Archive - March 20, 2015

Is It Islamic (or Christian)? The State Doesn’t Get to Say
When Christians Kill and Destroy but Also Make Peace, CAR Today
Shaun Casey’s New, Impossible Job: Help us Talk about Islam

Is It Islamic (or Christian)? The State Doesn’t Get to Say

Dan Philpott and I both have posted on how to think about the relation of ISIS to Islam, and noted that President Obama has presumed to declare that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’” The President has made similar proclamations since – saying last month at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that: “They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.  (Applause.)  And we are not at war with Islam.  We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” President Bush made similar statements, e.g., on September 17, 2001: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.”

Nor has the Obama administration limited its doctrinal pronouncements to Islam. Early in 2012, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, President of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, published a letter reporting discussions the Council had with White House staff over the “Obamacare” mandate that employers pay for contraception and other procedures to which the Catholic Church has grave objections. According to Dolan, White House staff “advised the bishops’ conference that we should listen to the ‘enlightened’ voices of accommodation …. The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching and so … now has nominated its own handpicked official Catholic teachers.”

As Reihan Salam wrote in a trenchant article last month at Slate, it really is not for an American President to say what is or is not Islamic. It is not simply because Obama is a Christian and hence an outsider to Islam. No more does the Head of State of the United States have any business telling Christians what is true Christian teaching, or which clergy are authoritative.  It is for the faithful to decide, without state coercion, what they believe and who their authorities are.

When a President tells the faithful what does and does not constitute a particular religion, he would seem to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Statements such as those of Obama and Bush also are likely to be self-defeating. Ultimately, the faithful – Christians, Muslims, and others – will see state attempts to establish religious doctrine as illegitimate, and they will side with their religious institutions over the American state.

When Christians Kill and Destroy but Also Make Peace, CAR Today

Consistency Deficit Disorder is a problem among Christians these days. Many Christians have been at the forefront of asking Muslims, “So, what are you Muslims going to do about violence committed by Muslims today?” while we Christians ourselves at times, perhaps not infrequently, turn a blind eye to violence committed by Christians. We need to stop, and then pray and think about this. The Central African Republic (CAR) is a good place to start.

A few days ago U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted about the “frightened Muslim pop[ulation]” in the CAR. Imagine if you and your family were living in the midst of a civil war and a group from a different religion and ethnicity were targeting people of your religion and ethnicity. I would be frightened, as I suppose you too would be.

For those of us who are Christian, there is an added gut-wrenching element to this: many of the perpetrators of death and destruction in the CAR, who are targeting the Muslim population, are from the Christian population.

Ambassador Power explained to reporters that as of her recent visit to CAR, 417 of the 436 mosques in this country had been destroyed, and around 20% of the country’s 4.5 million people have fled. Muslims are not the ones destroying mosques in CAR, Christians are.  Moreover, many, if not most, of the nearly 1 million people who have fled are Muslim, and they are fleeing from violence committed intentionally against them at the hands of the Christian population.

To my fellow Christians I ask:

So, what are we Christians going to do about violence being committed by Christians in CAR?

I ask for two reasons. The first is my concern about our Christian Consistency Deficit Disorder. The second reason is  because I continue to wonder:

What is the responsibility of religious believers in a given faith to engage fanatics advocating ideologies of hate while claiming to act in the name of this faith?

I am not sure what the answer to this question is. Violence is a human problem and we humans have responsibility for each other, regardless of religious affiliation. But even so, I do not think that “nothing, no responsibility at all” is the right answer to this question. Aside from this, Jesus teaches me, “love your neighbor.” The people of CAR are among my neighbors in this world. I had to stop to ask myself what I am going to do about this. I have neither a magic wand nor billions of dollars to donate. But I can do at least something.

First I did some research to learn about the conflict, and then I contacted a Christian expert I know with decades of experience doing development work together with the people of this region. I asked him for advice, and learned about some important peacemaking efforts led by Christians in CAR — efforts which can continue only with financial support.

Today I sent a donation to World Vision International’s Central African Relief Fund. World Vision’s peacemaking efforts in CAR are a collaborative effort involving Protestant and Catholic Christians together with Muslims.  Catholic Relief Services is a partner in this work. Another Christian partner in this work is INOVARCA.

So, what are we Christians going to do about violence being committed by Christians in CAR?

Prayer for the people of CAR and those working with them is part of my action-plan. Prayer matters. And alongside prayer is a need for as many people as possible to support concrete, wisely conceived action, such as the work by the Christian groups World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and INOVARCA.



Shaun Casey’s New, Impossible Job: Help us Talk about Islam

What follows is an insightful guest post by Dennis Hoover, who is Vice President for Research and Publications at the Institute for Global Engagement, an innovative think-tank that promotes religious freedom through a methodology of friendship and engagement.  Dennis is also executive director of the Center on Faith & International Affairs (CFIA) and edits CFIA’s journal, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a lively journal that serves as a forum for thought and practical ideas in religious and international affairs.

America has an Islam crisis which is centered, in a very basic way, on how to even talk about it. Nowhere was that more clear than in the controversy surrounding last month’s “White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism.” In the weeks leading up to the Summit, the Administration was subjected to withering criticism—mostly from the right, but also from some formidable voices on the left—for refusing to describe as “Islamic” any terrorism committed by self-declared Muslims. Although this rhetorical posture has a long and bi-partisan history, in the current context patience is thin for anything that smacks of political correctness.

Enter the new “Office of Religion and Global Affairs” at the State Department, led by the widely respected Shaun Casey. Can Mr. Casey help rescue the debate? The daunting challenge will be to find the sweet spot of constructive candor.

The Office of Religion and Global Affairs is in some ways a continuation of the State Department’s prior Office of Faith-based Community Initiatives. But more than the name has changed. Several religion-related entities are now consolidated under the Office of Religion and Global Affairs: the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Plenty are calling the changes welcome news. Institutional capacity and strategic coherence are improved, not to mention branding clarity (“faith-based” has always been a clunky, if not constitutionally suspect, modifier to use in a governmental context). However, having raised the profile of religious engagement in U.S. foreign policy, the bar is now also raised in terms of the rhetoric employed in religion-focused diplomacy—most especially in engagement of Muslim leaders, organizations, and movements.

What is or isn’t said about Islam is going to be minutely scrutinized (not least by the Obama Administration’s many critics in the Fox News echo chamber). Tough topics will need to be raised. Treading too lightly risks wasting everyone’s time on polite inter-faith platitudes of peace. Yet an overabundance of name-shame-blame “candor” about Islam can be not only time-wasting but acutely counterproductive—it unnecessarily confers religious legitimacy on violent extremists, and alienates Muslim allies in the war against them.

And the office will need to say something: Two of the three envoys now reporting to Casey are explicitly about engaging Muslim actors, and the third is focused on combating Anti-Semitism, which of course involves confronting Muslim Anti-Semitism alongside all the other growing forms of Anti-Semitism (many of them Christian).

What to say? And how to say it? There are no easy answers, but a helpful point of rhetorical reference is President Obama’s own speech at the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. Although most of the news media missed it completely, Obama’s oratory did in fact reach a new level of constructive candor:

Al Qaeda and ISIL do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of clash of civilizations. … [T]here’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances—sometimes that’s accurate—does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values. … So just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there’s an inherent clash in civilizations.

Here’s hoping the newly reconfigured and renamed Office of Religion and Global Affairs will be similarly deft in its diplomatic truth-telling in the challenging years ahead.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.