Before my tour in Kyrgyzstan, in late 2000 I was helping out temporarily in the USAID General Counsel's office where I had worked previously for 12 years. I had left Bogota', Colombia, where I had served as the Deputy USAID Director; I was waiting for language training to start prior to my new assignment. GC was working then on responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Omaha Herald Tribune, which had asked for all documentation related to the cross border program of assistance to the mudjhadeen in Afghanistan, made more famous in the amazing book and (less amazing) movie, Charlie Wilson's War. This program had been managed long distance, from DC and Pakistan, and involved substantial flows of resources, through several levels of grants and subgrants, putting money into the hands of, among others, primary school teachers in Afghanistan. As we examined the documentation, GC learned to its horror that some of the primary textbooks dealt with the life and views of the Prophet Mohammed. Such is primary education in that part of the world. At one point, the head of the litigation department of GC, one John Scales, pulled a prayer rug out of his safe which had a USAID emblem duly marked on it, as required still for commodities financed by USAID. Once again, as we had done in the 70's, the briefs were prepared, saying essentially, "So what?" this is foreign assistance. If you find yourself swimming in a sea of Islam, you cannot avoid dealing directing with the content of the religion." Once again the matter was not litigated. I have no clue if this material was actually turned over to the Omaha newspaper, but to my knowledge it never made the mainstream press. The General Counsel, one John Garner, and Mr. Scales were intensely worried about the publicity that might come from it. I went into Russian language studies at FSI and have never learned the outcome.
After my tour in Kyrgyzstan, I found myself again in Washington, waiting for my Africa assignment to start. Since I was assigned to the Africa Bureau, I attended several meetings with DOD representatives to discuss assistance that might eventually go into Somalia. Once again, as I had done for well over a decade, I raised the issue of legal restrictions on religious assistance. In one meeting, a Pentagon special forces representative made the statement that this was one area where it would perhaps be more appropriate to use the Jesuit School of Management: seek forgiveness later, if necessary, rather than advance permission. A USAID staff member who had served in a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq told me he knew perfectly well that the U.S. Army was helping moderate Moslem clerics in Iraq to spread their messages, claiming in one instance that we had financed the construction of a mosque. It was no surprise to me that different parts of the USG could have such different approaches.
In fairness to the USAID General Counsel's (GC) office, and the State and DOJ lawyers who apparently agree with them, I know they are complying with the law as they understand it, and also are trying to provide flexibility to the agency. A program in Senegal, supported by P.L. 480 financing, expressly targets the informal Islamic schools in the north, and only Islamic schools are involved. But rather than use the original proposed title, "Islamic Schools Program", it was relabeled the "Vulnerable Schools Program" simply to avoid the appearance of aiding Islam. The program provides material that has no religious content whatsoever, and thus fails to address the most important part of an Islamic education. GC has also asked the Justice Department to clarify the law in this area, and Justice has declined. But a request from another agency's legal office has less motivational force than such a request would have if it came from, for example, the White House or the National Security Council.
In October of 2008, I attended a worldwide USAID mission directors' conference in Arlington, and again made my pitch -- that we should reexamine our legal restrictions. At the time, a senior State Department representative responded that the Department was already helping moderate Islamic clerics spread their religious message. It has long been clear to me that the restrictions self-imposed on USAID are not taken as seriously by the other government agencies involved. Yet, USAID is the best and most appropriate agency to delivery "soft assistance", and we could easily provide a host of tools to moderate Islam that would help them convey their moderate, but religious, messages. But we will not do this if we continue to limit ourselves to material that has no religious content.
Helping moderate Islam promote religious views, abundant in the Koran, to the effect that suicide and killing innocents are not sanctioned by Allah, would not be a threat to the free exercise of religion in the United States. Even if earlier legal opinions concerning application of the First Amendment to foreign assistance are well founded, they should be reexamined in light of current facts the clear entanglement with religion, part of which is producing terrorists that we already fight with other, less effective means than openly promoting the moderate version of Islam. This is essential if we are to fight the war where it matters most in the minds and religious opinions of the enemy and the pious children it recruits daily.