Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation in Foreign Policy

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The Brexit vote was a victory for Islamist terrorists as well as for isolationists in libertarian democracies.  Islamist terror precipitated the Muslim refugee crisis that caused widespread anxiety, fear and hostility to outsiders in Europe and the U.S.  As expected, that fear and hostility was exploited by politicians in both the U.S. and abroad.

            The Brexit vote has dimmed the hope for reconciling diverse cultures and religions in pluralistic nations around the world and has raised the specter of more divisiveness, hostility and violence.  Such polarization reflects a human preference for walls rather than bridges.  It is a step away from peaceful coexistence toward isolationism and violence in a pluralistic world.

            It has happened before.  It led to The U.S. Civil War, to Stalin’s Soviet Union, and to the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler.  They all took place in Christian nations where people knew better, but succumbed to pervasive fears, anger and hostility toward others unlike themselves.  Each was a perfect storm of the forces of evil over those of good, and misguided demagogues exploited that fear and anger to build their power and corrupt nations and even continents.

            The religious dimension should be obvious.  It is God’s will to reconcile and redeem humanity and Satan’s will to divide and conquer—and Satan does a convincing imitation of God in our churches and mosques.  In the ebb and flow of good and evil in the world, Satan seems to have gained a political edge.  In the U.S. that is exemplified in Donald Trump, whose life and teachings are the antithesis of those of Jesus, as well as those of Muhammad.

            Brexit reflected the growing fear and hostility of the British toward Muslims.  The Church of England has been in decline and Islam has been on the increase for some time, and Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London who resembles Donald Trump in body if not in mind, was able to exploit public fear and anger of the Muslim “other” in Great Britain and defeated the forces of reconciliation with the divisive power of nativism and isolationsism.

            Donald Trump has done the same in the U.S. with the support of evangelical Christians who have corrupted the moral power of Christianity in politics.  President Obama has complicated the issue by refusing to acknowledge the religious nature of Islamist terrorism and countered it with military force that has failed to eliminate the threat and even exacerbated it.  

            Radical Islamism is a fundamentalist form of Islam, and its power depends upon its legitimacy among Muslims.  Today there is a battle of legitimacy being waged by fundamentalist Islamists and progressive Muslims for the hearts and minds of Muslims.  It is a battle for God that cannot be won by U.S. military might.  It can only be won by progressive Muslims who can undermine the legitimacy of radical Islamists by defining Islam as a religion of peace and justice.
            Progressive Jews, Christians and Muslims all share a common word of faith in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  It requires that believers consider those of other religions as their neighbors and share with them the freedoms that they love, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech.

            Islamic law (shari’a) denies the freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws, and autocratic rulers like Egypt’s President Sissi have used such laws to silence their opponents.  Too often the U.S. has supported such oppressive regimes, and it has been at the expense of human rights and enabled radical Islamist terrorists like ISIS to recruit followers. 

            The real allies of the U.S. against Islamist terrorism are progressive Muslims who are seeking to reform Islam into a religion compatible with peace, freedom and justice.  Those reforms must begin with the elimination of apostasy and blasphemy laws, and the U.S. should be supporting those libertarian reforms rather than the oppressive leaders who oppose them;  

            The objective of U.S. foreign policy is to promote U.S. strategic political objectives overseas, and that requires cooperation with other nations that share a commitment to libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  The isolationism and nativism that led to Brexit oppose a politics of reconciliation.  For U.S. foreign policy to achieve its objectives in Islamic cultures it must shift from a policy of military intervention to a policy of containment.

            The military component of a policy of containment in Islamic cultures would rely on military advisors and trainers who can keep a low profile in hostile cultural environments.  That was the original mission of the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam, but the deployment of U.S. combat forces in 1965 transformed a U.S. advisory mission into a U.S. war that was lost.

            The U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq reversed that sequence, with U.S. advisors and trainers following the withdrawal of large deployments of U.S. combat forces.  Perceived as infidels they unwittingly undermined the legitimacy of a U.S. military presence in Islamic cultures.  That will make it difficult for U.S. military advisors and trainers to establish the legitimacy they need for mission success, and make them targets for Islamist terrorists.

            A politics of reconciliation is essential to the legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy and military operations in Islamic cultures, and it will require conforming Islamic standards of legitimacy to those of libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  To that end, U.S. foreign policy should be based on aiding and assisting progressive Muslims who support fundamental human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech.  The elimination of apostasy and blasphemy laws will be the first sign of progress.

Notes and references to related blogs:

On President Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that Al Qaeda and ISIS are radical Islamists, and why it is important to acknowledge the relationship of terrorist violence with radical Islamism, see Ed Rogers at and David Brooks at

On Secretary of State Kerry’s ambivalence on the role of religion in Islamist terrorism, see

On the role of religion in the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, see

See the following related blogs in the Resources at Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, December 29, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015;  Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, March 15, 2015;  The Power of Humility and the Arrogance of Power, March 22, 2015;  May 10, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015;  Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; We Are Known by the Friends We Keep, February 14, 2016; The Relevance of Religion to Politics, April 30, 2016; Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation, May 7, 2016; and The Arrogance of Power, Humility, and a Politics of Reconciliation, May 14, 2016.   


  1. Though immigration is the #1 driver for the "leave" vote on the news reports I have heard, it's worth noting that the economy is #2, and of course those are related; when people feel prosperous (i.e. they have a brainy enough job that it hasn't moved overseas) they are less likely to feel threatened by immigration. The immigrant, Islamic or any kind, is a threat to the "leave" voter or the Trump supporter not (or not only) because he might somehow establish sharia on my block or blow up my bus stop, but because he might (the thinking goes) take my job and/or slurp up the government programs I have funded. I like this article for pointing out that when people ("leave" supporters or Trump supporters) say they want to "be in control again," that can mean that they want to build walls *and* that they want their jobs back--they want to earn their own way. What seemed especially interesting, and depressing, to me here was that the author suggests that (a) the Leave campaign (or Trump, by analogy) does *not* have to try to sell people on a plausibly better future, as most political campaigns have done; and (b) piling on the expert facts is not going to help, because both experts and facts are seen to be the tools of a global elite that has gamed the system (and only Boris Johnson, or Trump, has the guts to speak out against these elitist facts). This makes it harder, for sure, to figure out how such voters might become part of the conversation (by which I mean, I guess, how they might be persuaded to stop supporting crazy people and to put their legitimate grievances on the table). Even if you could show such voters that Egypt and Bangladesh etc. had leaders who embraced moderate Islam and had dropped their apostasy laws, would they vote differently?

  2. The consequences of BREXIT will not be known for years yet, however the security implications may well be the greatest challenges for the UK, the EU and their allies ahead.

    See e.g.,

    The alliances that have helped keep the peace in Europe have been shaken by Britain’s stunning vote.

    Also re-posted at MLR:



  3. BREXIT and Trump represent new chapters in an old story that is still unfolding. It is about the eternal conflict between individual rights/desires and tribalism versus globalization and the ideal to be reconciled with those unlike us. In religious terms it is God's will to reconcile and redeem versus Satan's will to divide and conquer. Unfortunately, Satan does a convincing imitation of God and does some of his best acting in the church and mosque.