Over the past century, neither the bureaucrats at the U.S. State Department nor scholars of foreign relations have ascribed much importance to religion, preferring to look to other motivations in explaining and predicting the behavior of peoples and governments. By ignoring faith, and assuming that the progress of modernity leads inexorably to greater secularization, they have consistently failed to understand the world as it is, argues Charles Hill:
This blinkered view of the world meant that diplomatic analysts could not accurately interpret the emergence, rise, and growth—in fervor and extent—of a radical Islamist movement determined to restore Muslim political-ideological-theological power that had collapsed in 1924 with the end of the Ottoman empire and the caliphate. The sudden violent shift by many supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s goal of a “democratic socialist secular state” toward an extreme Islamist outcome was misinterpreted as no more than further evidence of actions carried out for strictly political purposes by people who had no other avenues of expression.
When Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution overthrew the shah to establish the first Islamist rule over a recognized state in the [modern] international system, Foreign Service specialists on Iran hurried with assurances that nothing of serious religious significance had occurred and that the U.S. could “do business” with what would be just another pragmatic Middle Eastern regime. And when Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, the “political cone” of the U.S. Foreign Service (including this writer) considered it a purely political act carried out in support of the Palestinians.
Not until after the 1993 first Islamist bombing of the World Trade Center did a review of the old videotapes of the Sadat assassination enable diplomats to “see” for the first time that the imprisoned perpetrators were openly declaring the religious inspiration behind their actions. . . . In retrospect, the assassins’ motives become clear—they believed Sadat a tyrant and his murder justified in the name of their religion.
A revised interpretation of the modern centuries reveals an age assumed to be secular, but actually suffused with religious politics and aggressions worldwide—with America as “the leader of the free world” newly comprehensible as acting on an unacknowledged spiritual basis.