. And then we can start to see what an intelligent, forward-thinking foreign policy would be that would be in the interest of these people who are indeed being not only persecuted, but evicted from their homeland and kicked out into Bangladesh practically.

Ted Fox  10:18  
That was one thing that I was interested and glad to see you mention in your keynote. I don't know if this is just a case of I'm too disengaged from the world around me or what's going on, but I feel like the Arab Spring protests, they were about 10 years ago now, and I feel like they're not something that--maybe it's just been a long decade, it certainly has been a long decade (both laugh)--but they're not in our consciousness now the way they were when they were first happening. And I thought it was interesting that you pointed to that, and it speaks to what you were just talking about here of, if you're sitting with it honestly and thinking about it, it's like, Well, there's people representing a lot of different interests. And it's not necessarily a religious protest leading to these uprisings. It's all these other factors at play. And I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about--because you get into asking, you know, all of us to think about, like, what are all the different affiliations we hold? And do we really just identify ourselves as, Oh, I'm a Christian, or I'm an atheist, or all these different things? And why would that be different in other parts of the world? That's not just true in the United States.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  11:28  
Absolutely. I'm really glad you brought this up. Because the Arab Spring, obviously, is not something that's often talked about, as you're saying, and it's certainly not something that I have seen, anyway, talked about in light of or in relation to the commemoration of 9/11 two decades later. And I feel like it's a really important opportunity to bring up this issue and say, Hey, look, we go around for all of these government programs, and all of these years, and this military-security industrial complex, this huge security-state apparatus that we've created in the wake of 9/11, goes around targeting, you know, Muslims who are said to be in need of reform and improvement in the name of, you know, American security. And it's so easy for all of these other aspects of life and individuals' lives, including people who may happen to be Muslim--many of them in the Middle East may not be Muslim, too--there's a sense among many Americans that everyone over in the Middle East is Muslim. And if you actually go to the region, and I've been to many countries in the region, it's incredibly diverse. And like you were saying, people identify as, you know, sports fans, they identify as fans of a, you know, particular cuisine, or maybe they're really into, you know, going on vacation in certain place, or I mean, it could be really into skateboarding--just like everybody else. A certain kind of music. So the sense of this sort of over-determination, this culturalism, and this kind of over-ascription of identity in this religious category, I think, is really sort of an American blind spot. And it's kind of a fiction that we've made up in order to simplify our world in order to justify our military spending, which is unjustifiable, in my opinion.

And so yeah, I really was happy for the opportunity to draw attention to the Arab Spring protests because I don't think they get enough playtime, I don't think they get enough airtime. I don't think people realize what a big deal it was for people to get out on the streets. These states don't mess around, right? I mean, they really are violent, and they've been violent for a long time. We've seen that graphically in Syria. But we also saw it in the Maspero Massacre in Egypt. So the idea that this was somehow easy for people to get out there and protest is just not true. And so we saw with these protests really complex alliances forming between secularists and religionists, for lack of a better word, between people who, you know, really may not have any opinion, they may be atheists--it doesn't matter, it wasn't what was important at that moment. What was important at that moment was getting out there and saying, We want democracy, we want economic opportunity, we want a fair judiciary, we want the police to stop beating us up for no reason, and, you know, give us a chance to speak up and to have a say in our own future. And that kind of plea for dignity really should resonate globally. And I think it did at the time, and I just don't want to see it eclipsed. So religion is one part of this kind of tapestry of human sociality and human social affairs and political affairs. But it's not the only part.

Ted Fox  14:36  
You made the point very eloquently there, but I think it bears repeating that it's not, you're not making an argument saying religion is unimportant.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  14:44  

Ted Fox  14:44  
It's just, should we be holding it up above every everything else? And I really liked a point that you made, too, about the effect that putting such an explicit focus on, Well, are you this religion or are you that religion? You're forcing people who otherwise wouldn't identify with either of those sides to say, Well, in order for me to have a voice or maybe to feel protected or be safe among this majority, okay, I'm going to identify--"identify," I use that in quotes--with that group, because there is no, if we're defining everything just in those real strict black-and-white terms, then there is nowhere else for me to go, even if that's not necessarily a really deeply held belief that I have.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  15:26  
That's exactly it. And I think that we should not underestimate the pressure of legal categories and kind of, you could just say, like, social customs or what other people are doing around us--we shouldn't underestimate the pressure that people feel to identify one way or the other. And when it becomes a question of, you know, Hey, the UN says that you need to identify as X if you want to count as a persecuted minority in this country and get the food rations that they're offering, Hey, I'm gonna be X. You know, maybe my mom is X, and my dad is Y, but for these purposes, I'm going to be X, and then you start to kind of stake a claim in that identity and it becomes--you're seen as an X, and it sort of starts to realize this world that's much more, I think, divided along religious lines than it necessarily has to be or than it is in reality. Where we see in many situations people who are switching affiliations or are half-and-half or maybe don't feel pulled too strongly toward any particular tradition. Some of them might have had a bad experience with organized religion, and they're going to be atheists, and they're going to be dogmatic about that. You know, it's just a lot more complex than I think those rigid categories often reflect.

Ted Fox  16:42  
So we've talked about what I would call some practical things in terms of--as my paper blows away from me (laughs)--in terms of on the ground, someone's kind of lived experience of the world, what does it actually look like versus how we might kind of hypothesize about it--like, you fall into this group or you fall into that group. But I think an interesting kind of philosophical argument you make, as well, is that enforcing a right to religious freedom requires that you define what religion is to begin with, which you say, that's not the job of government to do that. And that even beyond that, functionally, it's a really difficult thing to do. What makes defining religion so hard?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  17:25  
Well, you know, I teach a couple of classes on this, so it's kind of a long and dry answer.

Ted Fox  17:30  
(laughs) I'll just ask you to boil it down into one answer, right?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  17:33  
But, you know, if you look back at just even the history of that word. I mean, you know, religion--"religio" is to bind. I mean, it was what held people together. And when you look, the more you look historically across different traditions, religion is kind of a catch-all category that we use as sort of a shortcut in order to cover what, you know, in modern times, we see as the great world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so on. But to suggest that those can be kind of set next to each other doesn't work. Because what ends up happening is here--and the origin of "religion" came out of Latin Christendom, it's a Latin word--here we take Christianity as kind of the template for what religion is. So when we say "religion," we think of Christian stuff, even though we're saying "religion." So we think of, like, yeah, going to church and believing in God or, you know, all of the things that go, you know, doctrine and all of the practices and prayers and the communal aspects and holidays. We think, okay, that's religion. But then when you transpose that onto Buddhism, you're like, Well, where's their god? Where's their church? And then you're like, Oh, wait, well, they sort of, okay, well, Islam has the mosque, okay. So it gets really messy really fast. And so when it comes to, you think about then the modern state to just jump over--which is, you know, obviously, the church and the state have really complex relationships--but you think about the modern state and the power of the modern state, the kinds of laws that it's able to make, the life and death determinations that it's able to arbitrate. If you have the state determining what is inside or outside of that category of religion, it's inevitably going to be almost impossible to be fair when you actually try to implement that, when you look at, you know, the diverse societies that we live in today. So I think it's--it's a very open term.

Ted Fox  19:31  
I mean, like, what's superstition? What's culture?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  19:34  
What's culture?

Ted Fox  19:34  
And where does the line, where does religion end and culture starts and superstition starts? I mean, yes, if you try to sit there and really sit with that and think about it, like, Oh, no, I know the difference. Well, do you know?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  19:46  
Yeah, you know, your religion is my culture, and your superstition is my tradition. And it's a really complicated field. And once you bring power relations into play, and you start talking about who gets to define--well, yeah, it's the colonizer, it's the white men in charge, it's the people who run the show, they get to decide what religion is a religion, and what religion is worth protecting. So attachment to the land? Eh, not so much; we'd rather build our ski resort. And those are some of the, you know, legal cases, that's the kind of question that I end up teaching in my classes. And suddenly, people are like, Oh, you know, it's not so much of a head-scratcher anymore; we see it matters who gets to define religion. Because yeah, if you're attached to that mountain because that's where your god lives, and then someone wants to make a, you know, put up a ski resort and put a snowmaking machine up there--which is, you know, precisely this case--that's just too bad. Your god will have to move out; too bad, so sad, sorry for you. But you know, hey, imagine that you try to do that at the Vatican? You know, no, people wouldn't you know, so there would be some, hackles would go up. So it matters who gets to define these things.

Ted Fox  20:52  
You put forth four recommendations at the end of your talk, one of which was not making conflict worse by reducing it to religion, which I think we've talked about that. What were the others that you were--

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  21:08  
Yeah, so this is really, you know--I have to say, this was, these recommendations came out of Congressional testimony that I gave to the House Foreign Affairs Committee this summer, where they were trying to think about religion as a factor in American foreign policy. And so they're really simple, and they're trying to sort of distill the message for a policymaking audience, an audience that's not going to be interested in the questions of the history of the category of religion in Latin Christendom, the fact of what it meant in Latin, and how it doesn't map onto Buddhism. They'd be like, we don't care, you know, go back to your ivy tower. (Ted laughs) And you know, I get that. And so I was trying to distill these recommendations. So you mentioned one of them. The other was really to just give people some other language to think about, so prioritizing justice, equality, and respect for diversity as opposed to religious freedom. So, you know, people are like, Well, what are you going to do if we don't have religious freedom, we're not gonna know what to do. I'm like, Well, actually, we will know what to do. Like, let's try out some other concepts and see how it works. They're not going to be perfect. But I do think that they avoid some of these pitfalls and these sort of imperializing tendencies that are built into the category of religion that I've been trying to point to.

Ted Fox  22:17  
And I know you had a line where you talked about, and you've talked about it here, you know, very clearly, that minorities and dissenters need international help, but they might not always necessarily need help as religious groups; it might just be a case of, well, these people aren't being treated fairly under the law.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  22:37  
Right, right.

Ted Fox  22:37  
Regardless of whether it's their religion or the color of their skin or their land is desired by the government. So maybe it doesn't always need to be the focus on, Well, we have to intervene because you're an oppressed religious minority. It's you're being oppressed, kind of full stop.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  22:52  
Yeah, exactly. I think that also, sometimes the people who are being dispossessed of their land, there may be a religious aspect, there may be a discriminatory aspect, people may be putting them down because of their perceived religious affiliations, as well. So it's not that it's absent from the equation. But it is a fact that I think the US, you know, when it goes around preaching religious freedom and rights of religious minorities, it ends up reproducing some of the same divisive kinds of communal problems and even violence that it purports to want to change and transcend. And that's my argument; it's like, we've got to see this bigger picture, we've got to kind of open it up and understand what is, you know, actually happening to these groups. And what are the really complex histories that have led to the fact that they're now being persecuted or discriminated against? Rather than kind of, like, you know, walking around with this, you know, kind of easy diagnosis that often doesn't really fit the situation that it's imposed upon.

Ted Fox  23:54  
Right, right. And I know there were a couple others there, as well.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  23:58  
Oh, yeah. So depoliticizing religion as a gesture of respect. I think that there's a real tendency--and again, I mentioned this was, my audience here was primarily policymakers--and there's a tendency among some policymakers to hear what I'm saying, and to say, Oh, so you're a secularist, and you hate religion, and you want us to ignore religion, and you're just, you think it's not important, and it should just, like, go away. And I really, really feel like it's worth making a point that it's actually the opposite: It's out of respect for these, you know, enormous variety and complexity of these traditions. You know, these traditions have been a part of governance, they've been a part of, you know, all of our social customs, the way we understand ourselves in the world, the way people relate to each other, the way they understand, you know, their health, their well-being--I mean, you cannot really, like, distill it out and then say, you know, That's religion. It's just all over the place, and so as a way of showing kind of some deference to these really complex traditions, I think it's important to kind of acknowledge the need to step back, that the political authorities step back. And this is also a reference to American history, too, what I think is the tradition of disestablishment, which is never fully achieved, of course, but is always something that you know, people are talking about: Well, you can't have an establishment. Well, if we can't have an establishment at home, then we shouldn't be going around promoting mini establishments abroad; we should really tread lightly. And so it's really a call for humility more than anything else.

Ted Fox  25:12  
Mm hmm. So we've been talking about your keynote here and some of the issues you hit on there, but kind of as we're wrapping up here, I know you just had a new book published last month, Theologies of American Exceptionalism, which you edited with your frequent collaborator, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. I know it's a collection of 15 essays. What are some of the kinds of questions that the contributors to this book are taking up?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  26:01  
Yeah. So in that book, we are really trying to, we're trying to think through American exceptionalism not only as a political doctrine--in other words, you know, the US sort of stands above the laws of nations and kind of stands as this moral and political exemplar of what it means to have achieved freedom and democracy and liberty, that standard myth that we see--but we're actually interested in the theological aspects of that. And by that, we really mean anything that--any aspects of it that kind of involve reaching beyond the human. So not only necessarily, you know, simply God talk. We are sort of trying to unpack I think this assumption that we can, you know, separate the religious from the secular when we talk about American exceptionalism. And we're trying to present America and the American project as itself a religious project in many ways, as having all kinds of aspirations that kind of go beyond the individual and then have this kind of proselytizing impulse and that are complex and that need to be thought through really carefully. And so this book is an attempt to do some of that thinking in a whole bunch of different disciplinary registers and different voices.

Ted Fox  27:16  
Beth Hurd, thank you for being at our Keough School today. Thank you for joining--we had a great area out here outside the Morris Inn outside Rohr's, and I really appreciate you making time to talk to us while you were here.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd  27:28  
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Ted Fox  27:30  
(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame. Our website is withasideofpod.nd.edu.