Faith in Diplomacy

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image by Christiane Grauert

Whatever one’s view of the Oslo peace process, it is remarkable that the 1993 signing ceremony on the White House lawn did not include benedictions by rabbis, imams, or priests. In an America where religious leaders open sessions of Congress, pray for the success of our armies, and even sometimes pray for fair winds and bless the fleet at yachting regattas, this is passing strange.

The absence of religious content speaks volumes about the assumptions that drive conventional diplomatic wisdom in Washington. Foreign policy professionals instinctively recoil at the notion that religion can or should play an important role in foreign policy. They see it as a “private matter,” according to Tom Farr, former director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom, “properly beyond the bounds of policy analysis and action.”

Far too many American diplomats and think-tank gurus continue to dismiss or, at best, ignore religion as “a tool of statecraft.” They talk about promoting “civil society” but forget that in regions as diverse as the Middle East and South Asia, the largest and most powerful actors in civil society are religious. They assume that a “moderate” Muslim is a less religious Muslim, and that an “Islamist” who believes that Islam should play a role in politics must be in his or her heart a bomb-throwing extremist. They treat religion as a distraction to diplomacy and a threat to global stability.

Academic theories of modernization teach that as societies modernize they irrevocably grow more secular. But the truth is otherwise. Sociologist Peter Berger contends that religious sensibility does not wither in the modern world. Even the State Department, long a bastion of secularist thinking, is beginning to get the picture. In a powerful book written after she left the State Department, former secretary Madeleine Albright effectively offered a mea culpa for ignoring religion while she was in office. And Karen Hughes, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said that President Bush wanted her “to reach out and meet with religious leaders–because faith is such an important part of life for so many Americans and so many people across the world.”

How should we incorporate religion in our foreign policy? First, we must study it. You can’t understand West Bank settlers without understanding the “Greater Israel” theology of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook and his disciples. Nor can you follow Shia politics without an appreciation of the role of the ashura–the commemoration of the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson in the 680 battle of Karbala–as the transformative event in Shia martyrology, or the oft-misunderstood role of the mahdi–the “hidden Imam” expected to bring justice and final judgment to the world–in Shia eschatology. Or how the “puritanism” of 18th-century theologian Mohammed Ibn Abd-al Wahab has affected the Salafi understanding of the Quran.

Only by understanding religion can we mobilize it as a force for reconciliation and as an ally in the search for peaceful solutions. No one can deny the injurious role religious fervor has had in foreign affairs–just think of the Thirty Years’ War and Osama bin Laden. Nonetheless, we know of many examples of how religion can assist in the process of making peace. Consider the Community of Sant’Edigio, which has midwived cease-fires in conflict zones like Mozambique. The Vatican mediated the Argentina-Chile dispute over the Beagle Channel, and evangelical Christians have helped place international religious freedom, AIDS, and global poverty on the major powers’ foreign policy agendas. Jewish groups, for their part, have led the campaign to end the violence in Darfur.

In 2002, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders in the Middle East signed the Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land, committing themselves to the dignity of the individual, whatever his or her religion, and an end to bloodshed. That work is being carried on by groups like Mosaica and the Adam Institute and by other religious leaders such as Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior and Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, founder of the Islamic movement in Israel.

Religious leaders in Jerusalem have formed a Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land to promote not just interfaith dialogue, but also practical advances like access to and protection of holy sites; religious freedom; education for tolerance in mosques, synagogues, and churches; and support for a two-state solution that recognizes the dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians. This nascent enterprise includes religious leaders such as the Latin patriarch, chief rabbis, and Sheikh Taysir Al-Tamimi, head of the Sharia courts of Palestine.

These developments make clear that religious leaders can foster reconciliation in the Middle East and elsewhere. To succeed, any new peace initiative must encompass their efforts. Perhaps this time around we can avoid the religious deficit of so much previous American diplomacy.

Marshall Breger is a professor of law at the Catholic University of America. Reprinted from Moment(Oct.-Nov. 2007), an independent magazine of Jewish politics, culture, and religion. Subscriptions: $27/yr. (6 issues) from 4115 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Suite 102, Washington, DC 20016;

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