Since September 11, in spite of the rhetoric on how the world has been transformed, U.S. foreign policy has approached the Islamic world and the war on terrorism as little more than old wine in new wine skins. During the Cold War, U.S. scholars and policymakers asked why people become communists. Now they ask why people become religious terrorists, extremists, and fundamentalists. What is so striking is that the solutions scholars give to this national security problem today is similar to the ones they proposed a half-century ago – more foreign aid to promote liberal democracy and free market capitalism. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) has been bold enough to call this policy “funding virtue,” even though scholars and policymakers have largely ignored the role of virtue or religion in sustaining democracy and development. The closest the United States has come to recognizing the role of virtue and religion in foreign policy is to promote religious freedom through the Office of International Religious Freedom created in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

Our attempts to rebuild failed states or collapsing states to improve U.S. national security by promoting a free-market model of economic development, and a liberal, secular, democratic model of political development inevitably unleashes disruptive forces of social change. Such forces not only can contribute to policy failure or distorted development – the concern of development economists — but also to political instability and revolution. Yet another byproduct, as we have tragically discovered in recent years, has been terrorism and religious extremism.

Even before the Iraq debacle we should have known that authenticity needed to accompany development. Successful development, no matter how it is defined, can only occur if social, political, and economic change corresponds with the moral basis of a society, with its cultural and religious tradition. We should have learned this tragic lesson with the failure of modernization and development in the late 1960s, and the return to a U.S. concern for what Samuel Huntington famously called “political order” rather than democracy.The elevation of order over democracy contributed to a consolidation of authoritarian regimes, which in turn generated revolutionary upheavals in Latin America and the rise of liberation theology. Certainly, we should have known with the failure of modernization and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Shah’s Iran – one of the most dramatic examples of blowback in U.S. foreign policy.

However, the role of religion is still dismissed by most U.S. scholars and policy-makers as simply a feature of anomie, alienation, and incomplete modernization. The political science profession similarly dismissed Walker Connor’s concern for nationalism – until, of course, they discovered it again, dramatically, after 1989. The activities of radical Islamists and terrorists, Francis Fukuyama reassuringly wrote after September 11, are only “rearguard actions” by disaffected individuals or social groups in “retrograde” parts of the world threatened by modernization and globalization. Once they are sorted out – with more foreign aid, nation building, and the use of military force – peace, democracy, and free markets can continue to spread around the world.

The liberal or left-wing critics of the foreign policy establishment also still refuse to take seriously the impact of religion on foreign affairs. September 11, for example, is simply lumped together with a variety of other gripes over U.S. foreign policy. Muslims don’t rebel as Muslims – in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria, or Pakistan. Rather, according to the left, Muslims rebel for the same reason as anybody else – economic deprivation, political exclusion, and oppression. The violence of Muslim extremists is simply a response to the state’s violent repression, states that are often close allies of the United States. Religion – in this case Islam – is simply a discourse to mobilize the oppressed masses for collective struggles. However, this argument does not explain why the political response is an Islamist or religious one. It does not account for how the power of the appeal — its authority, authenticity, legitimacy, and potential for mass mobilization — comes from Islam, and not secularism, nationalism, Marxism, or liberalism.

Thus, the Islamic resurgence is dismissed as simply an unintended, indefensible, consequence of U.S. foreign policy, which has left us less secure than before and discredited America’s leadership in the world. The much-vaunted “return of the realists” in U.S. foreign policy (what in Washington circles passes for “wisdom” in foreign policy) gives credence to the view that what the United States really seeks now, like it did during the Cold War, is political order rather than democracy. It wants stable, pro-American allies rather than democrats in the developing world – in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia that today put down Islamists like they used to put down communists – allegedly to promote democracy. In some ways it is all so familiar, and depressingly so.

However, something is going on that is more complex regarding meaning, authenticity, social change, and development that cannot be explained away by right-wing theorists of modernization or left-wing critics of capitalism and globalization. We cannot continue to promote democracy and development by simply re-inventing for the twenty-first century the failed and destabilizing policies of the last century. We’ve been there and done that. So what do we do now?

Taking religion seriously

Few contemporary social theorists have taken other religious, cultural, and social traditions as seriously as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He is one of the main scholars responsible for the modern revival of the virtue-ethics tradition that goes back to Aristotle and Aquinas. Many people in our day have become disillusioned with parts of the Enlightenment project. It appears that appeals to reason, self-interest, or even the common good by realists or liberals in foreign policy are not sufficient to produce the good society or even a more peaceful world.

MacIntyre helps us to take religion seriously – to explain religion rather than to simply to explain it away. He shows us that religion is a type of social tradition, with a corresponding set of virtues and practices historically extended and socially embodied in living faith communities around the world.

MacIntyre’s virtue-ethics approach is central to any refashioning of U.S. foreign policy and any approach to terrorism. Contrary to what the Enlightenment taught us, values, norms, virtues, and moral judgments – such as, what is good, what is justice, or what is a duty, are not simply freestanding moral statements or propositions. Rather, as MacIntyre explains, the meaning of values and norms is shaped by the linguistic conventions of a community and is inseparable from the community’s religious tradition. Morality and rationality are tradition-dependent, and cannot be detached from the traditions and communities through which most people in the world live out their moral and social lives.

Many political scientists, for example, now doubt the wars in Kosovo or the Balkans were “religious conflicts,” since the fighting was not over ideas or religious doctrines; political elites simply used religion to manipulate the masses. However, this analysis is based on a modern, verbal, and propositional concept of religion as simply a body of ideas, and does not recognize the way that religion – yes, ideas, but also practices, rituals, and symbols — are all part of the larger cultural and linguistic formulation of meaning for the individuals in their communities. The wars in former Yugoslavia certainly involved different cultural interpretations of what it meant to be Serb, Croat, Bosnian, and so on. Only in this way can we properly understand the role of religion in the Balkan wars.

Similarly, the Rand Corporation is frustrated by the way it says religion is “simultaneously so deeply interwoven into other sources of violence” such as ethnicity, economics, ideology, and territory. The virtue-ethics approach can explain why these elements are so deeply connected and, incidentally, why religion is also so deeply interwoven with sources of peace and cooperation. It also offers a richer, narrative conception of human identity, one that shows how religious traditions shape identity, thought, and experiences in religious communities around the world.

Virtue and democracy

After more than a decade of programs to promote democracy the CEIP acknowledges that a foreign aid policy by USAID and the EU that supports a narrow range of NGOs favored by the West — and fits the accepted, secular, rational, pluralistic, interest-group model of democracy — is not the same as supporting democracy or civil society. Organizations with the deepest roots in the local community were often those based on affective ties, such as religion or ethnicity, and are an inextricable part of its associational life in developing countries.

Most Western donors, for instance, did not consider how Muslim associations in Bosnia, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, might informally empower women, and thus be part of the expansion of civil society because they were based on religion. In Bosnia, the EU overlooked Muslim women’s groups because they did not meet its inclusive criteria promoting gender equality and multi-ethnicity. However, given the divisiveness of gender and religion in the war, organizations based on gender or religion were often the only way to support some of these women, and to help them rebuild their lives.In Egypt, similarly, Western funding and conceptions of civil society missed the crucial role of the grassroots women’s piety movement in the mosques of Cairo. Here, for many educated middle class women, what is ethical, religious, and political are intimately connected to the virtues, practices, and discourses of the Islamic tradition.In Turkey, more generally, cultural and religious beliefs, local practices, and a vast array of Islamic social networks and associations provide the grassroots support for the Justice and Development Party, the latest in a series of Islamic-based political parties. In the Arab and the broader Islamic world a concept of civil society that excludes religious groups is questionable since religion and tradition are deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life, and they remain some of the oldest and most important groups in civil society.

The problem is not only that Western donors have adopted a liberal, secular, conception of civil society that ignores religion in society. We do not have to give a green light to the Taliban, and forget about women’s empowerment or religious freedom in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Islamic world, nor do we throw our hands up and simply recognize that promoting democracy can also promote sectarian ethnic or religious divisions.

The problem is with the pluralist, interest group model of liberal democracy adopted by aid agencies and Western donor governments. Many political scientists now argue that this model even in the West has paralyzed the best-intentioned public officials, stifling attempts to improve government programs and distorting policy outcomes. The greatest goodies (in Robert Putnam’s words) go to the rich, the well connected, or the best organized. This is hardly a model for export, but we haven’t known what else to do. We are now reaping the consequences – political instability, repression, sectarian violence, and growing religious extremism and terrorism, and this has brought the realists back to power in U.S. foreign policy.

It might be argued that the neo-conservatives, at least on a rhetorical level, did take religion and democracy very seriously. The problem is that they did so in deeply contradictory ways. Neo-conservatives were wildly optimistic about the prospects of spreading democracy in the Middle East – which for them, at least initially, simply meant the spread of the pluralist, interest group model of liberal democracy. They had a universalistic conception of Western values and institutions that marginalized religion, and ignored local culture, history, and politics. Recall that right after the Iraqi invasion, Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, told NPR’s Terri Gross their would not be any sectarian violence since “Iraq has always been pretty secular.” In contrast, their “theo-conservative” compatriots in the Christian Right were, and still are, far more skeptical of Islam, and believe that the West really is facing a clash of civilizations with the Islamic world.

A virtue-ethics approach to democracy promotion recognizes the limitations of the pluralist, interest-group model of liberal democracy. As our founding forebearers knew and many modern scholars have ignored, it is not enough to simply establish the observable structures or procedures of liberal democracy. A liberal polity requires individual virtue, virtuous citizens. It requires an on-going debate and dialogue about the moral life and the public purpose of our life together. However, there is nothing about this dialogue that has to violate the separation of church or religion and state, as the early dissenting churches knew so well.

Virtue-ethics first asks what kind of people we should become as a nation, a society, or a community. It recognizes the key role of debate within religious traditions and communities about identity, authenticity, and the moral life for democratic governance. During the civil rights struggle, for example, Martin Luther King, in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” had to convince other black pastors that non-violence and passive resistance were a legitimate, Christian response to racism and segregation in the South. The debate in Egypt in the 1980s, which led the Muslim Brotherhood to break with Islamic Jihad and Jama’a al Islamiyya, was over the status theologically of the Egyptian state (jahiliyyah) and if this meant it could be legitimately overthrown. Unfortunately, U.S. policy toward Egypt has refused to recognize the way the theo-political debate could be part of the broader struggle to build civil society and democracy, and has silently endorsed the government’s repression instead.

In other words, the truthfulness of religious convictions cannot be separated from the debate over civil society and democracy, and the kind of community that a church, a mosque, or a temple is trying to become. The “good” of the Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist religious tradition is the formation of a particular kind of “community of character,” one that inculcates in its members those virtues and practices necessary for living authentically according to that particular tradition. All too often when the struggle to build democracy is not part of the same struggle to build a community of character, the result is violence, repression, sectarian division, and terrorism.

Therefore, a virtue-ethics approach to democracy promotion recognizes that the idea of building civil society in other countries is part of a country’s debate over modernization and Westernization. Civil society is not a value-free, mechanistic, or technical way for Western donor governments and aid agencies to promote freedom, democracy, or development. The debate over civil society is part of the struggle over authenticity, development, and globalization now taking place throughout the developing world.

Authenticity and development

The virtue-ethics tradition reminds us that poor communities in developing countries are most often communities of faith, often trying to become under the most difficult circumstances more faithful communities. The issues faith communities must deal with in the developing world are complex, and include gender and reproductive issues, HIV/AIDS, poverty, usury, interest, money-lenders, corruption, inter-faith relations, and good governance. Insofar as religion can be a source of positive social capital – and the social connections and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them — it is through the collective attempt by a faith community to live out the moral life together.

In Muslim countries, faith-based NGOs can help to build communities of character by engaging with clerics and ordinary believers in debate and dialogue over social policy and the “goods” of the Islamic tradition. If the World Bank or developmental NGOs want to support female education or family planning in Muslim countries, for example, a virtue-ethics approach is an alternative to appeals to economic rationality, efficiency, or a secular liberal creed of pluralism and political equality. The Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB) devised an educational program to look at the role of family planning in Islam with a target audience of clerics, students, and opinion leaders. The association of young Islamic women (Fatayat) and the Women’s Welfare Association in Indonesia, which are both connected to the Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim association, have developed similar programs.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka uses the social practices of Buddhism as a part of the moral formation of faith communities dedicated to helping those in poor villages. Buddhist monks, like the black preachers in the American South, organize public meetings in the local temples to discuss a variety of development problems – disaster management, bio-diversity, environmental conservation, or anything else the villagers say are necessary to meet their basic needs. At the heart of the Sarvodaya Village Development movement is moral formation, and not just economic activity and social empowerment. The aim is to change the conceptual and psychological aspects of society, through the unfolding of people’s inward capacities for sharing and their desire to help others in the community. These inward changes can help villagers overcome their sense of fear and powerlessness, and gain the strength necessary to solve the problems of poverty in their own way.

Reorienting U.S. Foreign Policy

A virtue-ethics approach to foreign policy is concerned with the ways the United States can assist faith-based NGOs overseas. U.S. policy should also contribute directly to the capacity-building of churches, mosques, and temples in faith communities in developing countries to become the kind of communities of character that can generate the social capital necessary for social change and development.

If the United States did make these new funding choices, however, wouldn’t that simply delegitimize the particular group or organization we supported, and undercut its indigenous authenticity? Actually, this depends on what is done and how it is done. The World Bank, for example, is happy to have partnerships with faith-based NGOs on a development agenda it has already set since these NGOs provide the most efficient delivery of services. But it hardly wants faith-based groups to speak truth to power, to set the development agenda, or criticize the World Bank for the way it does things.

A virtue-ethics approach to foreign policy is not starry-eyed about the virtues of community. Communities are rarely homogeneous, and chronic poverty often exists because some social groups are adversely incorporated into the community. There will always be the problem of the bias of indigenous elites, the demands of one religious sect or group over another, or one theological interpretation over another when trying to assess community preferences. It is now often said – almost to the point of becoming a cliché — that a clash within Islam exists rather than between Islam and the West, that there is a “war for Muslim minds,” and that moderates and extremists exist within every religious tradition.

However, any kind of foreign aid to promote democracy or development is a type of foreign intervention in another country. These kinds of interventions by their very nature are disruptive, and raise unavoidable questions about the values, power, stability, and social change in these societies, and do so in ways that also often lead to concerns over international security. The United States, for example, has intervened in Mali as part of the Pentagon’s Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorist Initiative. This has encouraged young, reformist, Muslim intellectuals, often trained in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, to take leadership roles in new, Islamic, community-based organizations. They are intent on spreading what they considered to be a purer, less Malian, less indigenous form of Islam – hardly what the United States intended.

A virtue-ethics approach must therefore link inter-faith relations and community development. It offers the only possible constructive, long-term way to handle the disruptions of social change caused by development. For the United States it offers a way to intervene with integrity into the debate, dialogue, and disputes taking place within religious traditions in other countries over the relevance of the values, beliefs, and goals of their tradition for democracy, development, and authentic modernization. It does this by identifying and developing a community dialogue over shared social practices that are a part of particular religious and cultural traditions, such as charity (zakat in Islam), hospitality, social healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and the virtues necessary to sustain them, to build the kind of community of character necessary for sustainable development on a range of issues – HIV/Aids, education health care, peace-building, reconciliation. This is a kind of rooted cosmopolitanism, which points to common virtues and practices in different religious traditions, rather than to the alleged universalism of Western values based on the rationality of the Enlightenment. Such a foreign aid policy seeks to support and cultivate them as part of the community’s collective attempt to live out the moral life according to its religious tradition.

Virtue-ethics can help make realizable what Joseph Nye has famously called soft-power resources for U.S. foreign policy. The point of virtue-ethics is not get other countries to do what we want – through the coercive use of hard power, but to help others to become the kind of people their religious tradition says they should, to build the kind of community of character consistent with their authentic development and modernization. Helping others to live a life of integrity is not only good; in the long term it is really the only way to make a more peaceful world.

How shall we then live?

International politics is a social world of ideas, values, beliefs, and passions, as well as a material world of guns, missiles, battleships, trade, and industrial production. The U.S. national interest and national security are not objective realities that are simply out there waiting to be grasped by realistic politicians or policy-makers who simply have do their best to protect the country in a dangerous world. What these concepts mean is not preordained, nor do they drop from the sky. You and I socially construct the U.S. national interest in debate, discussion, protest, and social action over the kind of people we want to be as a nation, and the kind of world we want to help construct along with other peoples and other countries.

In the same way, the modern tradition of virtue-ethics is concerned about our life together, the kind of communities we help to create at home and abroad. This distinction has become less meaningful now because of the way trade, immigration, and globalization have facilitated the spread of ethnic or religious diaspora communities around the world, and this is why multi-faith relations and religious pluralism are increasingly important issues in domestic and international politics.

The virtue-ethics approach is so vital today because it takes seriously the religious dimension of foreign affairs – it links the key questions about identity, meaning, and purpose in our own country to similar debates in other countries and communities. This is crucial since disruptive types of social change inevitably accompany the promotion of democracy and development. Only a virtue-ethics approach to foreign policy, one which constantly probes who we are, who we are becoming as country and as community, and what this means for the decisions we make in foreign policy, can we avoid blowback in the future as we engage the world in the 21st century.


  1. Gabriel Almond, The Appeals of Communism (Princeton, 1954); Gabriel Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World (Chicago, 2002).
  2. Donal Cruise O’Brien, “Stability, order, and the erosion of the democratic ideal: American political science 1960-1970,” Journal of Development Studies, 8, 4 (1972): 351-378.
  3. Daniele Conversi (ed.), Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World: Walker Connor and the Study of Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2002).
  4. Mohammed M. Hafez, Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World, Foreword by Fred Halliday (Lynne Reinner, 2003).
  5. David Herbert, “After Genocide: Religion and Civil Society in Bosnia,” in David Herbert, Religion and Civil Society: Rethinking Public Religion in the Contemporary World (London: Ashgate, 2003), 229-264.
  6. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Herbert (2003), 229-264 and 265-290.
  7. Jenny B. White, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study of Vernacular Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).
  8. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 340.
  9. Christopher Candland, “Faith as social capital: Religion and community development in Southern Asia,” in John D. Montgomery and Alex Inkeles (eds.), Social Capital as a Policy Resource (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers/Pacific Basin Research Center, Soka University of America, 2001), 129-148.
  10. George D. Bond, Buddhism at Work: Community Development, Social Empowerment, and the Sarvoyada Movement (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2004).
  11. Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  12. David Gutelius, “War on Terror and Social Networks in Mali,” ISIM Review, 17 Spring 2006 (Netherlands, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World), 38-39.
  13. Mitchell Cohn, “Rooted Cosmopolitanism,” in Nicolaus Mills (ed.), Legacy of Dissent: Forty Years of Writing from Dissent Magazine (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 131-140.
Scott M. Thomas lectures in international relations and the politics of developing countries in the department of European Studies and the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath, United Kingdom. His most recent book is The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, 2005).

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