By Mark Siljander; U.S. Congressman (ret)
(Recent editorial published at Veteran’s Today and printed in full below)
When considering our foreign policy in the Islamic world over the last many years, one cannot help but assume that something has gone horribly wrong. Much of the foreign policy strategy, while marketed as a genuine fight against evil, has had little tolerance for influence of the spiritual. The primary way to undermine Muslim radicals and despotic regimes was by hard-line force and spreading democracy. Americans cherish democracy and pray the republican form we have encouraged in Iraq is still vibrant when our troops are long gone.
The problem comes when democracy is perpetuated by any means necessary, including undermining civil liberties and waging war. Force hardens and rarely yields a change of heart. So how do we find the right formula encouraging sustainable democracy, undermining radicalism while finding solutions to seemingly unfathomable conflicts like Darfur in Sudan?
In his inaugural address President Obama set the stage for change when he spoke of seeking “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” His first interview after taking office was with Dubai-based Al Arabiya News. There he reiterated his offers of respect and friendship and spoke of the distinctive spiritual perspective he has gained through his Muslim and Christian family ties. Soon, he will continue this message by speaking with the Turkish people.
Obama is poised to use his unique background to incite hope. As he treads carefully in the fault lines between East and West he would be helped to acknowledge that “respect” in the Islamic world must include addressing the religious/spiritual heart of Muslims. Spirituality is infused in every aspect of Eastern culture and politics. It is a critical starting point in foreign policy engagement that has been absent from official US positions.
Many in the last administration found it difficult to accept this “spiritual track”, believing that sitting with our enemies, sharing a meal, praying together and discussing spiritual common ground could never lead to anything substantive and consider it “appeasement.” In spite of those who treat anything of faith as worthless and unsophisticated, my experience proves that this approach does go a long way in first building trust, which lays the foundation for a roadmap to peace, consistently invoking tangible results. Regrettably I fear the Obama Administration is being sucked into the same mistaken path on Darfur/Sudan as the last one.
Who am I to make such suggestions? During and after my official roles as US Congressman and diplomat I visited nearly 130 countries over 28 years and met some of the best and most despotic leaders of modern times. In early 1999, a friend and I visited Libyan leaders and prayed with them. Ten days later Gaddafi released the terrorists who blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. We continued a successful “spiritual track” with Gaddafi’s regime for several years encouraging a remarkable change of heart. Then in 2001 we engaged Saddam’s regime who ironically was very open to diplomatic relations. After visiting Iraq I warned the Bush Administration, and in particular, VP Cheney of the unnecessary need of going to war, suggesting rapprochement beginning with the “spiritual track.” My effort fell on deaf ears and ended in personal veiled threats. In 2007 I was asked by the Korean Government to use the “spiritual track” to get Korean missionaries taken hostage by the Taliban released. That ended much like Iraq and I was asked by a top Bush State department official to immediately disengage. I complied, but thankfully, others used this “spiritual track” for ultimate release of the hostages.
Finally, I witnessed very definitive progress towards peace in Darfur after fourteen trips to Sudan, repeatedly praying with President Bashir and engaging in the “spiritual track” with his regime over eighteen months. This ended in January 2008 when I was indicted by the US Justice Department on five charges related to working with US Muslims. The ensuing inaccurate publicity so exaggerated and horribly misrepresented the situation, that my efforts for faith-based peace in Sudan were undermined.
I know firsthand that the “spiritual track” works, at very least it is like inserting yeast in bread when included with traditional approaches to conflict resolution. With the entire world watching and 2.5 million displaced Muslims of Darfur desperately seeking peace, President Obama has the opportunity to turn the tables, venturing to shift years of misguided direction. He can combine his policy of “respect” with what he already instinctively embraces, producing a “spiritual track”; the new face of America’s peacemaking strategies that can and will succeed.