Common Security in the Mediterranean Region - Challenges and Opportunities

Arsalan Suleman
Acting U.S. Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
2015 OSCE Mediterranean Conference, Session III Keynote Remarks
Sweimeh, Jordan
October 20, 2015

Thank you, Madam Chair. Your excellencies, distinguished representatives, Ladies and Gentlemen --

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here in Jordan with all of you to discuss the important role that interfaith dialogue and collaboration can play in promoting security, stability, and prosperity in the OSCE and Mediterranean regions.

Our collective security is intertwined. We all know that instability and tensions can easily spread across borders and regions. This forum is a recognition of that reality and the need for us to work together in partnership to ensure our common security.

Another reality is that religion, and religiously motivated or affiliated actors, play a significant role in societies around the world, and certainly in the OSCE and Mediterranean regions. Religion reaches to the core of one’s identity as an individual, and so it is a powerful and profound mobilizing force. Religious actors – including women and youth – often possess a certain moral authority within religious communities. These actors influence all aspects of society, from the political and economic to the cultural and social. It is vital that public officials have a sophisticated understanding of religious dynamics, and that governments engage with religious actors, in order to better inform policies and decision-making processes.

The United States recognizes the critical role played by religious actors. In 2013, the White House issued the first ever National Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement, directing all relevant agencies to deepen their engagement with religious actors as a regular feature of our foreign policy activities. And later that year, Secretary Kerry announced the creation of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department, which coordinates the Department’s efforts to enhance our capacity to understand religious dynamics and to engage further religious actors on the full range of our foreign policy priorities, including economic development, humanitarian assistance, conflict resolution, human rights, and the environment.

That engagement has been a regular feature of my work as Acting Special Envoy to the OIC, and I have witnessed first hand the positive contributions that religious actors make on key shared challenges on a daily basis.

Now just as our security is enhanced when we, as states, work collectively through institutions like the OSCE, the impact of religious actors is similarly enhanced when they engage in interfaith dialogue and collaboration. Interfaith collaboration leverages the deep social networks, community service work, and moral authority of faith communities towards addressing shared challenges. When such tools of influence are united through interfaith dialogue and collaboration, there is potential for significant progress and change, particularly at the grassroots level where governments typically are less connected. Difficult issues like addressing societal discrimination and bigotry on the basis of religion are often best addressed through interfaith dialogue and collaboration, where communities stand up for each other against threats to any one individual community. There are numerous examples of such interfaith actions around the world, including powerful images of members of faith communities physically protecting other faith communities’ religious and cultural sites. These types of interfaith responses are commonplace in the United States, and those actions help to reinforce values of religious freedom and harmony.

But interfaith dialogue is not and should not be viewed as an end in itself. While diverse gatherings of religious leaders that affirm the importance of tolerance and coexistence are certainly valuable, such efforts are most impactful when they address the complex sources of conflict—such as politics, economics, security, ideology—in ways that create and enable new approaches and solutions to concrete problems. It is important to ensure that interfaith efforts are not viewed as “other wordly” spaces of spiritual dialogue disengaged from the real world. Rather, such works holds the greatest hope of affecting meaningful change when it is conceptualized as an integral component of broader processes of peacemaking and negotiated political settlements.

So it is critical that governments recognize the vital role that interfaith dialogue and cooperation can and do play in addressing important issues that affect societal stability and security. And it is even more important for governments and institutions like the OSCE to promote and foster effective interfaith dialogue and collaboration. This must happen in two ways – through refraining from actions that hinder effective interfaith dialogue, and by taking actions that promote and facilitate such dialogue.

There are a number of ways that governmental actions and policies can hinder effective interfaith dialogue and collaboration.

  • Limits on freedom of expression can directly stifle the free and open exchange of ideas, which is critical for effective interfaith dialogue to occur at all.
  • Violations of the freedom of religion or belief can directly limit the ability of individuals to freely and fully practicing their religion and engage with others on that basis, and can contribute to societal instability.
  • Statements by government officials that display intolerance and bigotry can poison the social atmosphere and discourage engagement by the targeted community in broader public life.
  • Discriminatory policies that favor particular groups over others can exacerbate divisions and sow distrust and discord between communities.
  • Restrictions on civil society and on individuals’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association can inhibit the ability of people to work collectively as a religious group or community and to meet together and with others to engage in dialogue.

Such obstacles to effective interfaith dialogue and collaboration are government-created, so governments must take the necessary steps to remove those obstacles. There must be an open and enabling environment for interfaith dialogue and collaboration to be fully effective. To that end, it is vital that governments ensure that they are meeting their obligations and commitments to promote and protect human rights so that there is an atmosphere conducive to such dialogue.

In addition to doing no harm, governments and international organizations can take affirmative steps to promote and facilitate interfaith dialogue.

  • Governmental entities have the ability and capacity to convene meetings and gatherings where various actors, including religious and other civil society actors, are brought together to work on shared solutions to shared challenges. Such meetings can facilitate and incubate interfaith relationships that can then grow naturally through shared actions and experiences, and the makeup of such meetings can also be designed to ensure that all relevant religious actors, including women and youth, are included.
  • Government officials can affirmatively extoll the virtues of interfaith dialogue and collaboration and encourage harmony among diverse religious and cultural groups.
  • Educational campaigns can be launched to promote values of tolerance and acceptance, which can help to build an atmosphere conducive to dialogue.
  • Laws protecting individuals from discrimination and hate crimes should be vigorously enforced to ensure that individual rights are properly protected. Governments should protect the rights of individuals to practice their faith or conscience.
  • Mediation programs can be developed to encourage proactive governmental intervention if communal tensions arise in particular situations. This can help prevent rifts between communities that might take years or even generations to heal.

No governmental action by itself is sufficient to somehow generate real interfaith dialogue. But these affirmative measures described above, if properly implemented, can go a long way towards effectively promoting and fostering interfaith dialogue and collaboration.

Intergovernmental organizations like the OSCE also have the convening authority to facilitate the exchange of best practices and experiences among participating states. Such exchanges can enhance the capacity of governments to foster and facilitate interfaith dialogue. This discussion is a clear example of the OSCE playing that exact role, one that I hope it will continue to play. In addition, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) produces a number of excellent resources for states and civil society on a wide range of issues, including those that are relevant to promoting effective interfaith dialogue and collaboration.

The United Nations also plays an important role in this regard. For example, UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18, which deals with combating intolerance, discrimination, and violence on the basis of religion or belief, provides a roadmap of actions for governments that includes fostering interfaith dialogue. The Istanbul Process series of experts meetings that have been held to promote implementation of that resolution has helped to facilitate the exchange of best practices. And the United States has an additional bilateral effort to foster the sharing of such experiences with a number of states.

There are countless positive examples of interfaith dialogue around the world that have helped to promote peace and understanding, too numerous to list here today. But I would be remiss if I did not praise the efforts of the Kingdom of Jordan to promote and foster interfaith dialogue. The “A Common Word” initiative, which has been highly influential in promoting Muslim-Christian Understanding, was driven principally by Jordan and the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. Furthermore, Jordan is also the main sponsor of the UN resolution that created World Interfaith Harmony week, a global effort to spotlight efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony. That initiative is another example of how intergovernmental organizations can use existing tools to affirmatively support interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

In closing, with so many examples today of members of groups engaging in violence against members of other religious groups purportedly in the name of religion, it is vital that we remember the long-standing examples and practices of interfaith dialogue and coexistence, in particular throughout the OSCE and Mediterranean regions. The Mediterranean region is the birthplace of all three Abrahamic faiths and home to many other faiths as well which have survived there for centuries. But the survival of some of those communities in their historic homes is under threat today, and that is a terrible tragedy, one that we must all work urgently to address. And as we do so, we must recall with hope the very real and instructive history of interfaith coexistence and harmony in this region.

Thank you.