Islam, Rome, and Beating America

Nathan Hitchen just published an article on the Center for a Just Society website on “Religious Liberty as a Moral Center for American Diplomacy.” In it, he argues not only that the State Department’s minimization of religion has cost U.S. foreign policy, but also that religion–that enemy of all civil dinner table discourse–must be the centerpiece of a successful U.S. public diplomacy effort. A particularly good excerpt:

“The success of U.S. democracy promotion in the Middle East hangs on the credibility of American policymakers to empathetically engage Islamic culture. Empathy, in this case, means taking the worldview of the religious Arab public seriously. Consequently, one foreign policy reform should be to integrate religious expertise into the analytical framework of our foreign policy establishment by elevating the Office of International Religious Liberty in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the State Department. Lasting political settlement in religious environments requires American diplomacy to prescind the materialist preoccupations of modern political science (at least, politics according to Harold Lasswell: “deciding who gets what, when, and how”), and base decisions on higher-order values. In short, religious liberty should be the moral center of our diplomacy in the Middle East. The strategic objective of our Middle East policy should accordingly shift away from democracy promotion and toward the promotion of religious liberty. By insisting on religious liberty rather than a wholesale transformation toward democratic government the U.S. can lower the stakes for regimes it seeks to change. Democracy is supposed to secure liberties such as freedom of religion—they are the substantive ends which democracy is a means to protect.”

Hitchen’s quotation of Lasser, however, may go even deeper than his article chooses to delve in its limited space.  “Who gets what, when, and how” is not merely the preoccupation of modern political science. It is the foundation of the Western legal system, and Hitchen’s prescient use of it begs the question: does success in middle eastern foreign policy depend on a legal emphasis not found even in the West?

While one would be foolhardy to downplay the role religious freedom has had in the West, the civil law tradition that forms the basis of our legal system is based, not on religious freedom, but on the property regulations and liberties emphasized in Roman law. The “what, when, and how” approach was the explicit purpose of Roman law, even after the reforms of Justinian which survived largely intact in civil and, to a large extent, common law. Religious freedom later became a policy emphasis of several western countries, and an ideological principle of the American republic, but the basis for the West’s legal system remained an evolution of foundations found in ancient Roman law. In other words, religious freedom became a goal of many Western countries, but of none was it a legal foundation.

In this context, Hitchen’s public diplomacy proposition seems to suggest that the United States ask foreign nations to (in a sense) surpass it in their principled commitment to religious liberty. Hitchen proposes we ask other nations to reverse the equation derived from Western history, and base their reformed legal and political systems on something that grew up fairly late in the Western legal evolution.

From one perspective, this suggestion is eminently logical; a response to a glaring failure of U.S. public diplomacy that disregarded the single most important factor influencing many middle eastern societies. But from another, the suggestion is daring because it would mean asking other nations to emphasize religious freedom even more strongly than does the United States–and, in fact, to skip hundreds of years of political evolution much as President Bush demanded by his efforts at democracy-building.

Hitchen’s argument is thus more ambitious from a political scientist’s perspective than from a State Department official’s perspective. He suggests, not that the multi-century jump is wrong in principle, but that the goal in mind is wrong–that nations can be founded on universal truths derived from outside their own experience, but that in this case a mere method of governance is not the right principle to emphasize. Right or wrong, his argument is compelling and demands careful consideration from a State Department stubbornly ignoring the facts on the ground.


  • April 6, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    I posted this on the CJS website, but I thought I’d share it with the HP audience too.

    1) Nathan’s first policy recommendation (empowering the Office of International Religious Liberty) is actually just a ploy to elevate himself and his friends.

    2) I couldn’t help but think “Trojan Horse” when I read his explanation of the additional liberties bound within religious liberty. You bring freedom of religion into your city and then in more liberties jump out, or as Nathan says, there is “a multiplier effect.”

    All of that said, brilliant piece by Nathan and good further clarifying comments by Brian.

  • April 6, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    On a technical point, Roman law, passed down through Justinian’s reforms, was received through the civil law, not the common (which was locally derived).

    More importantly, I would say there was nothing about religious liberty that itself derived from the civil law, common law, or ecclesiastical law (the primary sources of Western law). You sort of indicate as much by saying religious liberty was, at best, a late emphasis in Western law. However, I’d go further and say the sources of religious freedom were completely exogenous to Western legal development. The sources were always concessions, and hardly emphasized anywhere, outside of the US and the Netherlands, before the 19th century.

    Nevertheless, US advocacy of religious liberty, or even democracy, is a method of choosing our friends (even with the Iraq War, democracy was not the initial justification). Advocacy is a means of increasing the incentive or salience of freedom. In this way, we can hope to increase the transition of nations that begin processes of liberalization that are outside of the normal development, just as they were in the West. The difference is that these Middle Eastern countries could have advocates, lessons in history, and an example of the persistence of religion despite its nonenforcement – which were not available in 17-19th century Europe.

  • April 6, 2010

    Brian Brown

    Nice catch, Bryan; serves me right for writing a post right after lunch. It was civil law of which I was thinking when I mentioned Justinian (correction made). However, while common law evolved under the jurisdiction of local judges, its derivation was still heavily Roman. Many of the earliest judges appointed by Henry II in the 12th century were well-educated in Roman law (and in some cases, only Roman law). Bracton’s “De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae” (On the Laws and Customs of England), which is on common law, closely follows Justinian’s formulation.

  • April 7, 2010


    This is the kind of thing I am arguing against:,-bans-Islam,-jihad-from-security-terminology

    Any kind of sensible realism must accept the vocabulary and therefore the concepts that actors use for their own self-description, and thus self-perception. There is no way to talk about the Middle East’s security problems from non-state actors post 1967 without talking about religious fundamentalist social movements, parties, ideologues, and terrorist groups.

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