Northwestern professor debunks myths on U.S. Foreign Policy

February 22, 2018

Contrary to what many people may think, U.S. intervention on foreign soil usually does involve bringing economic, religious, and political change to align the countries with U.S. interests, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a Northwestern professor of political science and religious studies, said during a lecture at NU-Q.
Hurd reinforced this claim by introducing and refuting three myths on how U.S. foreign policy intersects with religious interventionism.

In introducing Hurd, NU-Q Professor Zachary Wright said that she “speaks insightfully about the ways in which the continued public importance of religious identities has necessitated the readjustment of secularizing political discourses.”

The three myths, Hurd cited, were that the U.S. promotes religious freedom in other countries; the return of religion to international relations has fixed a long-standing problem in which religion has been ignored; and religious affiliations are predictors for political behavior.

Hurd stated that these ideas frame most U.S. and European national discussions of religion among scholars, journalists, policy makers, and the general public.

“We often hear that the international community, as well as the U.S., is working to stand out forces of intolerance by promoting religious freedom and tolerance, and by fighting religious violence,” she said, “But, I’m going to tell a very different story.”

On promoting free religion, Hurd explained that the U.S.’s intervention in religious freedom is a tactic used to shape the political and economic fields in other countries. “We may think of religious freedom as something good, a staple norm, or something everyone is aspiring to; however, this type of interventionism is a form of governance,” said Hurd.

On the second myth, Hurd explained that the idea of requiring a “flourishing free religion” to liberate societies from oppression, violence, and economic deprivation, is rooted in U.S. international relations as a way to get countries to support American objectives.

“While many scholars will tell you the return to religion fixed long-standing problems, this is only partially the case – things have changed but religion always mattered. It was never absent and was always present in different ways, including in countries that describe themselves as secular,” Hurd stated. 

The final myth – using religion to predict political behavior – Hurd said is “super problematic because religious affiliation does not predict political behavior. It is absolutely sociologically untenable to make this claim.”  

In concluding her lecture, Hurd pointed out the importance of understanding how these myths are affecting people’s understanding of religious freedom, and the ways in which they are shaping political agendas worldwide. 

“I am weary of the ‘essentialization’ of world religions,” she said, “including, but not limited to, Islam. I think it’s dangerous to presume a religion causes people to do things in a simplistic cause and effect model, and it’s dangerous to think that some religions are more prone to a certain type of politics than others. It distracts us from the complex causes of violence and discrimination, and the complex causes of peace and co-existence.” 

Hurd’s lecture at NU-Q was part of a series of lectures designed by faculty to complement its NU-Q’s minor in Middle East Studies.

Hurd is a professor of religio­­­us studies and political science at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She also directs the Buffett Faculty Research Group on Global Politics & Religion, co-directs a graduate certificate program in Religion & Global Politics, and is a core faculty member of the Middle East and North Africa Program.