Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century
Douglas Johnston is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. He's the co-editor of Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft.
January 3, 2008
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century.” My guest, Douglas Johnston, has been developing strategic, below-the-radar projects and contacts in places like Iran, Sudan, and Pakistan. He says the diplomacy of the future must engage religion as part of the solution even and especially where it seems a source of conflict.
MR. DOUGLAS JOHNSTON: You know, we’re one of the most religious nations in the world today, and yet we so compartmentalize it that unfortunately, we’ve let our separation of church and state, which I would not suggest that we change at all, but we’ve let that become a crutch for not doing our homework on how religion informs the worldviews and political aspirations of others.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. My guest this hour is a military and diplomatic strategist, Douglas Johnston. Instead of approaching religion as a problem in global crises, he is modeling a new kind of diplomacy. In places like Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan, he is successfully engaging religious leaders and passions to combat the causes, not just the symptoms, of violent religious extremism.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century.”
This month, President Bush will make his first trip to Israel and the West Bank in hopes of advancing peace in that region. The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, founded in 1999 by my guest, Douglas Johnston, recently brought together Christian and Muslim leaders from Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and the U.S. They’re working on a religious framework for Middle East peace that political leaders could build on. This is one example of many below-the-radar diplomatic efforts Douglas Johnston facilitates worldwide. He says religion is a critical ingredient to the success of such efforts in the world we inhabit now, especially where religion seems to be the heart of the problem.
MR. JOHNSTON: The key to engaging with Iran is religion. You see, they don’t trust us politically. We say things out of both sides of our mouths. But they do believe in religion. And if you start out with a religious framework, you can segue into talking about anything you want, nuclear weapons, the whole nine yards.
MS. TIPPETT: I interviewed Douglas Johnston in January 2007, after following his work for many years. I wanted to know more about the innovative and risky work his center is doing that is hard to imagine behind familiar headlines of turmoil and impasse. For example, he’s been engaged for several years in unprecedented work directly with Pakistani educators to help reform madrassas. U.S. officials have cited these religious schools as breeding grounds for terrorism.
Douglas Johnston has classic military and strategic credentials. He’s commanded a nuclear submarine. He’s worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the president’s Office for Emergency Preparedness. He founded and directed Harvard’s Executive Program in National and International Security. And for 12 years, he was executive vice president of one of the top foreign policy think tanks in Washington, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But as the Cold War world unraveled, Douglas Johnston saw that world affairs and the work of diplomacy were about to be radically changed. He co-authored a groundbreaking book based on case studies from Africa, Latin America, and Europe, titled Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft.
MR. JOHNSTON: Over the course of the seven years in which the book was being produced, the Berlin Wall came down, which none of us had anticipated was going to happen as quickly as it did.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. JOHNSTON: And then ethnic conflicts started to blossom, and all of a sudden, this book, which sort of suggests the juxtaposition of religious reconciliation with official or unofficial diplomacy, people saw that as having greater potential than traditional diplomacy in dealing with these identity-based conflicts that, you know, take the form of ethnic disputes or religious hostilities, tribal warfare, what have you.
MS. TIPPETT: When I look at Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, this book that emerged — was it published in 1994?
MR. JOHNSTON: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: In any case, before 9/11, so before the world had changed yet again in terms of the big picture that we all see. I was struck as I read that that even then in the early ’90s, you were saying that with the decline of this East-West confrontation, which in fact restrained a lot of regional conflicts, that the clashes now were going to have to do with communal identity and that religion would play a critical role in that. I wonder if your colleagues in foreign policy circles already then were seeing that.
MR. JOHNSTON: Certainly not at that time, and I think that, in some instances, never at all.
MS. TIPPETT: Still haven’t.
MR. JOHNSTON: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, we have a lot of people running things now who were still involved in those Cold War conflicts, don’t we?
MR. JOHNSTON: That’s exactly right. And, you know, if you just look at Iraq today, you quickly conclude that we as a nation-state have virtually no ability to deal with religious differences in a hostile setting, nor any ability to counter demigods, like Bin Laden or Milosevic, who manipulate religion for their own purposes. And, you know, we’re one of the most religious nations in the world today…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: …and yet we so compartmentalize it that unfortunately, we’ve let our separation of church and state — which I would not suggest that we change at all, but we’ve let that become a crutch for not doing our homework on how religion informs the worldviews and political aspirations of others. By having this so compartmentalized, we’ve had it off the table.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: So it’s not been on the policymakers’ screen for many decades. We also have some very real operational constraints that cause people to shy away from making any sort of investments or moves on the religious side.
MS. TIPPETT: What are you thinking about when you say that, operational constraints?
MR. JOHNSTON: Modest investments, for example, on the religious side early on in Iraq could have had enormous payoff in the security equation. In fact, while the war was still going on, as brief as it was, we received a message from CENTCOM, which was conducting the war, asking us if we could put a team together to come over to train senior military chaplains in how to handle localized conflict having religious content. So we got a team, a really terrific team, together, all set to go, but the funding never came through. And the funding in this case was $50,000 from start to finish.
MS. TIPPETT: Which is just nothing, yeah.
MR. JOHNSTON: That was pretty — nothing, lost in the rounding there. But, you know, when push comes to shove, it is the case that more often than not in government and even in industry, when people hear the word “religion,” they run for the hills.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I want to ask you — I had an interesting conversation right after the war with a young Iraqi-American who had gone over to talk to the early American provisional, the coalition authority, on creating civic structures. And he said that the approach has been to focus on a few authority figures and not pay attention to Islam as it functions in lives. And he was saying, you know, why are we not creating Muslim Chambers of Commerce, which is exactly the kind of civic organization that was at the bedrock of American communities and American democracy. I don’t know, how do you react to that?
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, I think it’s a very good point, but we were even very slow off the mark, I mean, too late to be useful at all in keying in on Ayatollah Sistani, for example. I mean, we put our whole plan forward and got absolutely no feedback from anybody of consequence there. And what we didn’t realize is, you know, the people of Iraq don’t feel loyalty to a nation-state; they feel loyalty to their religion. You know, when Iranian Ayatollahs would come over to Iraq shortly after the war was finished, they were treated like gods. I mean, it was just amazing.
MS. TIPPETT: But as you’ve written widely about and also spoken quite frankly about with the State Department and with military leaders and professionals, we Americans would have to completely re-examine not just some of our ideas, but some of our instincts. I mean, when you say that Iraqis would pay much more attention to religious leaders, I think Americans, you know, instinctively feel, ‘Well, they shouldn’t.’
MR. JOHNSTON: Right. Yeah, we sort of play to our own comfort zone, which is largely irrelevant to the situation over there, I’m afraid. You know, for example, I can give you — we’re currently involved in Pakistan, you know, I think, in a meaningful way. We’ve been there for over three years, actually on the ground, reforming the madrassas, the religious schools that, among other things, gave birth to the Taliban. And what most people don’t understand is the history of these madrassas. Back in the Middle Ages, these were the absolute peaks of learning excellence in the world…
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MR. JOHNSTON: …and then it was only European exposure to them that led to the creation of our university system. But you take little things like, you know, funding a chair in a given discipline or the mortar boards and tassels you wear on your head at graduation, all of that came out of madrassas.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MR. JOHNSTON: Yeah. And then over the years, under the impact of colonialism and the like, they just regressed to where, today, they’re really about rote memorization of the Qur’an and the study of Islamic principles. And the problem with this is, for example, in Pakistan, you’ll find youngsters as young as the age of 12 who have memorized the Qur’an from cover to cover and haven’t a clue as to what it means, because their first language is Urdu…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: …and they’re not given enough Arabic to be able to…
MS. TIPPETT: And they’re learning it in Arabic, Qur’anic Arabic.
MR. JOHNSTON: Exactly. And then what happens is a local militant comes along and misappropriates pieces of scripture, which all religions are prone to do from time to time, to recruit them to his cause, and these kids are just easy prey. They’re totally without any ability to challenge or question. So we’ve got two objectives there. One is to expand the curriculums to include the physical and social sciences with a special emphasis on human rights, particularly women’s rights, and religious tolerance. And the second, which I think is even more important, is to transform the pedagogy to develop critical thinking skills among these students. And thus far, we have really been on a roll, and for two reasons.
In the first instance, we’ve done this in such a way that they feel it’s their reform project and not something imposed from the outside. We’ve given the madrassa leaders a lot of ownership in the process. Secondly, inspiring them with their own heritage, pointing out how many of the pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences, including religious tolerance, took place under Islam 1,000 years ago. Well, once they start hearing that and internalizing it, all of a sudden, you know, start walking a little taller and thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we can do better.’ You know, one thing that has been encouraging to me across all of the — there’s five sects that sponsor these religious schools, and the two hardest line are the Deobandi and the Wahhabis.
But one point in common that all of these madrassa leaders seem to share is a real concern for the fact that they’re not doing well by their students. They seem to care about that. They themselves were the…
MS. TIPPETT: Which is what teachers care about in any culture.
MR. JOHNSTON: Yeah, that’s right. And they themselves were victims of this same approach, you know, so we really tap into a lot of deep feelings in this process.
MS. TIPPETT: Military and diplomatic strategist Douglas Johnston. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re exploring the changing place of religion in political strategy and diplomacy. The projects and staff of Douglas Johnston’s International Center for Religion and Diplomacy are multi-religious and multi-regional, addressing conflicts that contain Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish dynamics. Johnston himself is an Evangelical Protestant, but he works most intensely these days on conflicts with an Islamic interface. He’s been describing his center’s grassroots work to help reform Pakistani religious schools, madrassas. When I spoke with Douglas Johnston one year ago, I asked him why Pakistani educators chose to partner with his center based in Washington, D.C.
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, it was because I had a personal relationship with the executive director of that institute.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: He knew me. We trusted one another. But your question is well taken because about a year ago, I sat down and asked him the same question. I said, ‘Look, I know you know me, we’re good friends, we trust one another.’ I said, ‘But why in the world would you engage an American NGO to partner with you on something like this?’
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. JOHNSTON: The answer he gave me was what I told you about the credibility that we enjoyed with Islam and the fact that we were faith-based in nature. And now, interestingly enough, the harder-line elements of the Wahhabis and the Deobandis sought us out to negotiate separate tracks with them…
MS. TIPPETT: The Wahhabis did.
MR. JOHNSTON: The Wahhabis and the Deobandis. By the way, in Pakistan, the Wahhabis are hard line and they get their funding from Saudi Arabia, but the Deobandis are far more powerful and they, too, get some funding from Saudi Arabia. But they seem to care, and this is despite some really terrible things that are going on. I was just over there a month ago and I addressed a madrassa we had not been in yet, this was a Wahhabi madrassa that was identified with the London bombers, and another Deobandi madrassa that is thought to supply the fighters for Chechnya and Kashmir and also has spawned two of the most violent anti-Shiite terrorist groups. But I was there, addressed both of these, and there was a lot of rage in the room because this was right at the peak of the Lebanon crisis and the rage related to U.S. foreign policy.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: And I was able to get past that by — I started out by saying, ‘Look, we’re not a government organization nor have we ever received funding from our government.’ I said, ‘While the United States has clearly made some mistakes of late, you must not forget the times it’s intervened on behalf of Muslims, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia. In Somalia, for example, over a 100,000 Somali lives were saved as a result of that humanitarian intervention.’ I said, ‘And while you can also fairly criticize us for operating with a double standard in the Middle East, because of our strategic relationship with Israel,’ I said, ‘so, too, do the Arab countries operate with a double standard who complain mightily over Israeli mistreatment but turn a deaf ear to pleas from the Palestinians for even humanitarian assistance.’
So I said, ‘Everywhere you look, there’s double standards and it’s driven by perceived national self-interests.’ Then I would lay on them several verses from the Qur’an that I’d committed to memory and…
MS. TIPPETT: And did you commit them to memory in Arabic?
MR. JOHNSTON: No, no, I’m not that good.
MS. TIPPETT: OK, all right.
MR. JOHNSTON: But I did in English, and they understood English.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: The thrust of them was something to the following effect: ‘Oh, mankind, God could have made you one if He had willed, but He did not. He made you the separate nations and tribes so that you could know one another, cooperate with one another, and compete with one another in good works.’ And I said, ‘And that’s why we are here today. We want to open the competition in good works.’ Well, when you reach that point, the rage disappears, because they know that we care enough to learn about their scripture to be able to engage with them on that basis, and it gets past the business of tolerance. Tolerance means you’ll put up with somebody. But you get to respect. It shows you care enough about them to understand their values and how they think and operate. Makes a huge difference. And that’s one of the things I think in our American foreign policy we just are missing the boat on in so many ways.
MS. TIPPETT: I’ve often thought that tolerance is, you know, such a limiting word anyway, and it’s a word that religious traditions would insist on something more.
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, that — yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: These virtues of hospitality and compassion and…
MR. JOHNSTON: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: …seeing others as children of God are much more powerful than, than this kind of cerebral ideal of tolerance, which we need, but I think religious people would say it’s not enough really.
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, and you know, in this situation, for example, you say, ‘OK, what difference is this going to make?’ Well, for one thing, for openers, it probably means a better future for the children of Pakistan. But when you consider the fact it gets right at the very heart of this global war on terrorism in a positive way, it speaks to the future of our own children.
Just to give you an example, when I mentioned that I was in Pakistan at these different madrassas, in one workshop, one of the madrassa leaders came up to me afterwards and he had his hand over his heart, smile on his face, smile in his eyes, and he said, ‘You have made me so very, very happy.’ He said, ‘We thought all Americans hated us.’
Well, another one — this one really is a grabber. Another one came up and said that he had a situation in his village where a young woman had been caught talking on her cell phone at two in the morning to a young man in an adjacent village in whom she had an interest. And the village elders felt that this violated their sense of honor, and the consequences were to be that she was to lose her life, her mother was to lose her life, her sister was to lose her life, the boy’s mother was to die, and the boy was to lose his nose and his ears. And this madrassa leader said ordinarily, you know, this sort of thing happens a lot and he wouldn’t make much of it, but based on the discussions that we’d been having about human rights, he now felt compelled to go back and confront this and to do so on religious grounds.
And it was with some trepidation — he feared for his own life in this process as well, but he went back and he did this. He pointed out to the elders how there was nothing in the Qur’an that prohibited a woman from talking to a man, and he also made reference to verses that encouraged the peaceful resolution of differences, and he was able to resolve it with no one getting harmed. And, you know, that’s a situation where religion trumped tribalism in a context where it’s very difficult to know where one begins and where the other ends, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Where it’s often hard to tell the difference.
MR. JOHNSTON: Exactly, you know, and our hope is, of course, that this can be a precedent for years to come in that village and perhaps spread to other villages. But it’s not always a given that religion’s going to always triumph because, as some of these folks will tell you, say, ‘Look, my tribal customs date back 3,000 years. Islam’s only 1400 years.’ So…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But I wonder — I mean the story you just told, in that story, in fact, lives were saved. But I wonder, does it happen to you — because what you’re describing is such a different way to think about building relationships with the Muslim world, which is really what you’re talking about.
MR. JOHNSTON: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: And do people dismiss this as naive or as isolated examples which cannot be fit into national policies?
MR. JOHNSTON: No. I’m pleased to say that that’s not the case. When we first started out in 1999, there was sort of tepid acknowledgement at the State Department. Now there’s downright enthusiasm, both at State, at Defense, and at the CIA.
MS. TIPPETT: For this work you’re doing.
MR. JOHNSTON: Exactly. Because they realize that they can’t do it, you know, but they realize that, you know, this probably is one of the answers.
MS. TIPPETT: Working with madrassas and dealing with religious actors in a place like Sudan, which is something else you’ve done.
MR. JOHNSTON: You bet. You bet.
MS. TIPPETT: Religion and diplomacy strategist Douglas Johnston. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, we’ll discuss his center’s innovative work with religious leaders in Sudan. Also, his unofficial diplomacy, below the radar, with Iran.
MR. JOHNSTON: The drumbeat of the Great Satan continues. When you drive downtown Tehran, you see the sides of buildings with these huge murals on them with bombs dropping on silhouettes of the United States. And so you get the feeling, you know, this may not be the friendliest country in the world. But at a personal level, one thing they do is they clearly distinguish between the policies of the U.S. government and Americans. And from top to bottom, all we experienced was Iranians love Americans.
MS. TIPPETT: In many ways, our radio program is just the beginning. At speakingoffaith.org, see images of people and places from Douglas Johnston’s travels in Pakistan, Sudan, and Iran. Also, we continue to make our material more portable, and invite you behind the scenes. You can also download MP3s of this program and my entire, unedited conversation with Douglas Johnston through our Web site, our SOF podcast, and in our weekly e-mail newsletter. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett, today revisiting my conversation with Douglas Johnston about how religion might be part of a strategic and diplomatic solutions to 21st-century crises. Johnston is a retired naval reserve captain and former executive vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Now he directs the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., which he founded in 1999. As Douglas Johnston knows from experience, the pragmatic diplomacy that defined the Cold War realpolitik was about maximizing power and balancing interests between competing nation-states. But in 21st-century conflicts, regional and religious dynamics are often front and center.
For example, his center has played a key role behind the scenes in an improved relationship between the governing Islamic north and the Christian and tribal south of Sudan. After the end of colonialism in Sudan, two civil wars between the north and the south claimed over 2 million lives. During the second civil war, Sudan’s Islamic regime imposed strict sharia law on the entire country, including the Christians of the South. A peace agreement was reached in January 2005, but ongoing crisis in the Darfur region, an inter-Muslim conflict, has continued to capture world attention. Douglas Johnston’s stories from Sudan add detail to what he calls the incomplete picture that Americans glean from media accounts.
MR. JOHNSTON: I’m no apologist for the government of Sudan, but they’ve done some things that deserve recognition and to be applauded, and never get any credit for it. But, well, when we were invited to come in, I took a look at it. And there were any number of NGOs or non-governmental organizations, like ourselves, over there in Sudan, but they were all working in the south, dealing with the symptoms of the problem, trying to alleviate the suffering that was taking place as a result of the conflict, and I think doing as good a job as one could do. So my hat’s off to them.
We decided to try a different strategy. We wanted to go to get at cause rather than symptoms. So we deliberately went to the north and pursued a strategy of establishing relationships of trust with the Islamic regime, and from that vantage point, trying to inspire them to take steps toward peace that they wouldn’t otherwise take.
And about a year and a half into this process, we had a watershed moment in November of 2000, when we brought together 30 religious leaders and scholars from both the Christian and the Muslim communities. The scholars are important, by the way, because within Islam, it is so decentralized that the influence of any given leader of a mosque is somewhat limited…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: …even if they have huge mosques, and it’s the scholars that really have the wider impact. So — but we had 10 prominent Sudanese Christian religious leaders, 10 prominent Sudanese Muslim religious leaders, and 10 internationals from both faith communities. And the most difficult part of the challenge was getting the Christians to participate, which I had expected would be the case.
And they were totally disillusioned. They’d been beat over the head so long. And the government of Sudan, on three different occasions over the previous 10 years, had convened great interreligious dialogue conferences involving people from lots of countries and stuff. And nowhere along the way did the Christian leaders of Sudan get a chance to air their grievances. And these all ended up being just PR bonanzas for the government. So they were, they feared a repetition of that.
And I told them, I said, ‘Look, there will be no PR whatsoever.’ You know, I said, ‘And, furthermore, you have no option. You see, you’re Christian. You’re called to be peacemakers. This is about making peace. You have to come whether you want to or not.’ So they came with their heels dragging. But after the first day, the Christian leaders came up to me with smiles on their faces. And they said, ‘You know, this is the first time we’ve ever been heard.’
And after it was all over, an elder statesman took me aside — again a Muslim who had been a diplomat all his life — and he said two things. He said, ‘You know, this is the first time in the history of our country that northerners and southerners have spoken to one another from the heart.’ Secondly, he said he had never before seen, in a single meeting, as much intellectual horsepower as existed in that meeting on the Muslim side.
And that was not by accident. It was by design, because we weren’t there to overthrow the regime. We weren’t there to abolish sharia. We were there to answer a very simple question. And that’s, what steps can an Islamic government take to alleviate the second-class status of non-Muslims in a sharia context? And if we could come up with credible answers — and we had highly credible Muslim figures around the table — this could resonate in other parts of the world, like Nigeria and Indonesia, where you have the same kinds of tensions.
MS. TIPPETT: But what was different about your gathering that hadn’t happened before, hadn’t been possible before?
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, what it was was an exercise in what I call faith-based diplomacy. Very simply put, just to define that in the larger picture, it means incorporating religious considerations into the practice of international politics. But even more simply put, it means making religion part of the solution to some of these intractable conflicts that exceed the grasp of traditional diplomacy. So, this one was a real exercise in faith-based diplomacy.
We began each day with readings from the Qur’an and the Bible. We proceeded each day with a prayer breakfast for the internationals and for local religious leaders. And more to the point, we brought a prayer team from California, halfway around the world, whose sole purpose was to pray and fast during those four days, praying for the success of the deliberations. Now, the realpolitik crowd would dismiss this as, you know, silly stuff. But through those four days, you’d see these folks come in — and they were matched by an equal number of Sudanese Pentecostals who also engaged in this process.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: And they’d come in from the sides, listen to what was going on, and then decide what needed praying for, and go out and pray. Well, the combination of all these things really caused people to rise above themselves. And while the Christians bared their grievances just as baldly as you could hope, it was all done in a cordial tone.
And at the end, we had a genuine breakthrough in communications between the two faith communities, 17 consensus recommendations. We acted on about six of those. And one of them that we put into effect — took us another two years to do it — was to form an interreligious council that meets monthly and brings the top religious leaders from the Christian and Muslim communities together to surface and resolve their problems. And so if you have these kinds of mechanisms that can be constantly venting, you know, the pressures that build up of…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: …misunderstanding and the like, then you have a chance for a peace actually lasting, you know? And another ingredient in the faith-based diplomacy there was that when I would have my conversations with the foreign minister of Sudan or the first vice president who ran the country, these were realpolitik kinds of discussions, you know, trying to persuade them that what we were suggesting was in their own best interest to do.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: But looking for that convenient opportunity to make a helpful reference to the Qur’an, or how the Prophet Mohammed dealt with this, or what Jesus might have to say about it, they opened up. They opened up. It was — because you find that many Muslims are almost resentful of having to deal with secular constructs, because that’s not what they’re about. But when you reach out in this faith-based way, they really respond, and they respect that and they like it a lot.
The other thing I might add too is on a realpolitik basis. Meanwhile, back at the ranch here in Washington, we worked behind the scenes to try to get the Bush administration engaged in leaning on both sides to force a peace between the north and the south, and that ultimately paid off.
I came back from one trip to Sudan to see a statement by the Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an official body that relates with the State Department, and Congress, and what have you. And they had labeled Sudan as the most violent oppressor of religious liberty in the world today. And I had just been over there. And at the time I was there, a German Evangelist had been invited in to conduct a crusade right in the heart of Khartoum.
And over 300,000 people came out, the majority of whom were Muslims, because this was a healing ministry, lasted five days. And it, among other things, it sort of froze the transportation grid. But some Muslims got upset about it, not only those inconveniences, but you know, the impropriety of having this Christian crusade in the heart of this Islamic capital.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: And so they went to visit with the president to air their grievances. And the president said this — and I got this from the Pentecostal pastor who invited Bonnke in to do this crusade, he was present. He said, ‘The president said, “Well, you know, the Christians were here before we. And they have every right to celebrate Easter.”‘ So getting no satisfaction there, they g
ssan al-Turabi, who’s a speaker of the parliament and thought to be the arch villain of the spread of militant Islam across Africa and beyond.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: He says to them, he says, ‘You know, I’ve been watching this very closely. They’re not attacking Islam. They’re merely celebrating their religion.’ He says, ‘Why don’t you celebrate your religion and see how many Christians complain?’ OK. So I contrast that with how Christians get treated in Saudi Arabia. And you know? Give me a break, you know? It’s just amazing.
MS. TIPPETT: Military and political strategist Douglas Johnston. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century.”
Douglas Johnston’s 1994 book, Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, was required reading for several years for entering U.S. diplomats. As Johnston sees it, the disconnect between the West and Islam is not a matter of religious rivalry, but of speaking different languages. The West, he says, speaks the language of separation between religion and politics, while Islam speaks the language of integration. This disconnect was one reason, he believes, that the U.S. was taken off guard by the Iranian revolution of 1979. And he says it hinders effective statecraft and solutions in Iran and in places like Iraq today.
MS. TIPPETT: I think another place where you have unusual perspective is Iran. And again, as this country considers, reconsiders its options in Iraq, the question is how we should/could begin to deal with Iran. And you know, I’ve been reading these dispatches you’ve been sending back from your work there over the past months. And I think also there, you would offer a very different perspective of, you know, what we, the United States, are facing in Iran. Talk to me about that, about the public perception here and what you experience, and also how that makes you think about openings and possibilities.
MR. JOHNSTON: Sure. My first exposure to Iran came in 2003, when I was privileged to be part of a nine-member Abrahamic delegation that was led by Cardinal Ted McCarrick over to Iran. It was Abrahamic in that it included Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant, and Catholic representation. And I was just simply amazed. Iran is an incredible country, just amazing. The legacy of the Persian Empire and all the cultural manifestations are just awesome. And, but we’re over there, you know, and the, it was, the drumbeat of the Great Satan continues, you know? Every…
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MR. JOHNSTON: And even while we were there, the Friday prayers at Tehran University, Rafsanjani, you know, tees off on the United States. And this is sort of standard fare for the last 25 years. And when you drive downtown Tehran, you see the sides of buildings with these huge murals on them with bombs dropping on silhouettes of the United States. And so you get the feeling, you know, this may not be the friendliest country in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: But at a personal level, one thing they do is they clearly distinguish between the policies of the U.S. government and Americans. And from top to bottom, all we experienced was, you know, the fact that Iranians love Americans. There was genuine warmth in their feelings and conduct during our time there. And so I raised the money last year to have a reciprocal delegation come over to this country. And it was very high-level — and supposedly, we were the highest-level delegation that had been there since the revolution in ’79. But we were not an official delegation. It was unofficial, but…
MS. TIPPETT: But you met people in this government? They met people in the U.S. government?
MR. JOHNSTON: Yeah, we met with every — the president, the leaders of parliament, all the Grand Ayatollahs, and had numerous conversations, very fruitful stuff. Well, we invited this delegation over here. And it included the head of their academy of sciences and people at that level. It was a very prestigious group, also nine in number, also Abrahamic in that it included the one Jewish member of parliament from there and also one of the Orthodox bishops.
So we took them through — it was about 10 days here. And one of the highlights was we set the nine of them with eight what I would say were very well-versed congressmen. And they sat down and hit all the hot-button issues. And at one point — I’ll never forget it — one of the congressmen pointed at the Ayatollah who was leading the group. He says, “Tell me” — pointed his finger at him and he says, “Do you think Israel has a right to exist?” And the Ayatollah sort of smiled and gave a small laugh and he says, “Of course, Israel has a right to exist, just as we have a right not to recognize it.”
MS. TIPPETT: Well…
MR. JOHNSTON: And so this was kind of the level of repartee, you know? And if I had to grade that debate, so to speak, I would probably have to give the higher marks to the Iranians in the sense that we always get caught up on sort of the perceived double standard. You know, we’re on their case for treatment of minority religions, when the situation’s far worse in Saudi Arabia and we’re not doing much about that. We’re all over them on the nuclear issue and sort of turn a blind eye to Israel, you know, and for understandable reasons. But these are the things that make it difficult to hold a debate like that and come out on top.
MS. TIPPETT: I see.
MR. JOHNSTON: But in terms of openings and what could be done — a couple of years ago I played in a war game, the target of which was Iran. And I came out of that…
MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean you played in a war game?
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, you know, the Department of Defense and others conduct war games where they have scenarios that cause you to…
MS. TIPPETT: Where you can strategize.
MR. JOHNSTON: These are — yeah, what if this happened?
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: And then you go through this whole process. And it can stretch out for days. Anyway, the culprit in this particular war game was Iran. And I came out of that wondering, you know, what might a peace game look like? I’d never heard of such a thing. But as I sort of put some thought to it and came up with the idea that a peace game could involve a group of very well-respected figures from both sides, who are not in government but who are too respected not to be taken seriously by their government, bring them together — and I didn’t want to do it in a neutral location, I wanted to do it in Iran for two reasons.
One is I thought it would provide greater incentive for the Americans to participate because everybody wants to go to Iran. But also, I thought it would also convey a note of humility when it is all but totally absent from U.S. foreign policy these days. You know, going to their turf to conduct such an exercise…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: …but bring them together for about a week and to address the specific obstacles that stand in the way of a cooperative relationship. And I personally believe, based on my knowledge of the, you know, the nuclear question and the terrorism and the rest of it, that there’s enough maneuvering room there that we probably could find our way to some happier state.
MS. TIPPETT: So are you going to do that?
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, no. I’ll tell you what happened is I went and met with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, who’s a very thoughtful, sharp individual. And I tried this idea out on him, and he was very keen on it. And he was intellectually curious to see how this thing could play out in reality, you know? And he said that if Rafsanjani were to win the election — this was before their last presidential election…
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: …that it would probably be possible to do it in Iran. He says, ‘If anybody else wins, then it would probably — at best, it could happen in Europe somewhere.’ And…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, Rafsanjani might be back.
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, he might. But once Ahmadinejad won, nobody knew where they stood. And so everybody’s afraid to move in any direction at this point. So, but that’s one thing, you know? And another way for the U.S. to sort of engage Iran in — and I have to tell you, the one thing we were all very taken by, the key to engaging with Iran is religion. And I’ll just give you an example. Remember…
MS. TIPPETT: And I guess that should not be surprising, should it?
MR. JOHNSTON: No, it shouldn’t, because, you see, they don’t trust us politically. We say things out of both sides of our mouths, so they — but they do believe in religion. And you know, in the wake of the earthquake when we were going to send over a delegation…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: …headed by Elizabeth Dole, you know, which on the face of it made sense, because she used to head the Red Cross and all that?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: And they would not have anything to do with that. But had we, instead of her heading it up, had Cardinal McCarrick headed it up, it would have gone in a heartbeat. They would have taken it, you know? And so what the deal is, is if you start out with a religious framework, you can segue into talking about talking anything you want, you know, and get into nuclear weapons, the whole nine yards.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you’re talking about a new paradigm of diplomacy, some of which, in fact, you’re already enacting, not as a government agency. But you are building relationships and building relationships of trust and creating some new models. And I think others are doing that as well. You’ve written about the qualities of the new diplomat. I suppose you mean the faith-based diplomat. And one of them is a pluralistic heart. And I just want you to describe that because it’s not a relativistic heart, not the same as a relativistic heart. And I think that’s kind of where the old imagination about religion went.
MR. JOHNSTON: Yeah, and I think the pluralistic heart is one that understands the need to reach out to others out of a posture of respect. If we — as a Christian you believe that everyone’s created in the image of God, then your obligation is to look for that spark of God in them. And in our centers, we operate with the following assumption, you know, that in any given conflict, not everyone on a given side is bad. And even those who are bad, aren’t bad all the time.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. JOHNSTON: So we try to play to the angels of their higher nature by bringing the transcendent aspects of their religious faith to bear on the secular obstacles to peace. And one thing in terms of new ideas that I think is terribly important is to create a position of religion attaché in the U.S. Foreign Service, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Mm-hmm.
MR. JOHNSTON: And what happens now typically is you have a cultural officer, a political officer, maybe even the ambassador that’s tasked with dealing with religious issues. But typically, they get pushed aside by more pressing business. And they’re often complicated and difficult to understand. We’ve looked hard at this. In just a stable of 30, a cadre of 30 of these religion attachés posted in those U.S. missions in countries where religion has particular salience, could make a huge difference, you know, because they would be trained to understand these kinds of things and how to deal with them.
MS. TIPPETT: But I mean, I’d never heard of the idea until I started reading you again. It’s so logical. I worked in an embassy when I was younger. And you have a political officer, you have an economic officer, you have a cultural officer. And in the world we inhabit now, you should have a religion officer.
MR. JOHNSTON: Right. I totally agree with you. And of course, these are the kind of things, you know, when you’re in a world that’s just permeated with religious imperatives driven largely by this collision between globalization and traditional values, it only makes sense for us to try to get sufficiently detached to say, ‘How do we need to do business differently and more effectively?’ And I get the feeling we’re just in a total reactive mode and we’re mesmerized with the symptoms.
The cost of a religion attaché, you know, for the 30 of them, would be $10 million a year. Now contrast that 10 million, getting at cause, able to deal with cause, versus the billions we’re spending on, you know, baggage handlers and the like dealing with the symptoms.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, OK. Right.
MR. JOHNSTON: It’s just crazy.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, and you also talk about as a quality of a new diplomat, and you used this word a minute ago, a transcendent approach to conflict resolution. And I think in the world we inhabit where religion can be a very dangerous force, that sounds a little bit scary, a transcendent approach to conflict resolution. I mean, what do you mean by that?
MR. JOHNSTON: An example of that, OK — and we do these in our faith-based reconciliation seminars, which are about three and a half days long. But we go very much into the concept of forgiveness, you know, which, again, would probably be dismissed by your typical realpolitik type. But unless you can bring forgiveness to bear in a very thoughtful and effective way, you will never break the cycle of revenge that passes from one generation to the next to the next, to the point where in Bosnia, you have neighbor doing unspeakable things to neighbors for something that happened 1200 years ago. You know, it’s just, it’s insane.
And we — one thing I would hasten to point out is I would not want to over-claim or overstate the significance of what it is we’ve been talking about, because there are clearly some situations where this can’t work, you know? I mean, brutality sometimes has to be met on its own terms. But I think that — if you’re talking about the transcendent peacemaker, I’m talking about people engaged in peacemaking and conflict resolution out of a sense of calling. For example, I could point to Matthew 5:9, which is “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and say, you know, that’s one of the ingredients that drives me to do what I do and to go with, you know, without pay for 60-hour weeks for half a year at a time, you know? You just do what you have to do because you believe in it, you know? And that’s kind of what I mean by the transcendent aspect.
MS. TIPPETT: Is there anything else you’d want to add to what we talked about? In some ways, I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface.
MR. JOHNSTON: Well, on New Year’s Eve day, I was in Dallas, Texas, addressing a group of about 300 folks and talking about our center’s work and all. And I was touched by how affected they were by this. I mean, just about everyone who had a son or a daughter in the military came up to me. There’s such a yearning for hope out there, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. JOHNSTON: There just doesn’t seem to be any, just — one day of bad news after another. And regardless of how limited our operation is, at least, you know, they saw some room for hope. And that affected me at a very deep level.
MS. TIPPETT: Douglas Johnston is founder and president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. His most recent book is Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik.
Since my conversation with Douglas Johnston one year ago, his center has facilitated many diplomatic initiatives. Johnston presented his peace game to Iranian President Ahmadinejad who pledged to support. He also met recently with 57 Afghan Taliban leaders in the mountains of Pakistan to discuss how to facilitate dialogue with the U.S. At our Web site, speakingoffaith.org, you can read Douglas Johnston’s updates on these and other initiatives, and download an MP3 of my entire unedited conversation with him. You can also share your thoughts on this program. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Anna Marsh. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is our consulting editor. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.