Saturday, April 30, 2016

Quotable: John Kerry on religion and U.S. foreign policy

Friday, April 29th 2016
"The more we understand religion and the better able we are as a result to be able to engage religious actors, the more effective our diplomacy will be in advancing the interests and values of our people,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in remarks at Rice University on April 26, 2016.

The Secretary cited many of his initiatives that support this key insight:  meetings with Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders, representatives of Jewish communities in Europe and the United States, American Hindus, and Orthodox Christians; a new Office of Religion and Global Affairs; a special envoy on anti-Semitism; a special representative to Muslim communities; an expanded Office of International Religious Freedom; and an envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.  He mentioned new training for Foreign Service Officers.  The speech closed with long excursions on development and climate change.

This gist is long on key points and short on the many issues and examples the Secretary mentioned, so the entire speech is worth reading.  There were only glancing mentions of Public Diplomacy – the Sawab Center, for instance – but Secretary Kerry’s words suggest many themes and initiatives for speeches, the social media, publications, audiences, conferences, education, and exchanges.  Here are some key quotes:

  • It is absolutely true the State Department is a secular institution and that, from its founding, the United States has maintained a formal separation, obviously, between church and state, and nothing that we’re doing seeks to or does cross any of those lines. This means that in our foreign policy, we don’t advocate on behalf of any particular set of religious beliefs or express a preference for one faith over another – or even for religious belief over non-belief.

  • But this doesn’t mean that religion is irrelevant to our approach to world affairs, and particularly in this globalized, different world we are living in today.

  • Consider that four out of five people on Earth align themselves with one religious tradition or another, and that over the centuries, religious teachings, movements, and conflicts have done as much as any secular ideology or economic force to determine the political context and geographical boundaries that define the international arena.

  • Religion today remains deeply consequential, affecting the values, the actions, the choices, the worldview of people in every walk of life on every continent and, obviously, also here at home. It is a part of what drives some to initiate war, others to pursue peace; some to organize for change, others to cling desperately to old ways, resist modernity; some to reach eagerly across the borders of nation and creed, and others to build higher and higher walls separating one group from the next.

  • Most religions are internally diverse, reflecting multiple schools of thought, regional variations, and complicated histories. And the actions of religious communities, like all communities, are embedded in the political, economic, and cultural environment in which they are carried out. That is why religion as it is actually lived does not always look the way that we expect or have the impact that we anticipate. It is also why our engagement with religious actors has to extend beyond designated leaders to the rank and file.

  • . . . 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. The department has not traditionally had the resources or made the necessary commitment to systematically analyze the importance that religion holds for the success or failure of our foreign policy.

  • One of my predecessors, Madeleine Albright, pointed out that when she entered the office as secretary of state, she had advisors on political, military, economic, developmental issues, but none on the key topic of religion. Now that has changed . . .

  • There was a time when engaging on religion with people overseas meant having meetings almost exclusively with men – and usually very old men. Today, we are in touch with a much more diverse group of figures: female religious scholars shaping the interpretation of sacred texts in Indonesia; women in the Gambia working within their religious communities to end the practice of female genital mutilation or cutting; religious activists in many countries who speak up on behalf of inter-religious cooperation and the rights of minorities.

  • The importance of our outreach efforts was demonstrated even more dramatically in 2014, when the terrorist group Daesh – ISIL, as people call it – began seizing territory in Syria and Iraq, over-running major cities, murdering civilians, raping and enslaving women and girls, selling them on the chopping block to their fighters or giving them as a gift for the fight. And we learned of these outrages firsthand because of the contacts of our religious freedom office – the contacts that they had developed with religious minorities here and in the Middle East, especially the Yezidi population in northern Iraq.

  • In the time since, Daesh has continued to target religious minorities. They continue to kill Yezidis because they are Yezidis, Christians because they are Christians, Shia because they are Shia. In my judgment – and I registered this last month – Daesh is responsible for committing genocide against these groups in areas under its control.

  • . . . because we believe that the protection of religious and ethnic minorities is a fundamental test not just of our leadership, but of civilization itself. And make no mistake, this is not a war of civilizations against each other. This is a war of uncivilized, of barbarians against civilization.

  • We think that people ought to be free to choose, to change, to practice, to speak and teach their religion anywhere without fear or intimidation. And this freedom of religious and ethnic identity is not contingent on numbers. Religious minorities should have the same rights as majorities; that’s our belief, that’s who we are in the United States, and that is the norm that we seek to uphold in country after country.

  • . . . as Rabbi Abraham Heschel warned, “Speech has power and words do not fade. What starts as a sound ends as a deed.”

  • It shouldn’t be necessary, but silence has been misinterpreted too many times in the past to risk it again. Make no mistake: The United States remains unalterably opposed to bigotry in all forms, including anti-Semitism, and our commitment on this point, I am telling you, will never weaken, never waver, and never change.

  • . . . President Obama is leading this coalition, with the active participation of many Arab and Muslim states, in order to defeat Daesh at its core in Syria and Iraq and in order to strengthen the capacity of partners to counter violent extremists wherever they arise. Now, this effort is being prosecuted on many fronts, my friends, and it is designed to deprive the terrorists of the safe havens that they seek, degrade their leadership at the same time, hammer their sources of revenue, and discredit their ideas.

  • . . . we are doing that in so many different ways: with the new center that opened in the UAE in Abu Dhabi, where Arabic speakers are using all the social media and we’re countering on a daily basis; a new one opening in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia – this is happening. We’re making progress.

  • . . . we still don’t have a fully satisfactory answer as to why some people – married, educated, older – fall under the lethal spell of terrorism. But I got news for you: We got some pretty good clues.

  • Denial of fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, deprives people of voice and dignity, and it tends to force legitimate religious and political activities underground, and it fills many with an anger that makes them far more susceptible to terrorist recruiters.

  • . . . we have to have a multigenerational plan of our own to stop terrorists and see that hope wins out over despair. Today, the vast majority of young people live in developing countries. The median age in Germany is 46; in the United States it is 37; in the Middle East and North Africa, it’s about 21. Country after country, 65 percent under the age of 30, 60 percent under the age of 25, 50 percent under the age of 21.

  • Now, I got news for you: Hundreds of millions of them need to go to school tomorrow and they’re not going to go to school tomorrow. That means just to keep pace, we will have to create hundreds of millions of new jobs each year at a time when new technologies are making many old jobs obsolete.

  • . . . religious leaders particularly can remind us that public budgets are not just about numbers; they are also moral documents. What we choose to invest in reflects what we consider the best measure of real success to be. A rising GDP is obviously desirable; we all want that. But other benchmarks are far more relevant to whether young people feel a greater stake in building their countries up rather than tearing them down. Most religions understand that truth.

  • So did Senator Robert Kennedy when he said in the 1960s, “Our gross national product” – which is what we called it then – “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

  • The good news that I see is that for all the challenges that our differences present today, all of the major religions share a sense of universal values. They seek to define the things that make life worthwhile, a moral truth based on the dignity of all human beings.

  • Religions differ widely in their origins, their texts, their rites, their beliefs. But amid that diversity, there are common and often eloquent commitments to help the disadvantaged, to pursue peace, to follow the Golden Rule, and respect the fundamental dignity of every single human being. Over the decades, many of those concerns found an echo in such documents as the UN Charter, the UN Declaration on Human Rights. So today, when we act to uphold international standards of justice and law, we are at the same time heeding Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to “do right as God gives us to see the right” and John Kennedy’s observation in his inaugural, “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

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