What Mike Pompeo understands about religion and national security

Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Hill on April 14, 2018.

During Mike Pompeo's confirmation hearing for secretary of State, he showed he is well qualified to lead foreign policy for the United States.

Despite that fact, some senators criticized Pompeo for asking more Muslim organizations to condemn terrorist acts done in the name of Islam. Sen. Cory Booker claimed such statements would hamper his work with “Muslim states on Muslim issues,” and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) criticized him for making this request after the Boston Marathon bombing several years ago. The implication, also made elsewhere, was that Pompeo would not be able to successfully build relationships with Muslims and defend religious freedom for all. This is far from the truth.

As Pompeo made clear in response, people of “each faith” should be treated “equally” and with the “dignity and respect they deserve.” He noted he has worked “closely with Muslim leaders” and “Muslim countries,” and that the CIA had “saved thousands of Muslim lives” under his tenure. Clarifying his comments after the Boston bombing, Pompeo stated that “each human being has an obligation to push back against this extremist use of violence,” and yet Muslim leaders have a unique “opportunity” to do so because they are often seen, rightly, as more “credible” and “trustworthy” (he also praised the Muslims who did condemn the Boston attack).

This response is hardly disqualifying. In fact, it is the correct position to take, and the one which is consistent with worldwide religious freedom for all faiths — including Islam. When Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) asked whether our government should draw attention to the religiously-motivated massacre of the Muslim Rohingya people in Burma, Pompeo fully agreed.

Predictably, his opponents cannot cite one statement Pompeo has made which is inconsistent with protecting human rights for Muslims, and thus they try to tarnish his person. They imply Pompeo is wrong to link Islam with terrorists who clearly and publicly state they are acting in the name of Islam. Yet this shows an alarming head-in-the-sand mentality about the world in which we live — an outlook we should not want our secretary of State to have.

Nor is it an outlook that many Muslims themselves have. A number of American Muslim groups, such as the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, work against violent Islam and call for it to be denounced just like Pompeo has done. Yet some extremist Muslims praise the attacks. After the Boston bombing, the head of one Jordanian extremist group said he was “happy to see the horror in America.” Is Mike Pompeo wrong for wanting to support the former as they work against the latter?

In just the last few months, Saudi Arabia, a long-time cultural exporter of radical Islam, has shown a willingness to recognize its own complicity in promoting that ideology, and to change course for the better. If Saudi Arabian Muslims are willing to work against this ideology, why are Pompeo’s opponents criticizing him for doing the same? Our diplomats must understand religion — not shy away from it — if they are to successfully engage with such partners.

According to the bi-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Although many U.S. government officials and offices acknowledge the importance of religion in the formulation and implementation of U.S. policy in conflict-prone states, a survey of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy reveals that the government as a whole is not proceeding strategically on this issue.” This is a natural result of our current diplomatic training, which has left many policy makers “with a secularist mindset that believes religion is irrational, violent and (fortunately) on the decline.” Many professionals believe they can solve the world’s problems without dealing with religion, or indeed, even by intentionally sidelining it.

The “secularization thesis” which has been driving much of that approach has now been proven wrong, and religion remains a primary identity worldwide. Indeed, recent data shows 84 percent of the world population adhering to a religious identity, and that percentage is only expected to increase in the future.

Whatever else may be said of our foreign policy of the previous decades, it has certainly failed to change the culture and attitude of many radical Muslims around the world while simultaneously empowering moderates — something which is absolutely necessary to long-term security. Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo’s opponents want to criticize him for even drawing attention to the problem.

In his long history of public service, Mike Pompeo has been scrupulous to treat every human being with dignity and respect. His critics should seek to understand this, instead of resorting to personal attacks. They would find that he is a competent and principled person who is well-qualified to fill the role of our chief diplomat, and will seek to unite and serve all of us in representing our common interests on the world stage.