Contending Modernities article

The Ongoing Mission of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs



Minister Ferrara, Senator Casini, Dean Appleby, and esteemed guests, it is my honor and privilege to be with you this evening. I bring you greetings from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. It was my pleasure over two years ago to accompany Secretary Kerry on his first official visit to the Vatican when he met Cardinal Parolin. I think it is safe to say that Secretary Kerry is deeply invested in maintaining our strong relationship with the Holy See and along with the work of my estimable colleague Ambassador Ken Hackett, we enjoy as strong and fruitful a diplomatic relationship as we have ever had.

My task tonight is to do two things: first, I want to describe the mission and evolution of the work of my office, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, over the short almost three years of its existence. Second, I want to describe two specific areas of our work, the global refugee crisis and countering violent extremism in order to give you a more concrete look at what we are doing.

Luckily for me Secretary Kerry gave a speech late last month on why he established our office and what our mission is. Speaking at Rice University he noted that historically the State Department has tended to downplay the role of religion or pay attention only when religion is deemed a problem, a threat, a challenge. Despite the fact religion is pervasive, complex, and consequential, he noted that we have not traditionally had the resources or made the necessary commitment to systematically analyze the importance religion holds for the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy.

He observed that one of his predecessors, Madeleine Albright, pointed out that when she entered the office of secretary of state, she had advisors on political, military, economic, developmental issues, but none of the key topic of religion. The purpose of his speech to was to declare that now has changed and to explain how we do things differently and why those differences matter.

Time doesn’t permit me to give you a comprehensive roster of our work. If time allowed I would tell you about our work on issues such as global climate change, anti-corruption, the Sustainable Development Goals, anti-microbial resistance, and the counter ISIL space. I would detail our country specific work in places like Cuba, Cyprus, Ukraine, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Burma, to name a few examples.

But I will be content with the simple claim that I believe we are now in a new stage in the intersection of religion and international affairs. The last stage was one in which scholars and activists promoted the idea that religion matters, and governments and scholars needed to take note. The current stage is one in which more governments and scholars have taken note and are actively integrating the insights drawn from the first wave of analysis.

I should hasten to add that I fully embrace my mentor, Fr. Bryan Hehir, when he observed that such work as we are doing can be compared to brain surgery – a necessary task, but fatal if not done well.

So let me address the question Scott Appleby told everyone yesterday that I would be answering tonight, and that is what is the future of our office in the next administration. This is easily the most frequent question I get asked these days. I have three answers, the first two come as a pair: Madeleine Albright and John Kerry. What I mean to say is that two of our living secretaries of state vigorously support what we do and how we do it. I’ll take them in any fight.

The third answer is that the most powerful argument for our sustainability after I leave is the high quality staff and work they produce. We have over 20 graduate degrees in religion or a cognate field among our 30 staffers. I like to believe we have won the hearts and minds of the career staff at the State Department and they understand and appreciate the work we contribute to the strategic success of our diplomacy.

To give you some more specificity about our work I would like to discuss our approach to religion in our efforts to counter violent extremism in three ways by looking at the drivers of violent extremism; how violent extremists exploit religion; and engaging religious communities and leaders for CVE.

First, on one of our primary functions of our office – assessing religion and religious dynamics – we strive to right size the role of religion in our policy priorities. This means we try to recognize when religion is an important factor in understanding how we engage with a partner or approach a priority. And in those areas where it is a factor, we seek to determine whether it is a driving variable or a contributing variable. We do not take an essentialist approach that presumes religion to somehow be at the core of every issue or do we assume that religion is inherently violent or peaceful.

Violent extremism is one problem set where the role of religion is often highlighted – and causality presumed – by policymakers, in political discourse, and in the media. This presumption can lead to the impulse to instrumentalize religion in a crass and reductive ways if it is not checked. But, we have found that religion is rarely the only or primary driver of violent extremism. A variety of factors can be the source of grievances including localized conflicts, state-sponsored violence, corruption, political and/or socioeconomic marginalization, to name a few.

Applying a research-driven approach can inform how best to engage on CVE – whether through religious communities and leaders or other institutions and civil society. In some instances, the cause may be corruption and human rights abuses, in others, persistent violations of human dignity, including discrimination, marginalization, and the inability to access economic opportunities may drive actors to violence. Just as Pope Francis has noted, lasting solutions must be found that tackle the root causes of violence. Understanding context is clearly a critical component to the success of any CVE initiative. We believe religion is always embedded in specific and complex contexts. Without this principle policy makers can all too easily reduce religion to stereotypes in the CVE space.

What drives someone to join a violent extremist group in Syria is very different from what drives another in northwestern Pakistan or even in parts of Western Europe. Before deciding on any type of CVE engagement our experience shows that research should be conducted to better understand drivers of violent extremism in a geographic area, among a specific target audience. Applying a data-driven approach can inform how best to engage on CVE – whether through religious communities and leaders or other institutions and civil society.

Second, when considering a CVE response, it is also helpful to understand how violent extremists instrumentalize religion. Violent extremists groups sometimes use religion as: a source of collective identity; a narrative for disaffection; a vehicle for mobilizing violent activity; and a means of imbuing worldly conflict with an eternal purpose. Often, the instrumentalization of religion is an effort to mobilize new and old adherents behind a perceived grievance.

To be clear, this is not to say that all violent extremists use religion in these ways or even at all, but some do. Many don’t, but some do, and understanding this helps to put the role of religion in a more proper context.

Third, we recognize that in an effort to subdue what we as policy makers might consider “extreme” responses to these perceived grievances, we sometimes seek a “moderate” voice. This sort of either/or disjunction is problematic.

While we frequently hear calls to support “moderate” religious traditions, in point of fact, do we not want to support religious traditions that are more than “moderate” in their commitments to justice, equality, and pluralism – all of which can be pursued without resorting to violence or coercion? Moreover, a call for moderation does not recognize that those attracted to violent extremism may not find “moderate” voices appealing. These voices may be perceived as being disengaged or uninvested in questions of dignity that matter deeply to those looking for religious voices that resonate.

Our attitude with and engagement with various groups is thus governed not by labels such as “moderate” or “extreme” but rather by the substance of what these groups say and do. We need to approach designing CVE activities with more sophistication, looking beyond instrumentalizing religious leaders to provide theological “antidotes” to extremism.

Religious leaders play roles in their societies and communities far beyond speaking out against radicalization or extremism. We engage religious actors on priority issues, which can then address fundamental and shared social challenges.

Third, based on our experience, we have identified a few general guidelines for engaging religious institutions, leaders, and communities.

Broader engagement: Religious leaders often play broad societal roles and should not only be engaged on CVE issues or be viewed exclusively as generators of counter-narratives or theological antidotes to terrorism. Rather, engaging religious leaders on a broader set of topics such as corruption or socio-economic marginalization or promoting human rights can also yield CVE-relevant outcomes.

Respect religious leader independence: When engaging religious leaders, one must take great care to respect their independence and avoid instrumentalizing them. Countries in which the state coopts religious authorities often leaves no space for independent leaders to credibly challenge violent extremist views.

Protect Human rights: Protection of human rights, including religious freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association and of assembly, are central to effective CVE engagements. CVE activities should not be allowed to serve as covers for restricting peaceful political and religious activities. Restricting these peaceful practices in the name of CVE is counter-productive. Moreover, creating and protecting space for peaceful expression and activities allows for an environment that encourages the development of civil society, which can complement government-initiated CVE activities.

Engage women: Religious leaders tend to be older males, thus it is imperative to include women when engaging religious communities on CVE. Focusing on the role of men can reinforce the male domination of religious communities and miss the key role women play in countering violent extremism.

Understand their relative strengths and limitations: Religious institutions, leaders, and communities can and do play an important role in building resilient communities, but they are not a panacea.

For example, religious institutions affiliated with the state may have the reputation of being government mouthpieces, and thus less credible. That said, these same institutions sometimes possess significant institutional infrastructure and have enduring reputations as centers of religious scholarship. Transnational clerics are often limited in their effectiveness on CVE issues because religious communities view local or provincial level clerics as more credible than their national or transnational counterparts. On the other hand, religious leaders with international reputations may be uniquely placed to lead longer term efforts such as education reform or efforts to convene religious leaders globally around pressing issues.

Another issue affecting religious leader credibility is his/her stance regarding the West. Religious leaders more critical of Western policies are sometimes more credible among religious communities than their counterparts who are sympathetic to Western policies. I point this out to say that CVE engagements should not be limited to those with whom governments are most comfortable working. Governments should have a broad based engagement with key actors even if they are critical of government policies.

In the current political environment in the United States, there have been numerous voices and media stories that have intimated there is a direct connection and correlation between refugees and terrorism. Those who want to tap into deep-seated fear suggest that refugee resettlement, or in the case of Europe, immigration from Syria and elsewhere compromises the safety and security of host countries and populations.

It is understandable that citizens would have safety concerns in the wake of tragic attacks in cities like Paris, Brussels, and San Bernadino. Over the past few months, I have visited six different cities in the United States to learn about our refugee resettlement process at the local level. During my trip to Dallas, Texas, I spoke with a man who erroneously believed that the U.S. government was essentially handing out plane tickets to the United States on street corners in Syria and Iraq. He was concerned that the U.S. was cavalierly letting all Syrians and Iraqis through our borders, and was completely unaware of the intensive security screening process for refugees who come to the United States.

The fact is, we can care about security, and about resettlement and integration simultaneously. We need not deny the common humanity we share with refugees – many of whom have fled horrific violence themselves. We can accept refugees without jeopardizing our national security.

The refugee resettlement process in the United States is a unique public-private partnership that involves international organizations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization on Migration, the U.S. Department of State, and partnership with nine national resettlement agencies. But the success of the program really relies on an array of local networks – religious leaders and communities, non-governmental organizations, social service providers, schools, police departments, municipal government leaders, and individual volunteers. The success of the refugee resettlement process in the U.S. has required a “whole of society collaboration.”

In the United States, it is local communities – NGOs, local resettlement offices, religious communities, schools, volunteers, and others – that have devised innovative programs and support to help refugees. They have developed physical and mental wellness programs to ensure refugees have health support needed to thrive. They have converted donated farmland into a community garden and agricultural incubator program. They have started English classes for youth, sewing classes to empower women, or senior programs so refugees feel part of the community and don’t become isolated.

Local community groups in the United States, especially religious communities, are empowered to reach out to resettled refugees to show hospitality and welcome. They are doing this not because it is simply a nice gesture, the moral thing to do, or a prescribed religious action. They are doing so because they understand that this has a positive and beneficial impact in empowering the refugee (and his/her family) and creating a culture of acceptance and integration.

This gives me considerable hope. I have hope because despite the ugly anti-refugee rhetoric that persists in the U.S. media and political discourse, local refugee resettlement offices report that continue to receive calls from community members offering support or asking to volunteer. I have hope because in places like Chicago, almost every refugee or refugee family has a co-sponsoring group – a church, a synagogue, a mosque, another family – and there is a waiting list for those interested in sponsoring a refugee. I have hope because I believe that refugees enrich new communities economically and culturally. What makes America strong and great is its diversity, and along with that, its resilience.

There is still work to be done, though. One American faith-based development and humanitarian organization reported that it took three years to raise $2.5 million for Syrian refugees, but that it took only a week to raise almost three times that amount following the earthquake in Nepal. We must continue to counter hateful rhetoric and anti-Muslim bigotry in some American communities. And we must push back against forces in the United States that seek to build up walls in communities by inflaming conversations in the media about refugees.

Some of you may know twentieth-century American poet, Robert Frost. Frost is probably most recognized for his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” but I wanted to take a moment to discuss another of his works, “Mending Wall.” The poem begins with the line “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and goes on to explore the distances and tensions between individuals, of making and breaking boundaries. Frost says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I would argue that it is generally antithetical in American culture to love a wall. It represents confinement. Division. Loss of freedom. In our collective imagination, we like to think of ourselves as the ones who tear down walls and instead build bridges.

We are facing unprecedented numbers of displaced people in the world – the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. Currently there are approximately 20 million refugees worldwide, and 40 million internally displaced persons. To break it down, one in about 122 people in the world is displaced.

The international community is currently witnessing a refugee crisis of global proportions and it requires a global response from religious leaders. I have described “bottom-up” efforts in my country to assist refugees, and I know similar actions are being taken throughout Europe. But there also must be a “top-down” approach. This includes a global conversation and consensus among top religious leaders on how religious groups partner to settle migrants. It involves coordinating funding, training, and the sharing of best practices so that we can effectively assist the world’s most vulnerable populations. This conversation can also inspire governments to do more as the crisis may be deepening before our eyes.

Part of my office’s work is to try and build a bridge between our domestic partners, secular and religious, and other governments so that our partners can share their practices of engaging local religious communities globally in order to make global refugee resettlement efforts more effective.

Let us not love a wall. May we collectively desire it be down, and work together to open doors: that all who come and go through them – both those who live in comfort here and those who visit under stress – be blessed. May they find welcome and love, share hospitality and hope, and come and find peace.

Shaun Casey
Shaun Casey is director of the Berkley Center and a professor of the practice in Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service. He previously was U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs and director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He has written on the ethics of the war in Iraq as well the role of religion in American presidential politics. He is working on two writing projects: he is co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Political Theology with Michael Kessler of Georgetown University and he is writing a book on ethics and international politics tentatively titled Niebuhr’s Children.

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