Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Olive Branch or Fig Leaf: The Use and Abuse of Interfaith Relations in World Affairs
Olive Branch or Fig Leaf: The Use and Abuse of Interfaith Relations in World Affairs

Olive Branch or Fig Leaf: The Use and Abuse of Interfaith Relations in World Affairs

Editor’s note: On September 27, 2023, Dr. Ari Gordon delivered the Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability and syntax.

 

 

Good evening. It’s an honor to be with you tonight. As Rollie said, I’m a native Philadelphian now living in New York City, and it’s good to be back in the neighborhood. It feels like home. My mother, who’s here tonight, has been living in Philadelphia for forty years, and I know you real Philadelphians will say “Welcome to the neighborhood,” but here we all are. 

I’m grateful to FPRI for hosting the Templeton Lecture each year, as our understanding of religion in foreign policy is still in formation, and your scholarship contributes to that growing field. It is personally moving to be speaking at the institute once directed by Dr. Harvey Sicherman, a family friend and fellow member of the Lower Merion Synagogue community, who is sorely missed and well-remembered. 

Finally, it is an honor to be delivering a lecture bearing the name of the Templeton family—Sir John recognized the power of spiritualities of various kinds to transform the lives of individuals as well as whole societies. Dr. Jack Templeton carried on the work, and modeled that being a devout religious person need not preclude one from contributing to the world around them in powerful ways and seeing each individual as endowed with infinite worth, regardless of background (as he did at Children’s Hospital); and currently, under the leadership of the next generation, with Heather and Jennifer taking the mission into an increasingly diverse and dynamic world, and maintaining that often the most effective ideas are those that cross fields. The transformative power of religion, the ability to approach people of other cultures with humility and with dignity; and boundary-cross work are all central to tonight’s talk.

I come to you today, not as a scholar of international relations or political science, but as an interfaith practitioner. My graduate work—up the road at the University of Pennsylvania—was in Arabic and the history of early Islam, and its relationship with other faith traditions, (where I had the privilege to study and teach with Dr. James Ryan, FPRI’s talented Director of Research) and today I have the privilege to work at American Jewish Committee (AJC), where I get to dedicate my time—as you heard—to building bridges between the Jewish people and the Muslim world. Our goal at AJC in this area is nothing short of “helping bring about a transformation of Muslim-Jewish relations in the 21st century the way that we contributed to a transformation of Jewish-Christian relations in the 20th century.” We believe that the transformation of this conflicted interreligious dynamic will contribute to global stability and the welfare of all peoples and nations, regardless of background.

What I hope to share today flows from that work and is an issue that weighs on me regularly. I see and experience a world where interfaith relations—the building of ties across lines of religious identity—is increasingly interwoven with global affairs, supported by political leaders, and invoked in state policy. In one sense, the confluence presents incredible opportunities: policy makers might approach their work with new insights and cultural sensitivities, vulnerable state-to-state ties built on shaky peace treaties might become more resilient, and previously unexplored channels for soft diplomacy in conflict situations might become activated. On the other hand, there is a risk that if religion and interfaith work becomes an instrument of political leaders that it will become stripped of its countercultural and prophetic voice—it is difficult to speak truth to the very power that elevates one’s voice and gives platform to one’s work. Likewise, if faith leaders and interfaith initiatives become mere implements to advance policy goals, what of spirituality and the transformative power of religion that Sir John so rightly championed? Finally, if crossing lines of faith can be used for constructive ends by well-intentioned actors, then it is equally available to despots, dictators, and tyrants to abuse as well. When is the use of interreligious engagement in world affairs extending an olive branch, a genuine act to advance peace and when is it a mere fig leaf, a political abuse of symbolism to cover up evil, advance corruption, and justify violence? I ask myself this question often, and I’m grateful to have the privilege to think out loud with you about it. I’m also looking forward to our discussion and questions because these ideas are very much in formation for all of us. 

This talk argues for three propositions. If you only walk out believing one of them, I’ll consider it a success, but I’d like to convince you of all three. The first is that interreligious relations have (re)entered the world of global diplomacy in a way that they were not present before. The second: as interreligious activity becomes a tool of international relations, it can be used towards both constructive and destructive ends. And finally, ensuring the constructive use of interreligious ties in world affairs and countering its abuse requires a few elements. Now, each of us might think of different elements towards this end, but I am teasing out three—1) principled pragmatism, 2) trust and 3) theological humility—as points on the compass, the moral compass, that might guide us through these messy and sometimes muddied waters. 

So let’s begin with the first premise. Interreligious relations have (re)entered the world of global diplomacy. Before we get there, we must say a word about the way that religion in general has re-emerged in world affairs. I told you I’m a proud Philadelphian, so you’ll forgive me that we’re going to start with a couple of my favorite cartoons from the New Yorker.

 

 

Why did religion get left out? On one we see people going off to battle and one soldier is speaking to the other and he says, “I hear it’s because we’re right and they’re wrong.” We are going to war [against them] because we’re right and they’re wrong. There was this idea that when dealing with conflicts on the global stage, if we bring religion in, it is just going to make it worse, that religion has absolute rights and wrongs, uncompromising positions. If we bring it in to try to resolve conflicts, the sides will be more dug in. It’s true that study after study does show that there can be more violence and more trend entrenched issues when a conflict takes on a religious identity valence. But then it also must be true that religion can be used to untie that knot. On the other panel, the cartoon shows a couple of scientists with wonderful equations and in the middle of the blackboard is written, “then a miracle occurs,” and one scientist says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.” And sometimes one got the sense that religion does not play by the accepted rules of diplomacy. Diplomats are cultured people in fine suits, drinking fine liquor, smoking cigars, and dealing with risk assessment, risk/reward analysis, game theory, economics, and security considerations. The religious people are thinking about the next world, “Kingdom Come,” and they could not possibly be concerned with the affairs of this world. 

There was a time when it would have been absurd and nonsensical to try to tease out these two areas as separate fields, religion and global diplomacy. Father Bryan Hehir—a Catholic priest, expert in religion and foreign policy, who was a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Harvard’s Divinity School and won the MacArthur Prize for his work in religion and foreign policy—talked about three stages of religion and foreign policy: presence, absence, and resurgence. There was a time when the idea of discussing religion and politics separately would’ve been absurd. In the medieval worlds of the Caliph, the Pope, the kings of divine right, these fields would have been seen as intertwined. And even though we historians of religion will tell you it was more complex—the relationship between scholars and sultans, pastors and popes. Still, the work of statecraft and the work of religious authority were never far apart.

Scholars like Hehir and another Templeton lecturer, Prof. Walter McDougall, would say that all of that changed in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia as a watershed moment where international relations as we know them, emerged in the West and took religion out of the conversation, or at least began along that trajectory in a way that was still with us late into the 20th century.

The issue is that when we take religion out and see religious leaders as only part of the problem, we cannot involve them in the work of building solutions. In addition, religion matters in the lives of so many people today—in the top six or ten countries with the largest populations (other than China) vast majorities say religion is deeply important in their lives today. And if religion is important in the lives of individuals, it must be important in the work of state.

Indeed, it was strange that religion was present everywhere, but in political science classrooms and ministries of foreign affairs. But in recent decades religion reentered world affairs in a big way. And the founding of the Templeton Lecture in 1996 was certainly a herald of that trend. Just two years later [in 1998], the US government passed the International Religious Freedom Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, establishing a US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and a religious freedom post at the National Security Council. The first Ambassador-at-Large, Robert Seiple, a Christian, was succeeded by other Christians of various backgrounds, by a Jew, Rabbi David Saperstein, and today by a Muslim, Ambassador Rashad Hussein.

And at some point, governments and even the security sector started to realize that we needed to engage religious leaders if we are to tackle some of the most entrenched problems caused by religious extremism—that if hateful ideologies were being propagated in the name of religion, hard security solutions were never going to be sufficient [on their own] to stop them. Religious leaders and interpreters working within communities were needed to combat that violent ideology—whether it was anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, anti-Muslim or any other ideologies—if we were to be effective. Over the past 20 years and especially since 9/11 we could point to a long history of the way that religion has come into the work of state in our country and in others, and this continues right up to today. For example, as recently as just last month, USAID released for the first time ever a strategic religious engagement policy, finding a way to amplify the United States’ development and goodwill diplomacy work by engaging religious actors.

And as religion reentered global affairs, inter-religious relations started to do so as well. 

The G-20 summit of twenty nations that gathers each year in a different country is accompanied by an IF 20 Summit, “the Interfaith 20” bringing together people of not only different geographic and national backgrounds, but different faith backgrounds, as a supplement and counterpart and parallel conversation. The COP 28 UN Climate Change Summit now has a robust interfaith component and a faith pavilion that explores the way that faith leaders and interfaith coalitions can contribute to this pressing world issue. The United Nations has an undersecretary general serving as the high representative of the alliance of civilizations, committed to bridging a divide of what was then called “Islam and the West,” (maybe some still call it that). And religious freedom ministerial conferences happen all the time that gather diverse faith actors to look at issues of human rights and freedom of religious expression.

One final example: Something really interesting happened over the summer, in June 2023: the Security Council of the United Nations for the first time passed a resolution on religious freedom, anti-hate efforts, and talked about interreligious dialogue. The Security Council, whose primary concern is war and peace, military and global stability, with the hard work of security between states, said that it “recognizes the importance of interreligious and intercultural dialogue and its valuable contribution to promoting social cohesion and peace and development.” And it called upon the member states of the UN to have regard to interreligious and intercultural dialogue as an important tool in efforts aimed at achieving peace and social stability, etc., etc. We are not diving into what led to this resolution, whether it has the force of other Security Council resolutions, and when the Secretary General reports on the implementation, as he’s mandated to do at the end of the year, we will see how it faired. The point is that in what is seen as one of the places that you would never have heard about inter-religious dialogue, it is now present.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the Abraham Accords—the signing of treaties that normalized relations between Israel and at first the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, followed by a different agreement with Morocco—to understand that interreligious language and interreligious ideas can contribute on the global stage. Now we know that cynicism is out there about these accords. There are people who say that it’s naïve to treat this as though global peace has come, the Messiah is here, and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” And that’s okay—skepticism is warranted at times. But it is certainly true that without forerunners in interreligious dialogue like my AJC colleagues, Rabbi David Rosen, another Templeton lecturer, Jason Isaacson, Rabbi Noam Marans and others laying a groundwork of interreligious trust, that the political conversations that followed might never have occurred. And it’s also true that had that the language of Arab-Jewish and Muslim-Jewish reconciliation not been there, it would’ve been difficult for a world to absorb and accept a transformed relationship, that previously had a narrative of mutual demonization.

And so it is interesting to note that the preamble to a diplomatic treaty includes a line:

recognizing that the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham, and inspired, in that spirit, to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians, and peoples of all faiths, denominations, beliefs, and nationalities live in and are committed to a spirit of coexistence, mutual understanding, and mutual respect. 

It’s a beautiful statement. It’s aspirational. I hope that we will see a Middle East in our time that lives up to this ideal. As I said, I’m not naive about where we are on this path] and where we are not yet, but I bring it as an example—if one needed convincing about premise number one—that interfaith relations matters in global affairs, I hope that we’ve done our job of showing that it does. So let’s move on to our next proposition.

As interreligious activity becomes a tool of international relations, it can be used towards both constructive and destructive ends. When I was telling some of my colleagues and friends about this lecture, “Olive Branch and Fig Leaf: Use and Abuse of Interfaith Relations,” people asked, what do you mean by abuse? Interfaith relations is inherently constructive. People of faith traditions, crossing those lines to work together must be good, period, end of story. So I thought it would be important to talk about some examples of the “olive branch,” where I’ll be one to agree that it’s difficult to impugn the good act of crossing lines of faith in world affairs. But I also wanted to share a couple of examples where I think it’s a little more clear that we’re in “fig leaf” territory.

Let’s talk about some olive branch moments. In the days after 9/11, when terrorists motivated by religious extremism and weaponized interpretations of Islam, attacked this country, there was a backlash against American citizens who were Muslim (and even some who were Sikh, because many did not understand that it was a different religion). And in that moment it would’ve been easy for a political leader of this country to just go with that sentiment, with a sharp, strong anti-Muslim public response. But just days, just days, after the Twin Towers came down, President George W. Bush, a born-again conservative Christian, visited a mosque. The first time in history, a US president did that, and he talked about Muslims as friends, as tax-paying American citizens. He said, “these acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.” And he said this was not the true face of Islam that he saw among so many adherents of the faith. Now there are many policies that his government implemented with which some of our Muslim partners and other people of conscience take issue. But I hold up this one moment, which came with political risk no doubt, and which almost certainly saved lives, as an olive branch moment and I would defend that. 

Another olive branch moment: in this image you see, Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, meeting with religious leaders in Jerusalem. This is a group called the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land where delegations of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, the heads of Christian churches in Israel itself as well as the Palestinian Territories, the head of the Palestinian Waqf, Religious Endowment, and others all came together in the early 2000s in the wake of the second Intifada to condemn religious violence from any source. They condemned acts of Jewish extremism and of Muslim extremism. Condoleezza Rice on a visit to Israel in 2007 met with this group and invited them to come to Washington. It was believed that one of the failures and breakdowns of the Oslo Peace Accord was in part because it was purely a deal between secular leaders and it wasn’t sold to religious actors, because religious leaders were not involved as validators and as guides. They came to Washington DC that year to inform the Annapolis Peace Conference. The political initiative didn’t ultimately bear fruit, but the idea that Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders, who had a lot to lose by sitting at the same table, would come together to support a peace process, is a clear olive branch moment. 

Another initiative I’d like to talk about is a homegrown American initiative, the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, actually a group that enjoys the support of the Templeton Religious Trust, and which is led by an Evangelical pastor, Bob Roberts, along with Sunni Muslim imam, Mohammed Magid, and a Reform Rabbi, David Saperstein, himself a former US ambassador for religious freedom. They bring together rabbis, pastors, and imams in cities around the country to build social cohesion. And the model should be studied, but it’s also a model that they’ve started to export, and they have taught about it in Pakistan and Uzbekistan and Sudan, a place that’s been troubled by conflict, a military coup, and all kinds of human rights violations in recent years. 

In that Sudanese context the identity lines between Christians and Muslims have become quite tense, and Americans coming in with our good old fashioned neighborhood, interfaith relations, actually has the ability to advance the work of peace building in a politically distressed society. It’s hard to impugn this as anything but an olive branch moment. 

Okay, all very nice, and we can think of many, many, many more olive branches. What about the fig leaves? What about the abuses of interfaith relations? There is often more gray area than black-and-white, and maybe you’ll agree that some of these are black and white as I believe, and maybe you won’t. 

The first fig leaf example, is a letter from the 1940s that was only recently discovered, in which the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin El-Huissaini—who had a relationship with Adolf Hitler and supported Muslim troops working as part of the Nazi Waffen SS, who was one of the propagandist agents of World War II—after the announcement of the establishment of two states in the Middle East, an Arab and a Jewish state, wrote a letter to Pope Pius asking him to oppose the establishment of a Jewish state. And if you look at the language of the letter, it invokes the friendly bonds between the Holy See and the Islamic world. It’s about trying to “avoid together the dangers of the so serious destroying principles that threaten all the religions, all the beliefs, and all the morals.” And he doesn’t name it exactly, but he’s using the Christian-Muslim brothers-in-faith model as a tool to suppress and to push away and to continue to propagate antisemitism and the idea of Jews as a danger to other religions. The narratives in history about Hajj Amin El Husseini get exaggerated attention, and it is not the only Muslim story to tell about the Holocaust. We should also tell the stories about the Righteous Among the Nations, Muslims who saved Jews. We should talk about the King of Morocco who refused to give up Jews saying they are all my citizens, and many, many other stories. But to me, this incident is a fig leaf moment. It’s not a genuine use of interfaith relations. It’s advancing a bad, politically violent end using interfaith ties.

Another one, Neturei Karta rabbis in Iran attending an “anti-terrorism conference.” The Neturei Karta is an extremist Jewish group, very small and unrepresentative segment of a Hasidic ultra-orthodox sect. Their entire denomination is not in the Neturei Karta camp, but there is this small group that advances its anti-Zionist beliefs in aggressive ways. And they attended Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust-denial Conference before, and in the headline that you see they were at another conference in an anti-terrorism conference in Iran. Now, never mind that they are only 0.02 percent of the Jewish population, never mind that their idea of the end times has to do with the Jewish temple coming down and crushing the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (I don’t think that their partners may recognize that belief or care about it), but the idea of this small group in very traditional-looking garb validating one of the greatest state sponsors of terrorism in the world at an anti-terrorism conference, to me that’s an interfaith fig leaf.

One fig leaf example, that is a little bit more contemporary, is Vladimir Putin’s embrace of Islam and Islamic symbolism as a way of feeding the narrative that he’s built around the Ukraine-Russia war, and his broader fight with the West, as a part of the clash of civilizations between East and the West, in which Russia and the Muslims world are united. His gestures towards the Muslim world send the message that they ought to be with him against the so-called liberal imperialist Westerners. And with the burning of Qurans in Sweden and the protests that these led to in the last year, Putin has made good use of this heated moment to cross an interfaith line as a defender of Islam, in order to block Sweden’s entry to NATO, to help garner support from the Chechen Muslim fighters who are among some of his most important supporters in the war and some of those who have carried out some of the most troubling acts of aggression. As recently as this week, a video has leaked which portrays the teenage son of the Putin-backed head of the Chechan Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, ruthlessly beating a Ukrainian prisoner allegedly over suspicions of involvement in a Quran burning. The video was circulated online proudly by the boy’s father and Putin was silent. Now let us be clear, defending against Islamophobia and speaking out against the burning of Qurans is something all people of conscience should do. Protecting religious minorities is an obligation of all heads of state, but using the symbolism of another religion to advance an aggressive and unjust war, in which human rights are trampled, and to drive a wedge into our global stability, that is a fig leaf moment. It is using the crossing of religious boundaries not to advance peace, extending an olive branch, but covering up misdeeds with a proverbial fig leaf.

So, whether you agree with each of my chosen examples, I hope you’re with me on proposition number two, that there are moments where interreligious relations gets used for good constructive peace-building purposes, in ways that matter, and there are times where it gets misused and abused to advance problematic ends. 

So let’s go to proposition number three, “Ensuring the constructive use of interreligious ties in world affairs and countering its abuse requires ‘principled pragmatism,’ ‘trust’ and ‘theological humility.’” I’m not going to dive deeply into each these elements, because each requires much deeper cultivation and explanation. What values we must implement to ensure constructive use and counter abuse of interfaith ties must be the next conversation in this field, and one that I hope we can have together on the road ahead.

“Principled pragmatism”—which is where I identify American Jewish Committee, FPRI, and much of US foreign policy in general—means that as nations and as religions our policy must be based in our values. We cannot think only about economic benefits or personal benefits to our national or group interests at the expense of human rights and human dignity and individual lives. And at the same time, if we only work with partners and actors on the global stage who already embody the aspirations and ideals that we hold (even if we ourselves do not always live up to them), if we only wait for them to come to where our aspirations lie, we will have very few partners and we will be solitary peoples who dwell high up on the mountaintop, meditating about our purity and goodness, alone. Or alternatively, we’ll be activists in the street only protesting, only figuring out how to break things down, but not how to build them up. 

There is an important role for placard carrying activists in peaceful protest. They give fuel to the fires of change, but without actors sitting at the table engaging the tough questions that require compromise—being involved in what Prof. Michael Walzer called “the problem of dirty hands”—those changes that protestors and activists demand will not come to fruition. At the same time, we cannot be so pragmatic that we are only interests-oriented. It can and does happen. It starts by saying to oneself, I must have a diplomatic relation with that person, that state, that entity, and so to preserve the relationship I must leave principle by the wayside. We need both principle and pragmatism. 

One of the ways that we guide and make sure that we’re walking the line well is by building “trust” with the partners we work with, and this is an area where the interreligious field can really contribute. Interreligious work is very good at trust building through the cultivation of individual and institutional relationships over time. It’s a good tool we have, and global diplomacy has a place for trust as well. If I trust my partner, then maybe I can take those risks required for diplomatic peace. Maybe if I trust my partner, I can understand the places where they come from and stand up for them against the internal critics on my own side of the line. If there’s trust between us, maybe I can push them to take the risk that they need to take to advance the shared work. 

And finally, for those of us thinking about the role of religion in world affairs, “theological humility” is a must. We must recognize that being a religious person or having a religious voice in a political space does not automatically validate it. There are parts of any context that we don’t know and we must leave room for questioning and uncertainty. 

I know that I want to leave time for some questions, but I have a few examples I’d like to run. I’m going to take us to three contexts. First Indonesia, then we’ll take a quick trip over to the Arabian Gulf and we’ll come back home and talk about the United States of America, as well. 

So a little bit of background about Indonesia. For those who aren’t experts, which I think is all of us, as it is an exceedingly complex society. There are 17,000 islands, 700 languages spoken, 1,300 ethnicities. It’s the fourth largest country in the world (by population) right after the United States at about 275 million, and it’s the largest Muslim majority country, 87 percent Muslim. There are six recognized religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Indonesia is incredibly resource-rich. It’s in the volcanic ring of fire. The soil is great for growing just about everything: a top ten exporter of a dozen natural resources. As you see here, the country has a national ethos known as pancasila, meaning “five truths,” and these are enshrined in the constitution itself, a belief in one God, and not of a particular religion. Indonesia is not an Islamic state, but a Muslim-majority country, that is a democracy with many religions. Second, a commitment to just and civilized humanity. Third, the unity of Indonesia. Fourth, democracy guided by the inherent wisdom of the consensus emerging from representatives of the people, and finally, social justice for all the people of Indonesia. It was a Dutch colony for hundreds of years, and while there was an independence movement as early as the early part of the 20th century and before, the country gained independence after World War II, after the Japanese came in, followed by an initial period of growth and then decades of a military ruler who was responsible for growth in the country as well as some disturbing human rights violations, and whose legacy is still debated in Indonesia today.

In the late 1990s, there was a constitutional reformation (the lawyers in the room should really read about it). In a remarkable process, they built a new order building consensus among the country’s diversity. But one of the things that happened in the wake of those reforms and in the early 2000s was a rise of extremism and terrorist actions motivated by extremist ideologies. Unrest and international movements were motivating actors on the ground towards violence. You might remember the Bali bombings, the bombing of the Australian embassy and many other attacks. And something that started to emerge in Indonesia was an counter-extremism ideology that was based in pancasila, in the idea of Indonesia as a place that had in its DNA the ability to connect across lines of faith and culture. And you see many religious leaders speaking in this language and all kinds of interfaith initiatives exist in the country. The government also has official funding for regional councils dedicated to interfaith harmony. 

Supporters will see a clear olive branch, a great interfaith effort being used to counter extremism, to stabilize society, to build social cohesion in the face of difference. The skeptics will label all that rhetoric about anti-extremism as an abuse by politicians to suppress their opposition. Or the skeptics may say that interfaith is not really about building bridges between faiths, it’s about Indonesia trying to rise to a higher place on the global stage. So just as they’d like to be more economically prosperous, more educationally trained and taken more seriously in global affairs, interfaith is another way to be noticed and to advance those ends. This is what skeptics will say. 

AJC is not in the camp of the skeptics. We work with an amazing institute called the Leimena Institute, another grant recipient of the Templeton Religious Trust on a program called Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy. The Leimena Institute is an Indonesian group that’s working on cultivating “responsible citizenship in plural society,” and all should look them up and learn more about them. Led by their Executive Director, Matius Ho, with great advising and support from another Templeton lecturer and advisor, Dr. Chris Seiple, and they built this program. Actually, it was Dr. Seiple’s Templeton Lecture at FPRI that started to work through the idea of cross-cultural religious literacy. It’s where he started to lay out the elements that one needed: personal competency, knowledge of one’s own religion and what it says about others; cross-cultural competency, the ability to know others so you can cross those lines; and a collaborative competency, the ability to work together.

AJC has been able to join the program teaching a Jewish component of an online certificate training program in cross-cultural religious literacy to K through 12 madrassa teachers, religious school teachers. In just about two years, 5,000 teachers have gone through this program, and have gotten an introduction to Islamic theologies of openness, an introduction to Judaism and to Christianity as well, and learning about the abilities to work together. We’ve also done some live programs and workshops within Indonesia, as well. This picture where we’re talking about some serious issues, Islamophobia and antisemitism, is at one of the state institutions, the Istiqlal Mosque, the National Mosque of Indonesia. The audience was about 100 young scholars in training, but also about fifteen or twenty ambassadors from Middle Eastern and Muslim world countries engaging in this conversation about antisemitism and Islamophobia.

How do we know that we’re not engaged in fig leaf work, as the skeptics believe, and that we’re engaged in olive branch work? Well, there is “principle” involved, which is that we have to talk about the issues that matter to us, and we can’t water down our identities simply so that they become more acceptable in the Indonesian space. But there is also pragmatism: We learn how to speak authentically to Jewish self-understanding in a completely different context, a different part of the world. You have to know how to speak in ways that can be heard and understood, and you have to listen so that you hear and understand. And of course, trust is present: We have found partners whom we work with that are helping navigate based on the same values and towards the same ends. 

Let’s take a trip to the Arabian Gulf. We’re going to talk about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We’re not going to get into long histories, but you know that starting in the early and into the mid-20th century, oil was discovered and the US started paying much closer attention to this part of the world. A landmark event was the establishment of the Aramco Company, which was founded as an oil partnership between the US-based Standard Oil company and Saudi Arabia, signed their first deal in 1933. And the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has not always been smooth, but it has persisted. It has had bumps, but there has been a stability to the relationship. Let us turn to the United Arab Emirates: more recently emergent as a global player now, also discovering oil in the late fifties, founding a state in 1971 as a coalition of tribal societies, of smaller Emirates, coming together under the rulership of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan. 

These are countries that for a long time were known on this side of the ocean for certain very traditionalist versions of religion and religious culture, that many of us only knew about in a negative way. We heard about the export of a certain fundamentalist interpretations of religion that sometimes fed extremist views and those extremist views sometimes fed into violence and violent movements. On such a sensitive topic it is important to note that many of our Muslim partners here and around the world also do not hold a positive view of what that ideology was doing to their religion and culture either. It is neither constructive nor accurate to view this phenomenon within the narrative of a clash of civilizations only, the dynamic is much more complex.

In the age of globalization and growing state to state relations, new exposures to an increasingly multicultural world, and after 9/11, the rise of ISIS, etc., many societies and leaders in the Gulf were recognizing the damage that unchecked and uncompromising religious zeal had on their global profile and policy agenda. Social reformation became emergent in the Gulf—e.g., the series of reformations that followed the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017; the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance” in 2019 or the major criminal, economic, and social reforms of 2020. Some of these make it into our media headlines, such as new rights for women that were previously restricted in Saudi Arabia, driving, voting, traveling unaccompanied by men, sitting alongside men in cafes and public leisure activities. In other cases, we don’t hear as much: the reformation of bureaucracy/technocracy in these countries so that people who are qualified for their jobs are being put in place; capacity-building across professional fields; textbook reforms that removes anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, and anti-Western tropes; the de-fanging of the religious police; protections for foreign corporations and foreign workers; etc. Some of these developments have come with heavy-handed brutal implementation, many are incomplete, and we often hear about the shortcomings. It is important not to let go of the principled aspirations and also engage pragmatically with a realistic expectation for pace and scope of change. 

And in all of this, the work of interfaith relations and building mutual understanding and intergroup tolerance became significant in new ways. It took a major role in countering extremism, opening new doors on the global stage, and perhaps in signaling to a world that held a very negative view that maybe things are shifting. 

In this context, I want to talk briefly about two figures: Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah and Sheikh Mohammed Alissa. Shaykh Bin Bayyah is the head of the United Arab Emirates Fatwa Council, the body responsible for religious law, and also the president of the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace. He’s a scholar of Mauritanian background, where he served as Minister of Justice, Minister of Education, and other roles. He is respected across schools of law and thought in the Muslim world. And with his teaching, preaching and leadership, he has done significant work to advance religious freedom and interreligious cooperation. These have come in the form of the Marrakesh Declaration, a document to promote the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries using Islamic religious sources and language. The Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace, over which he presides, gathers Muslim scholars from around the world, including government ministers, and increasingly includes Jews, Christians, and people of all backgrounds. He calls this in an “alliance of virtue” and has been taking risks for the sake of building new bridges with the support of the United Arab Emirates and the royal family.

Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Alissa is the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, a Saudi-supported nongovernmental organization, a transnational group based in Mecca that for a time was one of those groups identified as promoting a conservative, and some would say fundamentalist, version of religious teaching that we discussed before. And as part of some of the changes and reformations that are happening quite rapidly in the Kingdom, the Muslim World League has shifted as well. Dr. Alissa was a Minister of Justice involved in some of those reforms and was appointed in his role with the Muslim World League to shift the mission of the organization towards countering extremist narratives of any religious background, building interfaith reconciliation with world religious leaders, finding a place for Islam to be a constructive voice in Western societies as well, and generally supporting theologies of integration and partnership between peoples, nations, and faiths.

Now, the “Olive Branch” folks will point to all of these great accomplishments, and laud the states and the support that they are giving to figures like these and their initiatives that were previously unimaginable: interfaith conferences in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi; people of diverse faiths being welcomed and even practicing their religion in places with freedoms that they never could before. The cynics and critics will say, “you think you’re doing interfaith work, but you’re really just supporting countries and movements and giving them a fig leaf to cover up some really bad actions,” whether that’s in the field of human rights, anti-democratic norms, etc. Rather than dismiss these voices we must consider the challenges and ask, does a principled pragmatist sit at the table? Can you build trust with people? And can you have theological humility to say, I’m willing to see parts of this picture and to make change through engagement towards the as of yet unrealized aspirations? 

Well, for us at AJC, the answer is yes, we will sit at the table, attempt to build trust, and with humility, raise our concerns and work towards change, even as we recognize that we too are imperfect and learn from the encounter. Just last week, AJC gave our human dignity award to Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. And we feel that the work that he’s doing does deserve recognition. He gets attacked from members of his own community in all kinds of ways: people will attack and say he’s supporting the Muslim Brotherhood or call him out for being an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood; some will say he’s a Zionist and others will say he is a supporter of terrorists. The critics come from all directions and we see someone who has withstood a lot to make bold statements of reconciliation. We are all human beings and we all have our imperfections. The world is often messy and the relationships between religion and state can be messy. But when we see something worth praising and someone moving the needle with courage, that builds trust, and we must recognize that. 

The Muslim World League: One of the things that Dr. Alissa took up as a part of his mission was combating Holocaust denial in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It started with a public letter to the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, then a visit to the museum, and then the American Jewish Committee reached out and said, we see the path you are treading, would you take the next step with us and co-lead a Muslim-Jewish joint visit—with leaders from various countries around the world—to Auschwitz in Poland, to remember the dead and to celebrate the living. Now, sometimes critics will point out that some messages of reconciliation only appear in English or other Western languages for Western-facing media. In this case, Alissa brought Arab TV and journalists with him, he wanted his message to speak to many audiences, and took a lot of heat from internal communal critics for this visit. As I said, we are all human, we are all imperfect. The relationships between religion and state are messy, but principled pragmatists who build trust and approach situations with theological humility can find a way to make change. 

Let us now travel back to our home country, the United States of America. On the great seal of this nation, we say E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. We love our diversity and we believe that we can tell a story of “we” out of the many “ones” that we carry. But of course, we are living in a time of challenge in that regard and I will identify three of the factors I see at play in that regard. We know that political polarization is at a height, where something like eight or nine out of ten Democrats and Republicans believe that the agenda of the other party poses a threat to the country that if not stopped, will do irreparable damage and the polarization statistics are out there and worth studying. We know that our changing demographics in this country have led to a moment where identities can get weaponized in the public sphere and used as a source of division and not as a source of coming together. And of course, the communications revolution that we are experiencing, with social media and other communications technologies, means that people are sometimes hearing only their own story in charitable ways and only demonizing versions of the story that they disagree with. And so those we disagree with are not the opposition to debate but enemies to be fought. 

We know that there are also opportunities. For one there is polarization fatigue. Along with the data about our division, there are also statistics about the nine out of ten who want to do something to address division. There’s a moment of social cohesion where there are groups across the country like the Dialogue Institute, some of whose leadership is here in Philadelphia, like the Tannenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, like Interfaith America and Eboo Patel’s work, More in Common, Better Angels, the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program, and on and on and on. Lots and lots of interfaith groups that are working on social cohesion. 

Now, you might ask, why is this a part of a lecture about world affairs? Well, actually, social cohesion and social division are a national security concern. If we believe in conspiracy theories, we are exploitable to bad actors abroad. If we believe that the other within our own country is our enemy, then we become vulnerable to misinformation, disinformation, interference in our elections that exploits our division, and victims to the violence wrought by transnational ideologies of white supremacy or religious extremism of any kind. And we have seen all of this at play in recent years. My own community has seen murderous attacks motivated by some of these ideologies and the divided polarized moment. So social division is a national security concern.

The communications revolution and its attendant algorithms may feed division, but it also gives us an opportunity to generate new narratives in new spaces. We are in a moment where we’re shifting as a country where “We the people” does need to mean something new amidst our shifting character as a nation. I recounted many good initiatives, but I’d like to discuss one I’m involved with, the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council (MJAC), which I’ll encourage you to learn more about. We even have some of our board members here in the room tonight and some with us online. MJAC is a coalition that’s based on a simple bumper sticker principle: When Muslims and Jews in America work together on issues of common concern, both communities benefit and so does the United States of America. Very hard to disagree with. We have a domestic focus. We focus on advocacy issues like hate crimes, freedom of religious expression, and securing communities of all backgrounds. We have a bipartisan commitment: we won’t support a bill that does not have at least one co-sponsor from each party. And we have multi-sector membership. We love rabbis and imams. They should live and be well. We love dialogue. It’s important. Many leaders in dialogue and leaders of communities sit at our table, but those can’t be the only actors in this space if we are doing the work of social and cultural transformation. We need policy leaders, educators, business leaders, entertainers, and culture shapers of all kinds. Our co-chairs are two CEOs of publicly traded companies in America, Stanley Bergman, the CEO of Henry Schein Inc., and Farooq Kathwari, the CEO of Ethan Allen Interiors, a Muslim and a Jew, chiefs of industry dedicated to bridging some of these divides. And we’ve seen success. There are bills that have been passed and are now law where Democrats and Republicans worked together because Muslims and Jews sat together and asked them to do so. I’ve been in those meetings in Washington where they’ll look at us and they’ll say, “what are you two doing here together? I expect you to advocate on opposite sides.” We say “Do you think it was difficult for us to cross this aisle and divide? Please do so with your colleagues in Congress.” It is effective advocacy and it is shaping a new narrative. 

Now, as you’d imagine, I’m on the olive branch side of this one. I think it’s good work and I think it’s genuine. The cynics, the fig leaf critics, will use the term “faith washing” to attack this effort and others like it. They claim that this is the use of interfaith relations, to whitewash what they see as the crimes of Zionism against Palestinian people and Islamophobia against all Muslims. And they allege that “although you say you are domestic, and although you say you are benefiting all, it’s really about this other issue that you’re not talking about.” We hear this from critics on the Muslim side of our table. And in some community corners on the Jewish side of the table, we hear another term “stealth jihad.” These critics will allege, “Your partners say they’re here to pass laws to benefit both communities. Sure, your work is helping protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions. You’re making the responses to antisemitic hate crimes more effective. But really they are just doing it to implement Sharia law in this country.” We hear this criticism, calling our work a fig leaf. 

How do we know and address the challenges? First, principled pragmatism: it’s not that we always agree. We don’t agree on Israel and Palestine. We don’t agree on the most effective way to respond to extremism. We don’t always agree on antisemitism and Islamophobia, and we stick to our principles, but we are also pragmatic, which means being in conversation. We can do this because we built trust. And trust allows us to listen and speak with one another and to hear and to navigate some of the messiness and disagreement that’s there. And some of it comes with humility. I know the way that I’ve been doing this for years and years and years, and now I’m hearing a new way. What does that demand of me as a partner? How do I need to speak differently about the issues of greatest sensitivity to you, now that we have a relationship?

I hope that you’ll walk away agreeing with at least one of these propositions: that interfaith relations have become a shaper of policy in world affairs in a way that it had not before and in ways that are meaningful; that we have to be conscious of this constructive new opportunity and wary of the risks of destructive, weaponized uses of interfaith relations; and even when it’s not as clear as a weaponization, we have to be honest with ourselves and figure out a way to make that calculus with ourselves and with partners so that we are doing this work of principled pragmatism, that we are building trust, that we are approaching the work with humility, and that we don’t know it all. 

I’ll close with a final thought. I was a philosophy major in college, and I became enamored with postmodern philosophy. I grew up in an Orthodox community that did have some elements of the cartoon we saw before: “I hear it’s because we are right and they’re wrong.”

And I became intrigued with the idea of multiple forms of truth. Truth with a lowercase “t;” an epistemic pluralism in which many conflicting ideas could be right at the same time. One of the philosophers you read about is William James, the great American pragmatist, who said, “truth is what it does.” And it spoke to me a lot at the time, but I’ve come to take a little bit more of a critical approach, because truth isn’t only what it does. If one cares only about the interest-based work, getting it done, then the ends can always justify the means. I believe that truth is partially what it does, but how you get there matters a whole lot as well and we need a strong commitment to principles alongside our pragmatism. 

I hope that you will think more about this topic; that you won’t dismiss interfaith relations as irrelevant or naive or simply as a tool for power; that you’ll think about recognizing good uses and bad uses; and that as we talk and think together and continue this conversation, you’ll help us cultivate this idea of principled pragmatism, which is really how change will be made in world affairs. Thank you.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.