Let's Talk about Religion

Dr. Chris Seiple on why religion needs to be treated as a real factor for analysis by foreign policymakers.
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July 11, 2013
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Dr. Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement, works with governments and religious leaders to promote freedom of conscience and participation in the public sphere for people of all faiths. We spoke to Dr. Seiple about why foreign policymakers are still tiptoeing around the topic of religion, what it will take for that to change, and how the United States has the power to create space for talking about religion, if only it would use it.

In a 2012 article for Foreign Affairs, you challenged the view that Americans don’t want religion in the public square, and argued that Washington was leaving the faithful behind. Do policymakers have a blind spot when it comes to religion in public life?

Yes. The first reason has to do with how we treat religion in our culture. We don’t talk about religion and politics together, which means we’re not inclined to go analyze religion in realpolitik or International Relations. The second reason is that the news media generally tells us the bad news about religion ­– when it comes up, it’s as part of the problem, and if it’s part of the problem, how can it be part of the solution?

So you have two things working against you: a lack of awareness of situations where religion and faith are actually acting as catalysts for peace in global affairs; and a mental, subconscious block that prevents you from gaining that awareness – from even considering the possibility that religion and faith can be positive factors in politics. This mental bloc is what we need to overcome.

Do you think that’s possible?

I’m an optimist. I think it’s harder in the West to do this because we grow up in an environment of de facto secular fundamentalism. Until recently, if you went to a graduate or undergraduate school of repute, you did not talk about religion in any shape or form. That's beginning to change because of the reality on the ground in so many places like the Middle East, but it’s going to take time. It will take people fluent in both languages – religious and secular; people with degrees in international relations who take their own faith and the faith of others seriously; and people who are willing to allow for the possibility that religion can contribute to the common good. Changing the current mindset begins with education and it will take a generation.

Do you think religious literacy should be taught in foreign policy schools in the United States?

Absolutely. Not religion as proselytism, but as a real factor that can contribute to the well being of society. We need to be having amoral discussions about religion.

A religious community is a trust network. If the religious leaders of a community say something is good, most folks will follow them. In Nigeria, people will listen to their imam or their pastor about the need to use malaria nets before they listen to their government. When the leaders of the network validate something positive, it can change things for the better. The opposite can also happen, when people are manipulated to believe something negative.

But if 84 percent of the world believes in something greater than themselves, even if we might not agree with it or its effects, we must allow for that fact. Religion permeates all sectors of life. It’s not something we can put in a box or ignore, but it’s also not a panacea or something that should dominate our analysis.

Is there a framework for analyzing religion that you think would help the foreign policy community start engaging with issues related to religion?

You could think about the issues anthropologically, which requires the most nuance and patience, therefore making it the least likely to gain ground with policymakers.

As a former Marine Corps officer and ongoing student of strategy, I would look to the concept of grand strategy. That construct simply says that you must use all means possible to pursue peace. Sometimes grand strategy gets reduced to just the military action, the response or preemptive measures, but war and the military is really only one element.  

If you’re thinking about grand strategy correctly, then you’re looking at all the elements of national power, including what’s in people’s DNA –  the non-partisan ideas we all share. There’s the idea that we have to show respect for each other. This is at the heart of freedom of conscience and belief, at the heart of religious freedom, and at the heart of our political system in the United States –  even if we don’t demonstrate it all the time. So we should think about incorporating the promotion of those integral freedoms into grand strategy, which we pursue via foreign policy ­– how to make them part of our efforts to pursue peace.

A lack of understanding that we should respect the other person to an extent – even if we disagree with them – is one of the biggest issues we’re seeing overseas in places like Syria, where many Sunni and Shia Muslims are fighting each other. We're seeing people who, because they can’t live with their deepest differences, are trying to kill each other. This kind of violence is not unique to Islam. We’re seeing the same thing in Myanmar with Buddhists killing Muslims. It’s not a function of religion – it’s a function of the human condition and a desire for power.

But if you can introduce religion as a positive thing as opposed to something that can be manipulated to validate violence, then it can play a different different role. That’s what we have to teach in our schools and to our policymakers.

Policymakers today are confronted by many violent conflicts where respect for religious differences is lacking or absent entirely. How much of a priority should religious tolerance and pluralism be for members of international coalitions leading efforts to restore peace to these areas?

Your question begs the assumption that there are coalitions and leadership already engaging with this issue and trying to create peace. I don’t think there really are, and that’s a big problem. The United States is not an indispensible nation but our leadership, especially in a vacuum, is needed sometimes. We have a convening capacity that few, if any, have. We have to provide leadership now, particularly in the absence of others, and start talking about religion: how to make religion part of the solution in the Middle East instead of part of the problem; how to promote voices that say, “As a Sunni Hanafi, I disagree fundamentally with the Shia, but I see what it says in my tradition about ‘the other,’ about building peace”; and how to address extreme voices. There’s a cleric in Doha who has called for jihad against the Shia in Syria. Well, shouldn’t states be having conversations about shutting him and his TV program down? You can say that it’s a freedom of expression issue in the abstract. But it’s also a practical issue that’s causing people to die.

 These are the types of practical policy issues that have to be discussed and dealt with. I would prefer that radical clerics don’t get on the air. I would prefer that we talk about religion and talk to clerics about what they see in their religion that contributes to peace. Neither of those things are happening. In part, this is because there’s no or safe pace where voices can speak to and be heard by all people seeking the common good.

This is especially true in relation to women. Only the role of women is overlooked more in international affairs than religion. They have a role to play in their communities and their households in the traditional sense but also in the non-traditional sense: by speaking out on “hard power” issues like conflict resolution, economic growth, development. There are a lot of women with expertise in these fields who can speak from their faith, bringing both their values and expert insights to bear. We don’t expect that to happen in traditional parts of the world because of our cultural blinders. But we should expect it. We should look for it.

Do you think the United States is the right actor to provide leadership on these policy questions and broader social issues?

I would love to see any country play a positive role. But I couldn't tell you even one country that’s playing a positive role in the Middle East right now, including my own. The only global leader we have in the world right now is probably Angela Merkel. She is demonstrating leadership by implementing a form of austerity that requires that people take responsibility for their past actions, which is shoring up confidence in the markets and enabling job creation. When we lose confidence in the market, we lose jobs. And that’s the big issue in the Middle East today: unemployment. People need jobs that allow them to provide for their families, and they need to be able to access these jobs without having to define themselves against ‘the other’. Syria, Iran, Egypt – they’re all struggling with this problem.

Regarding Egypt, two years ago you wrote in National Journal that there was an opportunity for pluralism in Egypt. You were optimistic that the uprisings would lead to a more tolerant and pluralist society. Has your view changed now that Morsi has been ousted? Do you think the U.S. has a role to play in encouraging a more pluralist Egypt?

The Arab Spring suffers form what all springs and revolutions suffer – the curse of majoritarianism. When a people have been put down for so long, the natural reaction to it is to take care of your own, to define yourself based on your oppression. Now the Mubarak-era oppression is over and there are new people in charge. Their primary concern is gaining and keeping the support of the majority. What they’ve had no opportunity to think through or experience is real democracy – a system that prioritizes pluralism. Democracy is defined by the protection of the minority, and those who have opposing views. Realizing this will require a national evolution. There are people within the Brotherhood and Salafi groups that are for terrorism. And there are people in those same groups that are for the principles of respect and pluralism. I know this because I have interacted with them over the last 5 years. They are real, and they have the possibility of exerting influence at some point. But that has not taken place for a variety of reasons.

Now, to your second question. What role can the U.S. play? For 30 years, America was associated with the Mubarak regime and caring only about discouraging Soviet influence, protecting Israel, and guaranteeing the flow of oil. Now the Muslim Brotherhood thinks we stood with the coup-plotters, and those who are against them think that we support the Brotherhood. I don’t know how we got to that point, but that’s where we are. That’s non-leadership. To date, our policy has been inept.

So what can the U.S. do to move the situation forward, practically speaking? I think we should convene a reconciliation conference in Cyprus or Malta, for example, to bring together the different political elements in Egypt. We have to recognize of course that America is widely disliked and that many in Egypt think we were part of the problem, but on the other hand, it seems that external leadership is needed to prevent more violence. We should bring everybody to the table.

In the meantime, let’s call the coup a coup, and cease aid until after reconciliation talks are over, which will be when all parties have agreed to a plan that results in elections, a new constitution, and a promise to respect minorities and women. That’s what success looks like.

Right now, we need to get beyond the potential for mass violence in the streets, and quickly. That’s where you need outside intervention. I think the U.S. can play that role especially with the leverage we have on account of our aid to the Egyptian military. If we use that leverage and provide some leadership, then there’s a possibility of success. And we could use that success to springboard into leadership on Israel and Palestine, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, and the region more broadly.

That’s very ambitious. Do you think there’s a role for other regional actors to be at the table at these discussions you propose on Egypt?

I would love to see this come from the Arab League. But let’s not kid ourselves. Going back to the issue of religion and foreign policy – the backdrop here is the contest between Sunni and Shia. There are autocratic Sunni regimes that do not want the Shia to rise. They do not want democracy in Sunni countries. That’s why you see Saudi Arabia and Qatar applaud what took place in Egypt. That’s also why Morsi stood with Sunni clerics who called for jihad against the Shia. If we could have Sunni and Shia leaders, especially clerical leaders, express a desire for peaceful coexistence, then perhaps we can eventually get to the point where the Arab League could play a positive role. That hasn’t happened yet, so that’s where an outside mediator has a role to play. The U.S., the EU... I’d love to see the Russian Orthodox Church involved.

Based on your experiences in the military, academia, and civil society, what recommendations would you make to the next generation of foreign policymakers dealing with religion?

Don’t fear it. Allow for the fact that is has, can, and will be used as a catalyst for conflict. Equally allow for the fact that faith can contribute to the common good and that a place for a sustainable peace will emerge only when we learn to live with our deepest differences, our irreconcilable theological differences. Peace will come through changing the mindset of the next generation to one that says, according to the best of our faith, we will stand against the worst of our religion; one that says, 'let’s treat others the way we want to be treated'. Many global youth already think differently about these issues than older people do. The new generation is readying to stand up, claim the best of their scriptures, claim the best of their education, and provide a new world.  But many are not yet in positions of power and influence and so, they await their time. Hopefully, there will be some bridge policies, enabled by the current leadership, to get us there.

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