Religion and Conflict: A View from the State Department

Shaun Casey
Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs 
Marshall Speaker Series, The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ
October 6, 2016

(As Prepared)

Dr. Linell Cady (Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and the Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies), Dr. John Carlson (Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict), and esteemed guests, it is my honor and privilege to be with you this evening as the 2016 Marshall Speaker.

My goal in our time together is to do two things: first, I want to describe the mission and evolution of the work of our office, Secretary Kerry’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs in its three years of existence. Second, I want to touch broadly on the issue of religion and conflict, but want to do so through describing three specific areas which relate to conflict: climate adaptation and mitigation, the global refugee crisis, and countering violent extremism.

But before I do that, I would like to give you some context about the State Department and its historic relationship with religion. Before our office was ever established, before I was ever on anyone’s radar screen as someone who could assist the State Department more robustly analyze and understand religion as a force in society, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted that a gap in our foreign policy analysis was a robust understanding of religious dynamics in various cultures and contexts. She pointed out that when she was confirmed as Secretary of State, she had advisors on political, military, economic, and developmental issues, but none on the key topic of religion. Conventionally, State Department culture has viewed religion somewhat skeptically, and has viewed it through either the lens of international religious freedom or as a force that can only lead to conflict. While these two analytical frameworks are important, as many of you know, religious leaders, actors, and institutions are operating broadly and effectively in the wide landscape between these two poles.

Fast forward to 2013. Shortly after he arrived at the State Department, Secretary Kerry learned that he had the authority to create the Office of Religion and Global Affairs; the groundwork and authorization for it had been laid in the previous administration but had not been created. At that time, I was a professor of ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I had known Secretary Kerry (then Senator Kerry) since 2005, as well as Secretary Kerry’s Chief of Staff David Wade. When Secretary Kerry learned that he could create what is now the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, he turned to David Wade and said, “Call Shaun.”

So in February 2013, I arrived at my office and found an e-mail from David Wade, asking if I could come to the State Department that evening. I paused for all of 15 seconds before I responded that I could, and at that meeting, we had a handshake on the establishment of this office. It’s been an incredible opportunity for me as someone who has academic interest in the role of religion in public life. But the past three years have been marked by a steep learning curve. I joke with my staff that before I came to the State Department, the most complex thing I organized was a graduate seminar for a dozen students. What I was asked to do three years ago was build a new office in the State Department that would complement and enrich the foreign policy work already being done by dedicated foreign service officers, civil servants, and others.

I am pleased that a little over a week ago, we hosted a Religion and Diplomacy Conference (or #RaDCon) for approximately 250 government leaders, academics, scholars, religious practitioners and community activists, and representatives from religiously-affiliated organizations. The conference showcased our approach to methodology in engagement of religious actors and assessing religious dynamics, and explored how these lines of effort can be expanded, deepened, and enriched. It demonstrated how, over the course of three years, the State Department made a commitment to systematically analyze the importance that religion holds with regard to foreign policy, and underscore Secretary Kerry’s belief – which he noted in a speech on religion and foreign policy in April 2016 at Rice University – that “the more the State Department understands religion and engages religious actors, the more effective U.S. diplomacy will be in advancing key policy interests.” #RaDCon touched on issues ranging from coalition building in combating anti-Semitism to engaging religious communities in anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria, from the role of religious actors in global health to the power of citizen diplomacy in Muslim communities, and even engaging religion in addressing conflict.

I would like to take a moment to briefly address the issue of religion and conflict. Too often the role of religion and peacebuilding has too often been characterized in a strictly dichotomous way: either as a driver of conflict or of reconciliation. As you can imagine, there is considerable debate and and important discussions surrounding this issue, some of which takes place in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. The challenge is not to exaggerate the role of religion in either direction, rather to “right-size” it and appreciate that religion intersects with other factors such as politics, law, economy, society, and culture. It is also critical to recognize that the relationship between religion and conflict (or religion and peacebuilding) is neither static nor one-dimensional.

What this means for our diplomats is that they need to understand that religion plays a complex role in conflict – sometimes serving as an inspiration for violence, and other times as a powerful force for peace and reconciliation. They must develop the ability to understand and recognize where and how religious beliefs contribute to conflicts, or when they might be invoked to promote peace. This was made clear during a #RaDCon session on engaging religion in conflict, in which policy shapers -- a former U.S. ambassador, think tank experts, and prominent academics discussed religious engagement in situations of conflict and crisis response. They addressed difficult questions of what a policymaker must consider in a crisis; how to identify and access key religious groups, communities, actors, and resources before, during, and after a crisis situation; and how to analyze the influence of transnational religious actors. The session brought together the “who’s who” of religion and conflict, and immensely important connections were made.

Moreover, the panelists in the breakout session on religion and conflict offered clear-eyed analysis underscored that religion is a complex, yet multivalent societal force that cannot be understood in binary terms as either a source of conflict or a panacea in addressing global challenges. Rather, they highlighted that religious dynamics must be understood and assessed within a specific cultural context – we need to understand “lived religion,” how it is interpreted and practiced in a particular community. This also must be done very diligently and with sophistication. My mentor, Fr. Bryan Hehir, compared this challenging work to brain surgery – a necessary task, but fatal if not done well.

In the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, we also recognize that engaging with religious actors and understanding religious dynamics does not supplant the diplomatic and policy efforts needed to address some of the biggest and most difficult foreign policy issues of the day. We are aware that religious communities can and do shape and drive social change. Many religious groups are at the forefront of initiatives that focus on encouraging sustainable development, promoting good governance, supporting women’s empowerment, and advocating for social justice. I want to take a few minutes to discuss a few of these lines of effort and where our office has been involved.

The first is climate change – an issue that has not always been recognized as having immediate linkages with religion or religious actors. But since the earliest days after Secretary Kerry charged me with leading this Office, global environmental issues—and climate change in particular—have figured centrally in our efforts to articulate the policy benefits of engaging religious actors. Though scientists have long sounded the alarm about climate change, the problem is no longer simply a scientific or technical problem. It is a political, economic, and social challenge, and above all, a moral issue. This underscores the critical role of the world’s faith communities, in providing a moral compass with which to comprehend, and ultimately to act on, this grand global challenge.

Religious leaders and organizations were critical to the international effort to generate an ambitious, consensus-driven agreement about how to reduce global carbon emissions and expedite the transition towards a low-carbon future. They have also been tireless champions of the world’s poor, and are working to help these communities adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change. As the international community has moved to meet the threat of climate change, religious leadership has helped keep us mindful of the communities most vulnerable to its impacts and has helped sustain our will to provide future generations with unfettered access to the beauty and goodness of the earth on which we depend.

For instance, in his encyclical last year, Pope Francis cited the physical harm being done by climate change to our forests, our oceans, our polar regions, and the economic harm to those who depend for a living on agriculture and marine resources. Pope Francis has not been alone; religious leaders from a wide range of traditions have lent a moral voice and spoken about the need to be stewards of the planet.

In the year leading up to the historic meeting last December in Paris of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (known colloquially as COP-21), the Office of Religion and Global Affairs hosted a series of briefings and consultations that brought together policymakers, representatives from more secular environmental organizations, and religious stakeholders. These latter groups were generally aware of each other’s unique contributions, but sometimes treated one another with some suspicion. The unlikely alliance was met with challenges from both sides, but ultimately allowed both groups to take necessary steps to encourage constituents and leaders to achieve a broad, ambitious agreement in Paris.

Our efforts in the lead-up to COP-21 culminated with a Symposium on Religion and Climate Change, held at the State Department and here at Georgetown University. This two-day event drew from a wide circle of expertise, including theological perspectives, scholarly voices, representation from faith-based organizations, and government officials from a wide swath of federal agencies. The Symposium helped ensure that religious leaders had the information about climate policy necessary for their many contributions to the success of the Paris conference. It also illustrated the ability of our office to play a convening role and substantially advance the conversation about religious engagement with climate change policy.

The achievements with regard to the Paris Agreement continue. Yesterday, it crossed the second and final threshold needed for it to enter into force. Less than six months after the signing of the agreement, enough countries submitted their instruments of ratification to formally join, and the Paris Agreement will enter into force in 30 days. The rapid timeline underscores the widespread recognition of the urgency at hand, and it is a testament to the continued determination of states large and small to act on the social, economic, and moral imperative to address the dangerous impacts of climate change.

Policymakers are also turning to other concrete, specific domains of climate policy, working to identify ways to implement and achieve the promises made in Paris. In this shift towards implementation, the Green Climate Fund has a critical role to play by providing support to developing countries to advance their climate change objectives. The Green Climate Fund, which is managed through an independent secretariat, has over $10 billion (USD) in pledged contributions. As the largest contributor to the Green Climate Fund in terms of pledged contributions and paid in resources to date, the United States sees the Green Climate Fund as critical to leverage private sector capital flows to catalyze climate mitigation and adaptation results on the ground.

The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has, over the past year, regularly convened religious groups for briefings on the Green Climate Fund, which have helped various religious networks support the Fund and enhance its efficacy. In keeping with our mission to serve as a point of access for religious communities, we have sought to provide space for religiously-affiliated organizations to orient themselves to a complex, and still evolving policy apparatus. We are also looking ahead to COP-22, which will be held in Morocco in November, and are similarly identifying ways to engage the views of religious stakeholders in the process.

The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has similarly applied its engagement approach to another pressing foreign policy issue: that of the global refugee crisis. As many of you probably know, across the globe, more than 21 million people have fled their homes and crossed international borders as refugees, searching for safety. This does not take into account the over 40 million more who have been internally displaced in their home countries. Quite simply, we are facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Two weeks ago, President Obama signaled the U.S. government’s commitment to addressing this issue by hosting the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York to secure new commitments from 52 countries and organizations to increase humanitarian funding, admitting more refuges through resettlement or other pathways, and increasing refugees’ ability to access education and lawful employment. To model the spirit of this commitment to help the world’s most vulnerable people, President Obama signed a Presidential Determination authorizing the admission of up to 110,000 refugees in this current fiscal year. Last week we met our goal for the last fiscal year of welcoming 85,000 of the world’s most vulnerable from all different regions of the world.

You may be wondering how the work of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs intersects with refugee resettlement issues, especially since the State Department conventionally deals primarily with foreign policy issues. I am an alleged expert on public-private partnerships, when government works with the private sector or civil society on initiatives and shared goals. Yet when I came to the State Department, I was unaware of the public-private partnership that has existed for decades in the refugee resettlement space. To resettle refugees, the State Department works with international and inter-governmental organizations, it also partners with nine national agencies (six of which are religiously-affiliated) and their offices throughout the United States and overseas to help with resettlement and placement. And it relies on an array of local networks – religious leaders and communities, non-governmental organizations, social service providers, schools, police departments, municipal government leaders, and individual volunteers – to make the resettlement process possible. The success of the refugee resettlement process in the U.S. has required a “whole of society collaboration.” To my mind, it is one of the best, yet woefully under-told, good news stories about effective public-private partnership.

Over the course of about six months, I had the opportunity to visit six different cities in the U.S. – both large and small -- to meet with approximately 100 refugees and hear their stories, learn of the incredible work of the local resettlement offices, and provide support to local religious communities and others who are so integral to the success of arriving refugees. One of these cities was Phoenix.

What has been so heartening to see is the outpouring of welcome and assistance for refugees at the local community level. Phoenix has been no exception to this. In the most recent fiscal year, Arizona welcomed over 4000 refugees from almost 50 countries around the world. It is local communities – NGOs, local resettlement offices, religious communities, schools, volunteers, and others – that have devised innovative programs and support to help refugees. In Phoenix, organizations like Refugee Focus offer sewing classes as a part of its empowerment program for refugee women. It cooperates with Downtown Phoenix Partnership to collect vinyl conference banners which the women reuse and sew into bags that are sold at local conventions. In cities throughout Arizona and the United States, religious communities, NGOs, and others are offering English language classes, senior programs, and other activities to ensure that refugees feel part of the community and don’t become isolated. This gives me hope. Despite the ugly anti-refugee rhetoric that persists in the U.S. media and political discourse, community members are still offering support for refugees. This will become even more necessary in the year ahead, as Arizona and all states in the United States continue to welcome refugees from all over the world.

As a final example, I would like to discuss our office’s approach to religion in our efforts to counter violent extremism. As I mentioned earlier, our office helps our colleagues in embassies and consulates around the world assess religion and religious dynamics. However, we also strive to “right-size” or contextualize the role of religion in our policy priorities. This means we try to recognize when religion is an important factor in understanding how we engage with a partner or approach a priority. And in those areas where it is a factor, we seek to determine whether it is a driving or contributing variable. We do not take an essentialist approach that presumes religion to somehow be at the core of every issue nor do we assume that religion is irrelevant to issues such as violent extremism.

Violent extremism and religion are often—and wrongly--used synonymously by some policymakers, in political discourse, and in the media. However, through our work, we have found that religion is rarely the only or primary driver of violent extremism. There are a wide and diverse range of factors, such as politics, economy, social conflict, identity, individual psychology, and ideology—including, sometimes, religious ideology. Other sources of grievances include localized conflicts, state-sponsored violence, corruption, political and/or socioeconomic marginalization, to name a few. Again, understanding context is clearly a critical component to the success of any initiative to counter violent extremism. Religion is always embedded in specific and complex contexts, and this is important to note in order to ensure that the role of religion is not generalized or stereotyped with regard to violent extremism.

What this means in practical terms is that the factors that drive someone to join a violent extremist group in Syria are very different from what drives another in northwestern Pakistan or even in parts of Western Europe. Before deciding on any type of CVE engagement our experience shows that research should be conducted at the local level to better understand drivers of violent extremism in a geographic area, or among a specific target audience. Applying a data-driven approach focused on identifying these drivers can inform how best to engage on CVE – whether through religious communities and leaders or other institutions and civil society.

Furthermore, there are often suggestions that in response to violent extremism, we seek out “moderate” voices, or “moderate” Muslims. This terminology and, more importantly, the pronouncement of what is “moderate” and what is not, is problematic. A call for moderation does not acknowledge the simple truth that those attracted to violent extremism may not find “moderate” voices appealing. These so-called “moderate” voices may be perceived as being disengaged or uninvested in questions of dignity that matter deeply to those looking for religious messages that resonate more fully. Our attitude with and engagement with various groups is thus governed not by labels such as “moderate” or “extreme” but rather by the substance of what these groups say and do. We need to and have begun approaching the design of activities to counter violent extremism with more sophistication. This means moving away from relying on religious leaders to provide “theological antidotes” to extremism and instead recognizing and engaging them as relevant and effective voices in other aspects of CVE work – from anti-corruption efforts to economic development to local peacebuilding.

In the final months of the Obama administration, one of the most frequent question I am asked is about the future of our office following the presidential election in November. I have three answers, and the first two come as a pair: Madeleine Albright and Secretary Kerry. These two Secretaries of State strongly support our office and our approach to assessing religion and understanding religious dynamics as a means of enriching foreign policymaking.

The third response, though, is to say that we are now in a new stage in the intersection of religion and international affairs. With approximately 80 percent of individuals around the globe identifying with a religious group, religion is an influential factor in public life and policymaking, and this is not going to change in the near future. I believe we have won the hearts and minds of the career staff at the State Department as they understand and appreciate the work we contribute to the strategic success of our diplomacy. And from the overwhelming interest in and positive comments on our recent Religion and Diplomacy Conference, the intersection of religion and global issues is a topic about which academics, government leaders, and civil society representatives are taking note.

I am pleased State Department is increasingly reflecting on and accounting for the complexity of religion and ways in which it serves as a source of identity, values, and worldview for the majority of the world’s population. And we are forging a path and serving as a model internationally in our approach to religion and its interface with foreign policy issues. The question as we look ahead is not one of “why” religion matters, but “how.”

Thank you.