Acton Institute Powerblog

Foreign aid pays for Muslim imams to preach the government’s message

All government spending contains items that could best be described as “surreal.” In that category, a Western foreign aid program paid researchers to insert material into the sermons of Muslim imams.

The UK allocated £795,463 in taxpayer funds ($1.1 million U.S.) for imams to preach about the dangers of second-hand smoke.

Researchers gave anti-smoking talking points to the Islamic religious leaders of 45 mosques in the Mirpur area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the hopes of reducing indoor smoking. “These messages will be worded within the mainstream Islamic discourse, using faith-based decrees on addiction, hygiene, health promotion, self-harm and inflicting harm to others, and sanctity of human life,” the grant stated.

The London-based Institute of Economic Affairs drew attention to this grant in its 60-page report titled “Nanny State On Tour.”

Instead of bootleggers and Baptists, this policy conundrum connects Muslims and the Marlboro Man. Bangladesh already has a ban on indoor smoking in most public places, but citizens refused to comply due to “existing social attitudes.” (There is a broader lesson here that applies to other nanny state programs and gun control laws.)

This kind of government tampering in religious doctrine is not confined to the UK, nor to this instance. In 2012, the Barack Obama’s State Department trained 450 imams on the “compatibility of women’s rights and Islam.”

It likely aids the West’s security little to verify Islamist allegations that Western governments dictate their content of some imams’ sermons. And, of course, if the West wanted to alter the practices of some Muslim communities, there might be more pressing concerns than indoor smoking.

The IEA emphasized that this and other foreign aid programs were not worth the opportunity cost of providing emergency food, clothing, and medical supplies. “In the world’s most impoverished countries, a small amount of money can have an enormous impact,” said the study’s author, Mark Tovey. Choosing to fund “expansive, nanny-state projects instead of targeted and effective programs costs lives.”

But there’s a far deeper principle at work here: Should the government funding influence any religious figure to alter the content of his sermons? Who will be wielding this power? And which clergy will be on the take?

True, the taxpayer funding does not flow directly to the imams; nonetheless, foreign aid dollars impacted the content of sermons in religious services. “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He was speaking about state funding of a church (specifically, the Episcopal church). One can only imagine his thoughts about funding Bangladeshi imams to preach against tobacco.

Should this precedent stand, what messages might modern-day politicians try to bring into Christian churches in the name of “public health”?

It would not be difficult to see an administration that funds abortion allege that abortion is healthier than pregnancy for the woman and/or the environment, but “existing social attitudes” slow its use. (In this case, the “existing social attitudes” would be the Christian faith’s unbroken, 2,000-year-old teaching on the sanctity of human life.) This is especially true if the administration is advised by a population control fanatic who believes that “laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing constitution.”

Or perhaps an administration could declare that homophobia, like “white supremacy,” is a public health crisis and pay clerics to change the mainstream Christian teachings on sexual morality and complementarity within marriage.

Before you laugh off this possibility, recall that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on the campaign trail that “religious beliefs” that oppose abortion or same-sex marriage “have to be changed.” The indirect funding mechanism may pass constitutional muster with a newly packed Supreme Court. The last several Democratic administrations have shown little scruple over spending money on unconstitutional undertakings. (So have the last few Republican administrations.)

People of all backgrounds should support the separation of mosque and state. And religious leaders entrusted with sharing God’s message must never substitute the talking points of the secular government for the Word of God.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.