A few years ago, I was strolling through the Iranian city of Isfahan when I happened upon a group of teenagers sharing a picnic along the banks of the Zayandeh River. I sat with them for a cup of tea and a smoke from a water pipe perched in the middle of the circle. Catching my accented Persian, one of them asked where I lived.
"I live in America," I replied.
The conversation suddenly came to a halt. A girl of 17 leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "What is it like to live in a theocratic state?"
That a young person living in the only country in the world in which the religious leaders are also the political authorities could believe, in all earnestness, that the United States has become a theocracy should be all the evidence Americans need that the so-called war on terror has corrupted America's image abroad. From the moment U.S. President George W. Bush launched what he called "a crusade" against "evil-doers," there has been a growing sense, not just in the Muslim world but among even our closest allies, that U.S. foreign policy is being filtered through an unprecedented union of religious and political ideology. That impression has been strengthened recently by disturbing revelations of proselytizing and religious harassment by evangelical Christian faculty at U.S. military academies.
Although politicians can perhaps be forgiven for using religiously tinged language to appeal to Americans' innate sense of moral righteousness, it bears noting that the United States is embroiled in a global conflict with an enemy whose primary goal is to convince the world that the war on terror is in fact a crusade against Islam. Seven years of inflammatory, Manichaean rhetoric about "good and evil" from the White House has only validated that view. It has allowed America's enemies to frame the scope and supposed meaning of the current conflict against Islamist terrorism.
The next American president must, in both word and deed, aggressively work to strip the war on terror of the overt religious connotations forced upon it by reckless politicians. A reversal of public rhetoric is not the only necessity, but also the swift and public condemnation of those who dare to promote a religious agenda in this global conflict, such as members of the U.S. military (like Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who has called the war on terror a "spiritual battle" against a "guy called Satan"), politically influential religious leaders (such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy, who publicly called Islam "an evil and wicked religion"), and polarizing politicians (such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, who recently suggested bombing Mecca and Medina).
It goes without saying that in a war of ideas -- which, make no mistake, is what we are fighting -- our most potent weapons are our words. In a conflict as charged with religious fanaticism as this, even the appearance of religious motivation can have disastrous consequences. Just ask Osama bin Laden. "Bush left no room for doubts," he announced a few years ago. "He stated clearly that this war is a Crusader war.... The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouths." And when bin Laden agrees with you, it’s time to rethink the message.