Inter-religious Cooperation in North America

Speech by Douglas M. Johnston, April 5, 2011

Thank you for that kind introduction and for the opportunity to address this important gathering. The topic I am to discuss is inter-religious cooperation in North America, and I would like to do so on two levels, first with respect to our international agenda and second with respect to national challenges such as those currently facing Japan. In addressing these two aspects, I will focus primarily on the Christian/Muslim interface.

International Considerations          

The events of September 11, 2001 created a new global environment in which international security became the overriding challenge for most Western policy makers and foreign policy practitioners. The implications of this sudden transformation have been especially obvious in the United States, where the resulting policy changes and institutional realignments have been felt at many levels of government. These legislative and executive branch shifts, designed to enhance national security while balancing safety with normalcy, have had far-reaching consequences for many Americans, with the Muslim community bearing much of the brunt of this change.

A perceived erosion of civil liberties coupled with seemingly onerous treatment at the hands of customs agents and other security officials has created no small degree of concern within the American Muslim Community. Indeed, a disquieting trend has developed in which many American Muslims are beginning to feel isolated in their own country. Despite this trend, Muslims have actually achieved a higher degree of integration within the United States than they have in any other country in the West. However, we need to go even further by including American Muslims in serious discussions about our national security and foreign policy.

Any perception that the American Muslim community is persecuted, ignored, or marginalized, plays directly into the hands of the terrorists. If, on the other hand, American Muslims were treated equally and actively engaged in the U.S. policy process, they could become this country’s most effective ambassadors to the Muslim world and a critically important instrument in changing America’s tarnished international image. In short, American Muslims need to feel like partners rather than suspects. Before one can hope to secure the full cooperation of the AMC in pursuing these ends, however, its legitimate misgivings and concerns will have to be acknowledged and addressed.

By the same token, before U.S. policymakers will be willing to temper current restrictive practices, they will need to be convinced that America’s best interests will be served by doing so. It was toward these ends (and others) that our NGO, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), in partnership with the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia and the Institute for Defense Analyses (the Pentagon’s leading think thank) convened a conference involving 30 American Muslim leaders and a like number of U.S. government security officials and foreign policy practitioners in March of 2006. The overriding purpose of the conference was to determine how both sides could begin working together for the common good. More specifically, the conference goals were to:

  1. Identify and mitigate those factors standing in the way of a constructive partnership between American Muslims and their government.
  2. Engage the AMC in bridging relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
  3. Inform U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy with a more nuanced understanding of Islam.
  4. Help empower the AMC in playing a strong leadership role in the further development of their religion.

The first goal is fundamental to achieving the other three, and the problem itself stems from two sources: (1) post 9/11 legal, immigration, and security reforms (in addition to negative rhetoric in the media) that have singled out Muslims as a potential threat, and (2) a feeling among American Muslims that they do not have sufficient political space to express their concerns or to influence domestic and foreign policy.

Achieving the second goal will involve capitalizing on the extensive paths of influence that the AMC has to Muslim Communities overseas, many of them in areas of strategic importance to the United States. The potential benefits of American Muslims acting as agents of change and outreach with their Muslim counterparts in other parts of the world are enormous.

The third goal will require the deliberate appointment of qualified American Muslims to key advisory bodies and policy-relevant positions in government in order to help shape U.S. policy choices that effectively anticipate the likely reactions of Muslim audiences around the world. American Muslims cannot explain, let alone defend, policies with which they disagree or, even more importantly, have played no part in making. Past failures to understand and deal with the religious dynamics that were taking place in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere have cost the United States dearly. The stakes are simply too high to continue on this basis.

Finally, it makes a great deal of sense for American Muslims to assume a leadership role in guiding the future intellectual and spiritual development of their religion. Beyond bridging modernity with the contemporary practice of Islam on a daily basis. (a challenge that still puzzles much of the rest of the Muslim world) They also enjoy greater freedom of thought than other Muslim communities around the globe.

The ready-made vehicle for exerting this kind of leadership is the long-dormant Islamic principle of ijtihad, which calls for a periodic reexamination of how one’s religious principles should inform one’s daily life in light of major changes in the external environment. Although this process was in full flower when Islam was at its peak in the Middle Ages, it was essentially shut down by important Sunni jurists about 900 years ago. Since that time, its continued use has generally been confined to Muslim intellectuals and certain Sufi orders.

In addressing the above goals, a number of specific recommendations were developed, as was an action agenda to implement them. One year later, we convened a second conference to provide accountability on the earlier recommendations and to examine new agenda items. To be sure, the progress to date on all this has been uneven at best. Suffice it to say, however, that the doors at the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security have opened wider to the inputs of American Muslims.

On the Muslim side, an informal advisory council has been formed called “American Muslims for Constructive Engagement (AMCE)” which includes an impressive cross-section of American Muslim leaders. Among other initiatives that the AMCE has undertaken is the development of a Directory of Experts who can provide technical and policy advice to U.S. agencies and who can represent the American Muslim viewpoint to the mainstream media.

Another arena in which the AMCE is playing a leadership role is a Policy Forum which they are co-sponsoring with us. This Forum brings together young leaders from the Muslim community and from the Washington policymaking community to engage in focused, organized discussions of current issues bearing on US relations with the Muslim world, both at home and abroad. We had our first meeting two weeks ago, which focused on Turkey as a model for democratization in the Middle East and on Tunisia as the one Arab state that comes closest to emulating that model.

The basic premise behind this Forum is that a more nuanced understanding of Islam will help U.S. policy makers to avoid falling victim to the law of unintended consequences as we have too often in the past.

The National Dimension

I would like to now turn to the national dimension of inter-religious cooperation, specifically as it relates to disaster response. The inter-religious aspects of this kind of challenge, however, are essentially subsumed in the broader context of emergency response at large. Here, the most relevant umbrella organization for private disaster response is NVOAD (National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), a forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—from preparation to response to recovery—in order to help disaster survivors and their communities.

NVOAD was founded in 1970 in response to the challenges following Hurricane Camille, which hit the Gulf Coast in August, 1969. Prior to its founding, numerous organizations, both public and private, served disaster victims independently of one another. As a result, help came to the disaster victim haphazardly, as various organizations assisted in unrelated ways. Unnecessary duplication of effort often occurred, while other needs were left unmet all together. People who volunteered to help their neighbours affected by the disaster were often frustrated by the multiplicity of organizations in some areas of service and the total absence of opportunities to serve in others. Further, there was only a limited availability of training for potential volunteers. Information for victims on available services during disasters was also woefully inadequate. Finally, communication among voluntary disaster agencies was very limited, and coordination of services was virtually non-existent.

In response to these problems, seven founding organizations came together to form NVOAD in order to provide better communications, coordination, collaboration, and cooperation in serving people impacted by disasters. Today, NVOAD is a leader and voice for the non-profit organizations and volunteers that work in all phases of disaster; and it serves as the primary point of contact for voluntary organizations in the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA headquarters.

In a nutshell, when disaster—natural or man-made—strikes a community, specific emergency management and non-profit organizations within NVOAD automatically respond according to a pre-established plan. Each of these designated organizations has a specific role to play in ensuring an effective response to and recovery from the devastation.

Within this structure, one finds a spectrum of religious participants, including, among others, Adventist Community Services, the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, Brethren Disaster Ministries, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, Catholic Charities USA, Churches of Scientology Disaster Response, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Episcopal Relief and Development, The Jewish Federations of North America, Latter Day Saints Charities, Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, World Vision… the list goes on.

Conspicuous by its absence is any Muslim relief organization. This gap, however, will soon be filled by Islamic Relief USA, the new American arm of a global relief organization that provides shelter, food, water, and other essentials in major catastrophes around the world. Islamic Relief USA will soon become a part of NVOAD, and it is likely that they will collaborate during the next major disaster relief exercise. In summary, I think it is clear from all of this that NVOAD accepts help from any and all religious relief organizations and that none of these organizations discriminates in any way with respect to whom they will help.

Finally, at the Federal level, FEMA Regional Voluntary Agency Liaisons (VALS) serve as the principal FEMA point of contact for voluntary organizations at the national, state, and regional levels. Among other functions, these VALS provide leadership and technical assistance in response and recovery operations, and they also assist in building the disaster preparedness capacity of voluntary organizations. All of this will come into play next month during National Level Exercise 2011, when the full spectrum of integrated responses will be tested in relation to a hypothetical major earthquake in the central United States region of the New Madrid seismic zone.

In closing, I think it is fair to conclude that there are significant synergies to be had through inter-religious cooperation regardless of whatever level one is talking about. Nowhere is this truer than in trouble spots overseas where conflict threatens or has already broken out. Our Center’s work in reforming the madrasas (religious schools) in Pakistan is a good example. To my knowledge, there is nothing that is currently going on—either on the battlefield or off—that is any more strategic than the work we are doing with the madrasas. If we have time during the question and answer period, I will be happy to discuss that as well.

Thank you for your attention, and I would be pleased to take your questions.



Religious Affairs Strategy Conference
Colorado Springs, April 5, 2011

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