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A Divine Foreign Policy

November 18, 2006
mightyandalmightWashington D.C. – Last month, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented her most recent book, The Mighty and the Almighty, at a conference organized in Washington DC by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

In this latest work she analyzes the role of religion in foreign policy making. “Although I still strongly believe in the separation of church and state, we must know that it is impossible to separate the people from their faith and as such we must understand religion to understand motivation,” Albright said.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, has profound religious roots; “If Jerusalem was only a real-estate issue, we would have solved it a long time ago. But the fact that both sides believe that the land was given to them by God makes things far more complicated,” former Secretary of State pointed out.

In the same way, President Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq was inherently influenced by his religious beliefs. “There is some sense of a mission in him,” Albright said.

The problem, the book argues, is not that religious convictions are a constant presence in foreign policy decision-making. As former President Bill Clinton writes in the introduction; “Religious convictions, if they are convictions, can’t be pulled on and off like a pair of boots. We walk with them wherever we go”. The problem is instead, according to Albright, the absolute sense of certitude that sometimes comes with such convictions. When mixed with a lack of understanding for other people’s faith, this sense of certitude easily translates into conflict.

Acknowledging the important role that religion plays in foreign policy making, Madeleine Albright advocates for greater efforts on the part of the policy making community at understanding different faith and beliefs, so as to avoid what some believe to be the inevitable clash of civilizations.  “I have not turned into a religious mystic,” the former Secretary of State made clear. “I am a problem-solver and I look at ways how we can deal with the religious issue in today’s international politics.”

While presidents are surrounded by a variety of experts in all domains, from the economy to transportation to national security, there is no such a thing as an advisor for religious affairs. Albright suggests, for example, that this could be changed by incorporating religious expertise in the present structure of policy-making.

“It has to be said that Madeleine Albright is not the first one to have said that” Dr. Timothy Shah, fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life – a nonpartisan research center in Washington D.C. – pointed out in an interview with Washington Prism.
Congress must be given credit for having already taken some steps to incorporate religious understanding in foreign policy making. Because of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the State Department is now mandated to produce a highly detailed annual report on the state of religious freedom in every country in the world.

“These reports are meant to be on religious freedom but they end up covering almost every aspect of religious life all over the world” Dr. Shah said.
As such, although the explicit intent of the report is to monitor the persecution of religious groups and to offer Congress the basis to act upon violations of freedom of religion via the imposition of sanctions, one important side effect is that understanding of religious conditions in foreign countries has become a learning necessity, much like understanding political and social structure of those nations, throughout the State Department.

“In a sense the report has forced large parts of State Department, whether they want to or not, to become experts on religion” Timothy Shah argues, “one could assert that, and I’m not stating my position here, but one could argue that the legislation does what Ms. Albright wants done even better than how she would want it done.”

Interestingly, Madeleine Albright, and the Clinton administration as a whole, was among the strongest opponents of the bill at the time when it was going through the initial legislative process.

Partially, the apparent contradiction between former Secretary of State’s position then and now can be explained simply by a change in her thinking on the importance of religion in world affairs.

However, the history of the legislation shows what a fine line there is between promoting religious freedom and mutual understanding and trying instead to export specific values abroad.

In fact, the bill (known as the Wolf-Specter Bill) as it was first put forward, was specifically designed to protect Christians around the world; it originally made no reference to the persecution of other faiths and came under attack as an effort at trying to promote Christianity in disguise.

Since then the legislation has gone through several rounds of revisions and has become far more inclusive of all faiths. As Mr. Shah told us, one of the most controversial policy decisions that the bill spurred followed the violent repression of demonstrations by Indian Muslims in the state of Gujarat, India, in 2002 and involved the revoking of the Indian State’s Governor, and very popular personality, Narendra Modi’s US visa.

However, the controversies surrounding the International Religious Freedom Act exemplify how complicated it is to strike a balance between understanding and protecting all religions, faiths and beliefs and imposing one own values on others.
Achieving such balance becomes even more complicated in times when more fundamentalist religious movements are booming across the world. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently released a survey titled the Rise of Pentecostalism that reports how the Christian renewalist movement has been gaining support world wide in recent years.
Pew Forum’s director Luis Lugo, recently discussed the results of the study in another gathering at the CFR with the noted scholar and author, Walter Russell Mead.

“One of the interesting things I found here in the United States and abroad” Mead noted, “was that Pentecostal renewalists seemed in general more supportive of measures to make a country, including the United States, a ‘Christian’ country than other groups of Christians.” In short, from their answers to the survey it seems that they seek to blurry the line of separation between church and state. “Pentecostals are, in many ways, turbo-charged evangelicals,” Lugo said.
Considering the emergence of these type of more extremist groups in the United States and abroad, of the kind that view religion as the soundest basis for politics, mutual understanding becomes the most important tool at hand to prevent the clash of civilization from degenerating completely.
“Dialogue alone is no guarantee of peace, but it is better than a status quo in which the various sides are preoccupied with preserving age-old dogmas and chastising those who even suggest revisiting them” Madeleine Albright writes in her book. “I am encouraged, therefore,” Albright continues, “by the fact that intercultural and interfaith efforts have become growth industries at many think tanks and universities.” It is, in former Secretary of State’s opinion, a first step as we wait for institutions to follow and for religious expertise to be fully integrated into the practice of government.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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