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D. Johnston: Faith-Based Diplomacy

Address to International Leadership Conferences in Washington, DC, and New York, 2007


One madrasa leader in Pakistan told me the following story after we spent two weeks together discussing the relationship between Islam and contemporary thought: 

“In our village a young woman was caught talking on her cell phone at 2:00 in the morning to a young man in another village in whom she had an interest. The tribal elders felt that this violated their code of honor, so she was to die, her mother and sister were to die, the boy’s mother was to die, and the boy was to lose his nose and his ears. Ordinarily I wouldn’t say anything about this, because code of honor is applied all the time. But as a result of the discussions we’ve had on human rights, I felt compelled to go back and confront this on the basis of our religion.”

He said that he feared for his own safety, but still he went back, met with the tribal elders, and showed them there was no statement in the Qur’an where women were prevented from talking to men. He appealed to those passages that urge the peaceful resolution of differences, and the situation was resolved with no one being harmed. This was a situation where the higher values of religion trumped tribalism, in a context where it’s very difficult even for Muslims to know where one ends and the other begins.

I had been involved with the national prayer breakfast fellowship in Washington and had seen how spiritually motivated lay persons operating on the basis of their personal religious faith were able to reconcile differences between peoples—sometimes bringing wars to a halt with no one the wiser for how it took place. I thought to myself: if this kind of activity could be captured in a compelling book that could be made available to policymakers and diplomats, then perhaps government could learn how to build upon it.

When I was becoming the number two person at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, I wanted to focus on the positive role that religious or spiritual factors could play in actually preventing or resolving conflict while at the same time advancing social change based on justice and reconciliation.

Once you start talking about the intersection of religion and politics, it gets very complicated very quickly. This was far beyond my ability to do alone, so I enlisted a lot of people from nine different disciplines--a lot of world-class folks.

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and ethnic conflict started to blossom. All of a sudden, people could see that the juxtaposition of religious reconciliation with official or unofficial diplomacy had more potential than traditional diplomacy to deal with these identity-based conflicts.

Muslim and Christian leaders dialogue in the Sudan

We were invited into the Sudan to see if there was something we could do to address the long-standing civil war between the Islamic north and the Christian, African traditional south. There were a lot of NGOs working in Sudan, but they were all in the south and were dealing with the symptoms of the problem.

We decided to go to the north and try to get at the cause rather than the symptoms. We went with the idea of establishing relationships of trust with the Islamic regime in the north, and from that vantage point inspiring them to take steps toward peace that they wouldn’t otherwise take. About a year and a half into this process, we had a watershed moment in November 2000, when we brought together 30 religious leaders and scholars. Scholars are important, because Islam is decentralized and the imam of any particular mosque has a very limited reach. It’s the scholars who make a difference by planting new ideas and having a broad reach.

Ten prominent Sudanese Christian religious leaders, ten prominent Sudanese Muslim religious leaders, and ten internationals from both faith communities came together for four days to address the religious aspects of the conflict. Now the greatest difficulty was getting the Christians to participate. They had been beaten over the head for so long that they were disillusioned and didn’t think anything good could come of this. I said: “You really don’t have a choice. You’re a Christian, you’re called to be a peacemaker.”

At the end of the first day these Christian religious leaders came up to me with smiles on their faces. They said, “You know, this is the first time we have ever been heard.” By the third day, prominent Sudanese Muslims were articulating the need to address some of these problems that they were hearing, many of them for the first time. At the end there was a genuine breakthrough in communications. Seventeen consensus recommendations emerged. An elder statesman, a Muslim diplomat, said that he had never before seen northerners and southerners come together to talk to one another from the heart.

We weren’t there to overthrow the regime. We weren’t there to abolish shari’a, traditional Islamic law. We were there to answer a very simple question: “What steps can an Islamic government take to alleviate the second-class status of non-Muslims in a shari’a context?”

Why was this meeting so successful? I think because it was really an exercise in faith-based diplomacy. We began every morning with readings from the Qur’an and the Bible. Each day we had a prayer breakfast at the hotel for the internationals and local religious leaders. We brought a prayer team from California to pray and fast during those four days for the success of the deliberations, and they were matched by an equal number of Sudanese Pentecostals.

While the religious leaders bared their grievances just as brutally frankly as one could hope, it was all done in a cordial tone. When that meeting began, there was frosty silence. When it was over, there was a lot of joking and laughter between the two communities.

One recommendation was to form an interreligious council. It took two more years to do that and to get all the relationships right, but within the first few months, that council had a list of solid practical achievements that boggled the mind and far outweighed anything the churches had been able to do in the previous 15 years of operating alone. The council meets monthly, with top religious leaders from both communities coming together to surface and resolve their problems.

This independent body was formed in the context of an Islamic dictatorship. The government also agreed to leadership on the Muslim side that it was opposed to because the leader had been a constant thorn in their side; however, that leader was someone who commanded high moral stature with both faith communities.

And Darfur notwithstanding, which is a Muslim-on-Muslim situation, the government has kept its word, building new churches and providing restitution for the past seizure of church properties.

Another ingredient in faith-based diplomacy is looking for the convenient opportunity to make a helpful reference to the Qur’an, how the Prophet Muhammad may have dealt with the situation, or what Jesus might have to say about it. I have not met a Muslim who doesn’t open up when you start engaging on that basis, because many of them are uncomfortable or almost resentful at having to deal with only secular constructs.

Muslims dialogue with US policy makers

We’ve been working with the American Muslim community and the US government to try to see if we couldn’t get both working together for the common good.

First, we sponsored a couple of conferences where we brought 30 American Muslim leaders together with 30 US government security officials and foreign policy practitioners to capitalize on the extensive paths of influence that the American Muslim community has with other communities overseas, many of them in very strategic locations.

Second, we are starting to inform American foreign policy with a Muslim perspective. The American Muslim community probably has greater freedom of thought than just about any of their counterparts around the world, and on a daily basis they are bridging modernity with the contemporary practice of Islam. As a result of these meetings, where Muslims are free to express their concerns, knowing that they will be heard, the doors are starting to open in the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security and Justice.

Islamic principles applied to tribal traditions in Pakistan

I was briefing the executive director of an institute for policy studies in Islamabad, Pakistan, on our work in Kashmir. He said, “How would you like to partner with us in reforming the madrasas?” Because his institute had been involved with these Islamic schools for more than 20 years, doing research of one sort or another, it could convene madrasa leaders and administrators from all five of the religious sects that sponsor these schools. So we brought them together for 15 days of discussion on the subject of Islam and contemporary thought.

Even though there was suspicion, there was some appreciation for the fact that reform was needed. They had totally rejected any government attempts at reform, because they felt that was going to lead to the secularization of their curriculums. But out of this first seminar came the natural demand for more. They’ve had real ownership in the process.

NOTE: Douglas M. Johnston is author of Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik.