In Fighting Radical Islam, Tricky Course for U.S. Aid

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Three years ago, while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kyrgyzstan, Clifford H. Brown came across an idea that he thought could help stem the spread of radical Islam in the Central Asian nation.

The University of Montana had proposed translating Islamic writings from Persian and Arabic into the local Uzbek and Kyrgyz languages. Brown hoped the translations could have a moderating influence at a time when a conservative Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, was expanding its influence in the region.

"Islam has a large body of moderate literature saying, for example, that suicide is a sin against Allah," he later wrote in a paper describing his efforts to fund the initiative. "Not a bad idea, I thought at the time."

But USAID lawyers rejected the proposal, saying that using taxpayer funds would violate a provision in the First Amendment barring the government's promotion of religion. The agency also prohibited Brown from publishing the opinion piece, which laid out his case for the proposal, according to Brown and a senior USAID official. A USAID lawyer said publication of the paper would have violated government restrictions on disclosure of privileged information.

The role of religion in overseas assistance has long been highly sensitive for a country founded on the principle that state and religion should be separate. But as U.S. policymakers seek to curtail the influence of radical Islam, they are being increasingly hamstrung by legal barriers, some experts say.

USAID does provide funds for faith-based organizations -- mostly Christian groups -- in instances in which it says the aid is strictly for secular purposes. But the line between secular and religious is often blurry.

Last week, the USAID inspector general's office raised concerns about the agency spending more than $325,000 to repair four mosques and adjoining buildings in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was once an insurgent hub. USAID argued that most of the money went to repair facilities that provided jobs, social services, food and other basics for the needy. The agency noted that it had withheld payment of more than $45,000 for mosque repairs because the contractor could not demonstrate that the work served a secular purpose.

Still, some scholars say that restrictions on USAID and other American civilian agencies have undercut the United States' ability to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, where Islam plays a central role in public and private life.

Karin von Hippel, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said military commanders have been given much more freedom to fund Islamic causes -- such as rehabilitation of mosques and assistance for religious schools. She argued that U.S. civilian agencies need to be given the same flexibility.

Von Hippel said many officials have simply steered clear of Islamic charities because they do not understand how they function and fear that their careers could be harmed if they inadvertently support an entity that later turns out to be linked to militants. "We can't just sit on our hands, which is what we have been doing for the past eight years," von Hippel said.

At the heart of the debate is a dispute about the intent of the First Amendment's establishment clause, which bars Congress from establishing a state religion or prohibiting the free expression of religious thought. Brown, who served as a USAID lawyer for more than a decade, said he thinks that the First Amendment does not apply to overseas assistance.

"Our legal position is too conservative. We've got a war on terror," Brown said. "The lawyers are concerned about excessive entanglement with religion. Well, we're already entangled."

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