Interfaith Dialogue, Religious Freedom, and Combating Violent Extremism

Ira N. Forman
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Concluding Remarks at Foreign Service Institute, Department of State
Arlington, VA
July 23, 2013

It has been fantastic having so many people here to discuss best practices and the impact that promoting religious freedom can have on combating violent extremism.

Our speakers today came from both government and civil society – my colleagues at the Department of State, as well as employees of the Department of Defense, USAID, FSI, National Counterterrorism Center, Pew Research Center, Institute for Global Engagement, Muflehun, and American Society for Muslim Advancement.

We have heard about practical experiences and the importance of interfaith dialogue, as well as a demonstration on how not to do religious engagement.

It is clear that governments alone cannot change societal attitudes. It takes government and civil society working in concert with each other. When different groups come together to work cooperatively, when we share ideas and coordinate efforts, we can make a difference.

We each bring something different to the table. Whether our mandate is national security in general or religious freedom in particular, we share a common interest in promoting human rights, tolerance, and mitigating conflict. We each have a part to play in promoting religious freedom and in countering violent extremism.

When we stand up for the rights of members of one group, we stand up for the rights of all. I am the Department of State’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, but I am not only concerned with the rights of Jews. Hatred and intolerance only breed more hatred and intolerance, and that is what we need to speak out against.

No one is immune from attack. That is why we defend everyone’s right to believe, or not to believe, according to the dictates of their own conscience.

There’s a quote by Martin Niemoeller that expresses our responsibility to stand up for each other and to engage in interfaith dialogue:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not Jewish, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

In my first week on the job, I went to Poland, where I joined a group of international imams and Muslim scholars who were visiting Nazi concentration and death camps and speaking to Holocaust survivors.

I will never forget these experiences and the reactions of these individuals to the evidence of the Holocaust. Of course, there were the horrified reactions to the stories of the survivors and the bundles of hair and piles of baby shoes. But what were truly memorable were the conversations at the end of the trip when one after another they agonized about what they could do to make the world aware of what happened, and what we can do to make sure it never happens again.

This trip convinced me yet again of the good we can accomplish when we unite with one voice across religious divides. Sometimes people are more inclined to listen to a faith leader because of shared beliefs and common values. Sometimes people are more inclined to listen to a government official or a member of civil society. That is why it is essential that we all speak out against hate, regardless of whether or not we belong to the community against which the hate is directed. The more we work together, the more doors we can open, and the more we increase our odds for finding success and for having our message resonate with a wider audience. Interfaith dialogue is one of the tools we have at our disposal to counter violent extremism.

While there is no magic solution to stop violent extremism, we must keep looking for answers. We want to shine the spotlight on best practices and models that work.

What we know is that bigotry, hatred, and religiously-motivated violence have been with us for a long time. And they will continue to be a curse on the human race.

But that does not excuse any of us from the task of fighting it now and investing in beating it back for future generations.

While today’s roundtable is over, I hope the conversation does not end here.

Working together, I am confident that people of goodwill, of this generation, are fully capable of fighting the good fight. A fight that is on the right side of history and the right side of justice.