Skip to main content

Diplomacy Bridging Religious Divides

The role of religion in world affairs is a rapidly growing field of international studies. The expansion of interest in this topic dates back to the terrorist attacks of September 11, when it became painfully clear that religion directly affected the interests and security of the United States and its citizens. There is now a large network of academic and policy centers whose purpose is to understand the impact of religion in international affairs. This article explores several principles identified in that research.

Some experts began to focus on this topic well before 9/11. More than ten years earlier, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington observed that conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign policy has held for decades that religion would only diminish as a factor in international relations. He suggested, however, that “the exact opposite is increasingly true.” He concluded with a prescient statement that might have been written yesterday instead of almost a quarter-century ago: “To neglect religious institutions and thinking would be to render incomprehensible some of the key issues and crises in the world today.”

As the 1990’s progressed, the discussion broadened to include the proposition that religious values can be brought into the conduct of international relations as a positive force, as a way to reduce extremism and hostility. Douglas Johnston is the leading pioneer in this work. His edited volume, Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford, 1994), became a turning point in the study of religion and diplomacy. He also founded the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, where he and his colleagues have pursued the practice of using religious values to combat extremism. Dr Johnston’s work was the centerpiece of a recent conference hosted by The Wheatley Institute at BYU, entitled “Diplomacy: Bridging Religious Divides.” A group of 90 students and scholars from universities and institutes across the United States spent several days discussing the role of religion as a cultural force that can strengthen diplomacy, reduce conflict, and build bridges between peoples. Their findings were captured in a series of proposals that drew attention to the potential for faith-based initiatives to address problems as wide-ranging as the conflict in South Sudan and the radicalization of prison populations in the U.S.

In preparation for the conference, students studied the growing body of literature on religion and foreign affairs. One of the key principles identified in that literature centers on the understanding of history. The cultural dimension of religion often leads to the assumption that because religious values are so long standing and so deeply tied to identity, they are therefore immutable. This view of history foresees “civilizational” conflict, arising from conflicting religious values, as inevitable. A different view, however, argues that religion, like other cultural forces, only thrives if it changes and adapts. This perspective opens the door to engagement, making it an important tool in the hands of peacebuilders and policy makers.

The veil controversy in France provides a good case study of the political urgency of getting history right. Scholars suggest that the outlawing of the veil stems from a mythic view of French history that combined with fearful fantasies about Islamic culture. These laws actually affect only a few individuals but set France against all of its Muslims, objectifying and alienating a significant portion of its citizenry. Generalizing from this experience, one thoughtful scholar has suggested that the tendency to treat tradition-based communities as if they were “eternal essences” rather than evolving cultural realities has urgent implications. It creates an us-vs-them worldview, leaving “no way to think about change, no way to open ourselves to others.” Alternative approaches must be found that “allow for the recognition and negotiation of difference in ways that realize the promise of democracy.”

Such misperceptions of history and tradition, however, go both ways. A key barrier to the Muslim world’s understanding of the United States is a worldview that does not separate religion from politics, and which sees governments as either religious or godless. Islamic history has no room for a concept like “secularity,” in which a secular government like that of the United States presides over a “vibrantly religious society.” This is a gulf that governments cannot cover by themselves. A beckoning future calls for a wide-ranging cultural dialogue—one in which American Muslims should have a prominent role—that will generate mutual appreciation of the complexity and vitality of our respective historical traditions.

These examples illustrate the difficult challenge that scholars and policy makers face in this field, one of the key frontiers in international relations. Although much work remains to be done, hopeful signs are emerging. In 2013, the US Department of State for the first time established an office dedicated to interacting with religious leaders and communities around the world. The Wheatley conference itself shows the wisdom and promise in bringing young, creative minds together to focus on the possibilities of future cooperation. More scholarly efforts like this are needed in order to define the terms for constructive engagement in this vital arena.

Barry Rubin, “Religion and International Affairs,” The Washington Quarterly, March 1990.

Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil. (Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 19-20.

Jack Miles, “Religion and Foreign Policy,” in Religion and Foreign Affairs: Essential Readings, Dennis R. Hoover and Douglas M. Johnston, eds., (Baylor University Press, 2012), pp. 552-553.