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."
Brown maintains that U.S. efforts to promote democracy and build schools, roads and clinics in the Islamic world will not succeed unless American officials help foster the spread of moderate Islam and its a message of peace.
Gary Winter, USAID's legal counsel, said the agency would never fund any program with a religious purpose. He added, though, that "the legal test goes beyond that to [include] endorsement of religion, indoctrination of religions, excessive entanglement with religion. We have to try to accomplish our secular purpose while still not violating these legal principles."
Winter said there are ways that USAID can provide assistance to Islamic institutions without breaking the law. For instance, he said, the USAID could finance mathematics textbooks or English classes for students in Islamic schools in Afghanistan, while leaving it to others to pay for Koranic studies programs. Or if the agency selected a local religious leader to support an AIDS-prevention program, it could try to minimize the religious content of the charitable work. "If you're talking about sexual behavior, you don't necessarily have to get into the scriptures," he said.
Little USAID funding has gone to Islamic groups in recent years. From 2001 to 2005, more than 98 percent of agency funds for faith-based organizations went to Christian groups, according to figures obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Boston Globe newspaper in 2006. Winter said most of the faith-based groups applying for aid have been Christian. He added that the agency is eager to reach out to Islamic moderates.
Some experts, meanwhile, have urged caution on that front. Jonathan Benthall, an anthropologist at University College London, said there are serious risks of outsiders interfering in the theology of Islam.
He noted that when the U.S. government extended support to guerrillas who opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, money in one case supported a journal promoting militant jihad.
Brown recalled that the agency once learned that a program it had supported in Afghanistan in the 1980s used primary textbooks that dealt with the life and views of the prophet Muhammad.
To highlight the sensitivity of the issue, a senior USAID lawyer pulled an Afghan prayer rug from his safe and showed it to his colleagues, Brown said. A USAID emblem was sewn onto the back.