There is real fear—given the State Department’s place in President Trump’s proposed budgets—that genuinely significant foreign policy efforts may be hamstringed, or axed entirely, in the coming months and years. Diplomacy, as a practice and tactic, already seems underfunded, and arguments are already being marshaled for why particular areas of concern should be continued or even expanded in what will undoubtedly be a shoestring budget. Such is the argument of Peter Mandaville earlier in March, where he outlines at least five strategic objectives of religious engagement in American foreign policy, some distinct, some overlapping with freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Much of that argument is persuasive and important, but I want to add one significant, friendly amendment to his strategic priorities: the view from outside. America is not alone on freedom of religion or belief, and it projects its values and its interests most profoundly when it acts diplomatically and galvanizes the world around issues of universal interest.
While the twitters have been aflutter with Benedict, this past week a more circumspect group – less hashtags, more literature reviews – gathered at Campo Santo Teutonico at the Vatican. The goal of our international, and interdisciplinary gathering, was to present and debate research on the seemingly sudden rise in the power of the papacy, and of Vatican foreign policy more generally. The Pope, certainly but somewhat startlingly, has become a kind of international celebrity. Have we, the group wondered together, entered a kind of new era of Vatican foreign policy, one characterized by a resurgence in the significance of this small, sort-of, city-state?
A few caveats were given: the celebrity of viral social media can prejudice the question. For all Catholic history, it is safe to say, Popes have not been on twitter, they have not given selfies, and their words were not beamed around the globe in seconds. Despite this, they and their activities have had international significance. If, as one author has put it, a tree falls in the forest, does it mean a tweet caused it? It is more true to say, then, that scholarship and media are only now catching up on the political power of the modern papacy, and religion generally. Polish Solidarność presentations were aplenty at our conference, foregrounding debate on whether such Vatican influence was “unprecedented.” It certainly is not.
But maybe it’s not the Vatican, but the world stage, that has shifted so dramatically. Timothy Byrnes, in his opening keynote, argued that the Holy See’s unique conditions of “sovereignty, supranationalism, and soft power” give it a kind of privilege, and also power, that most of the world’s other religions could only imagine. While, he said, the rest of the NGO’s gather outside the U.N. General Assembly tent, the Vatican sits inside. When the big decisions need to be made, the states of the world line up to speak, and the Vatican’s diplomats are among them. And those same diplomats represent a tradition that, with a kind of quasi-nation-state sovereignty, also command another kind of quasi-sovereignty over the faithful of the world’s Catholics. There on the Vatican’s seal are the keys of the kingdom, the fruit of Christ’s promise to St. Peter that “whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:9). “Soft power” is what the discipline of international relations calls that.
What does that power mean now, in an era Jonathan Fox characterizes as an increasing secular-religious competition? Does Vatican foreign policy point us toward the limits of mainstream secular theory, or can it be fitted into a model of interest-based advocacy, of diplomacy as usual, or norm entrepreneurship from an unusual source?
Those questions could hardly have been given more urgency last Friday, as the Vatican was cordoned off, and the Sistine Chapel, which I had visited mere hours before, was emptied out for Europe’s leaders to hear Pope Francis address them. These questions, and more, we are hoping to put together with some of the papers from the conference into a special issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs, so stay tuned.
Later next month, I’m looking forward to attending a conference in Rome on Vatican foreign policy called “Pope’s on the Rise! Mobilization, Media, and Political Power of the Modern Papacy.” The gambit of that conference is that the Vatican can and should make substantive contributions to global policy and politics. I agree, but the shape of that and its limits are all important. The Vatican’s mediators and its diplomats can give the world of global politics back a language it so desperately needs: a language of virtue, morality, dignity, and means—not just ends—as more than long-term expedience. Its very existence and confessions are a cap and check on unrestrained capital, tyrannical governance, and hyper-individualism. But that witness is strongest when made prophetically, and it is sometimes limited and compromised when it delves too deep into policy. It is rhetoric—it is a witness—that can ennoble and mediate, but it cannot coerce nor prescribe. I has limits, and it has perhaps reached those limits in Venezuela today.
I have a longer reflection up on Venezuela at the The Berkley Center forum today, on “The Pope’s Divisions.
Here in Toronto, a minor news storm has been made of a father lobbying the public school board to exempt his son from music lessons, on the grounds of religious freedom and the parental right to education. Doug Saunders, our Globe and Mail foreign affairs columnist, and a somewhat ardent secularist, had harsh words in the weekends edition. I responded on the Cardus blog, but I think it’s fair to say that while Saunders tone leaves a lot to be desired, his message is not falling on deaf ears.
Hardly the sun sets in the West these days without some new attempt at what Jean Jacques Rousseau might have mistily called “forcing folks to be free.”
Doug Saunders in the weekend’s Globe and Mail calls for public prejudice for the greater good, but the idea isn’t new with him, and we’ll see a lot more of it in the days ahead.
The reasons aren’t new. “Reasonable accommodation” has a long history even in a young Canada (see Fighting over God), but the fuel of public fury is building: Brexits, Trumpers, all in a pyre of anxiety over just how much diversity our Western societies can handle.
Saunders’ incredulity over Mohammad Nouman Dasu, lobbying to exempt his children from music classes, has the smell of that fire. When spirituality, he writes, “infringes on the working of the legal, educational or medical systems, we have a problem—even if we don’t notice at first.” It is yet another “incursion of religious practice”, and with justifiable “public prejudice” we must fight back. In case precious few of us can be roused to the defense of Bach’s Magnificat, he raises the issue to one of literal life and death: spiritualist anti-vaxxer types infecting our children; your children. Something must be done.
The argument borders on alarmism, its logic sometimes a little too slippery on why, for example, parents might choose (as is their right) an alternative education system. He lumps legal, pedagogical, and medicinal fields together as systems which must be protected from religious incursion—which is a bit rich, considering these professions in the West were established out of, hardly in spite of, religious communities. Saunders’own brand of religious freedom can often run a bit indulgent on curious, personal affectations (you don’t eat pork? whatever) but zero tolerance on public manifestation (marriage between husband and wife? Keep it to yourself). That’s a kind of religious freedom, certainly, but not quite approaching what even Taylor and Bouchard called reasonable accommodation.
What Saunders calls public prejudice—a phrase one presumes is just enough on the nose to drive some clicks—others have simply called strong public principles. Saunders is importantly right in this respect: the deep diversity of Canadian society is straining our cultural and legal systems, plus we’ve more or less lost the shared moral vocabulary to talk about it. Can we renew, in the words of Yuval Levin, our social contract in the age of individualism? We feel trapped in the crumbling house of liberalism, but Burke’s little platoons are in trouble, too. No help is coming.
I used to find Saunders’ brand of secularity distasteful. I’m certain I still disagree, but I am starting to gain appreciation for his dilemma. In a world where other-regarding institutions are increasingly religious (especially globally), yet where religion is always a public bad, there is a hard, dark reality that the coercive arm of the state may not be enough to save secular-liberalism. If I was that kind of secularist, I would find Mr. Dasu not just alarming, I would find him a threat to civilization. And if I thought there were a lot more Mr. Dasu’s out there, I’d start overclocking public power to enforce conformity. I would tell people that if they won’t choose to be free, we’ll need to force them. I’d celebrate public prejudice.
I can’t think of a better picture of our social, existential anxiety. It’s not going away. I’m not convinced stronger public prejudice is the answer (though it may be part of it), but from ‘muscular liberalism’ to a ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ I would say Rousseau is yet to have his day.
This fall, The Review of Faith & International Affairs will be publishing a review of two important new books, from critics of the freedom of religion or belief: Saba Mahmood and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. My full review will be in that issue. One of the orienting questions I had reading these books was: what exactly is the problem with religious freedom? Why, of all the human rights available on the panacea of rights advocacy, has this, still relatively minor right, managed to achieve the status of a super-right worthy of such sustained criticism? To read these books and then to hear, for example, Thomas Farr’s testimony in 2013 that it is ..
difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way…
is an exercise in contradiction. Which is religious freedom advocacy? An industrial complex and career maker, or an obscure if rising corner of human rights advocacy in the political offices of the globe?
That empirical puzzle is the least interesting part of these books, however. It is, I think, fair to say that the problem is not religious freedom at all, or even human rights, but liberalism and the secular state. Religious freedom is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface lies the religious and the secular itself, the Treaty of Westphalia, and a whole genealogy of “the constitutive values” of liberal democracy. From the forthcoming review:
Hurd’s conclusion is that religious freedom privileges some forms of religion, whether beliefs, modes of being or knowing, and dis-privileges others. Is that really the fault of religious freedom, or is that the natural consequence of sovereignty and of political secularism?
The state, Hurd is at pains to show, is not neutral because it privileges certain kinds of beliefs and being. But of course it does. The ‘neutrality’ of the secular state is not an intellectual innocence. It is a political community that has very definite opinions about certain kinds of beliefs and behaviours, and the suggestion that it was ever intended to be an open-cosmopolitan social space seems historically naïve. That, for example, Hurd could write “the wrong kind of religion is an object of reform and discipline” (27) and this could shock us means we missed the prior postmodern lesson that politics are always moral, that what a political community means by justice – the good of politics – is hardly “neutral” in an intellectual sense. There is no such thing as good or bad religion, argues Hurd (Hurd, 120), except – of course – when we get busy situating ourselves in a tradition, or moral position, then some kinds of belief and being and knowing are good. And some are bad.
This is where postmodern polemics sometimes hit a snag, because we know that we are already situated in such a sense, whether we are busy attending to it or not. This is Charles Taylor’s point in A Secular Age about the “modern social imaginary” that we were in the business of having understandings of and practices in the world long before we got into the business of theorizing about them. What is Hurd’s social imaginary, then?
I believe it is one whose moral hierarchy counts diversity and equality as its chief aims. The fundamental problem with religious freedom, then, is the same as the problem with human rights generally. Quoting Talal Asad, she writes that religious freedom “usurps the entire universe of moral discourse, capturing the field of emancipatory possibility and effacing the distinction between law and justice” (Hurd, 64). This approach is deeply democratic, but it is not necessarily liberal. In fact, quoting Asad again, she writes “the modern idea of religious belief (protected as a right in the individual and regulated institutionally) is a critical function of the liberal-democratic nation-state but not of democratic sensibility” (Hurd, 108).
Therefore, if we disagree with Hurd about the conceptual use ‘religion’ as a category for international politics the fulcrum of that disagreement becomes clear: it is probably because, like me, you are a liberal democrat, the values of liberalism accompanying and qualifying your democratic enthusiasm, whereas she is unapologetically a democrat. A democrat is a good thing to be, and I respect a thoroughgoing defense of values I also believe in, I just happen to think being a democrat, untethered from the limits of what Taylor calls the “constitutive values of liberal democracy” is a little riskier politics than I like to play.
The full review is forthcoming, but both these books are already available and for sale.
I’ve written some opinion at Canada’s foreign policy newsweekly, Embassy magazine, on what should be next for Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom. A snippet here:
It’s moving month in Ottawa’s capital, and we already have a few clues of what’s coming and what’s going.
The Liberals are making good on campaign promises, but there are at least a few areas where it’s unclear if the Liberals will want to renovate, rebuild or just tear down. One of those is the new Office of Religious Freedom, barely out of adolescence since launched in 2013. But there are very strong, Liberal, reasons for this government to promote and expand this initiative.
The legacy of the Liberal Party of Canada is one that has always taken human rights very seriously. Liberal internationalism, classically, has human rights and the dignity of the human person at the centre of its global agenda. Liberalism manages to marry two competing claims in foreign policy: moral action and national interest. Canada, and Liberals especially, have always argued these are not paradoxes but two sides of the same coin.
Where human dignity, where freedom of the person and of communities, are respected, local and international security are strengthened. Freedom of religion or belief, as part of the package of human rights necessary for any society to flourish, is not peripheral to national security, it is at its very foundation. This was the idea which animated the establishment of the American Office of Religious Freedom in 1998, and one of the reasons the Liberal Party of that day also took religious freedom seriously.
In fact, while it may have been a Conservative prime minister that launched the office in 2013, the idea had roots stretching back to Axworthy and others. This is because the Office of Religious Freedom is not a Liberal or Conservative idea, it’s a Canadian idea.
The whole article can be read at Embassy online here.
I have Catholic friends who never quite tire of quoting Cardinal Newman at me, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I’ve often wondered if the same sort of thing isn’t true of international relations scholars; that to be deep in history is to leave the narrow, ransacked way the discipline tends to treat international history. At which point, what John Owen does is doubly special in his latest argument in Foreign Affairs (from his book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from The West’s Past).
A little historical comparative can go a long way to moderating the conversation on the contemporary Middle East. At its broadest level, he writes, “Western history shows that the current legitimacy crisis in the Middle East is neither unprecedented in its gravity nor likely to resolve itself in any straightforward way.” Political-theological strife is hardly unknown in the West, and even after the so-called church and state question was “settled”, many – like David Koyzis – have argued that the various ‘isms’ that tore Europe apart in the nineteenth and twentieth century were more than a little religious. It is hard, as an inheritor of the western canon and tradition, to sit too smugly on this side of the twentieth century and claim the special privilege of having transcended sectarian and religious conflict.
In fact, what Owen writes of the seventeenth century might ring just as true of the twenty-first, that “choosing an ideology was as much a political commitment as a religious one…” Certainly this is the argument of people like William T. Cavanaugh who, in The Myth of Religious Violence, makes a long case that the Wars of Religion were more about supplanting an old political-theological sub-stratum with a new one, or as he puts it, a hostile takeover of the church by the state, than an orderly separation. None of which invalidates the history Owen writes about, though it does make it clear – as he does – that the contest in the Middle East today is at once about the meaning of the religious and the secular, their boundaries, and how those things shape political legitimacy, as they were in Europe.
In Canada’s Globe and Mail a few weeks ago I made the argument that as the battle for Tikrit raged, the world badly needed to break its track record of invasion followed by inaction. Now, Tikrit is taken and the countdown to Mosul is on.
But this is not the battle for Kobani, a city overwhelmed by nearly 400,000 refugees. Mosul is a major city of the Middle East, a city of 1.8 million at its height. Its humanitarian catastrophe has been compared to the Nazi regime in the Second World War. The postwar reconstruction plan we need should be taken from the same playbook. The Middle East needs a Yalta and a Potsdam: a postwar order before the victory march; a plan for how to bring people home.
A post-IS order, in other words, is not the panacea for the Levant. In fact, in an interview, Gen. David Petraeus outlined what he called worse concerns about the region than IS: “I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by – and some guided by – Iran.”
As IS is rolled back by coalition forces – including in some cases Shiite militias – the danger of kidnappings and reprisal killings, mass evictions, and the corrosive abuses that so often follow on the heels of the politics of past evil is real and present.
The problem of what political scientist Daniel Philpott calls unjust peace, and the cycle of violence after mass atrocity, will persist long after a group calling itself IS is pushed back and defeated.
That problem is as much about how the militaries and militias conduct themselves in the now-and upcoming campaign to retake ISIS-controlled Iraq as when and what comes next. As coalition forces move forward, will the international community prove complicit in the kind of reprisal and revenge killings to come? Or is there a role for countries like Canada, not merely in the form of boots on the ground, but as partners in rebuilding a just peace that, even in the merest act of our presence, may prevent the worst of post-war reprisals?
Any just peace needs a plan of return, one which includes not only security, governance, and economic development, but reconciliation. We need a plan for people to come back to their homes, to their villages, safely, reclaim ownership, and somehow restore a sense of normalcy to life.
Christians, Yezidis, and – it must be remembered – an overwhelming number of Muslims have suffered terrible persecution under IS. The blood of martyrs soaks this region. Sadness saturates the soul. IS can and will be beaten, but we need to know what comes next. We need a practical plan to take us beyond the trauma. And we need that plan taking shape now, as part of, not secondary thought to, counter-invasion.
The counter-invasion may come as a rescue, but the larger part is a restoration. The harder part is the return. The region itself needs to take leadership on security and economic development, and the world needs to anticipate a better future. In the heart of Europe’s darkest hour the Allies planned an audacious postwar plan on the back of presumed victory. The Levant badly needs that audacity today.
When the Americans rained fire from the sky around Mount Sinjar, suppressing, later destroying, Islamic State fighters, the world’s eye was drawn to that remote corner of the Middle East that is the home to some of its most obscure and apocryphal peoples and religions. The Ezidis (Yazedis), hasty research assistants for television networks quickly told us, were one of several of such groups: a reclusive, non-missional, but highly spiritual people. Some accused them of Devil worship, a confusing charge for the often magically purged faith of American Protestants to make sense of.
Ezidis revere Melek Taoos, whom they identify with Azazael or Iblis; in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions, these are names for great angels who rebelled against God and were cast down. Unlike Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the Ezidis believe these angels were not evil but misguided; moreover, they believe God’s saving grace not only will, but has already, covered these angels, restoring them to favor.
These are jarring extra-canonical conversations for most secular Christians, more at home on our big screens than in our Bible studies, and ones that expose latent elements of the tradition of Christian faith that have been, for North American purposes, lost, but which remain very alive in the Middle East. Gerard Russell, in writing his magnificent travelogue of the Middle East’s disappearing religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, wanted to capture some of that magical-historical dissonance for an English-speaking audience. Ezidis, but also Mandeans, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Kalasha, and Copts, provoke, for Russell, at least three things: “humanity’s collective ignorance of its own past, the growing alienation between Christianity and Islam, and the way the debate about religion has become increasingly the preserve of narrow-minded atheists and literalists.”
I loved this book (and you can find my full review of it at Books & Culture here). I loved it for its winsome and intelligent readability, how it brought to life corners of the world I not only barely understood, but had not in some cases even realized still existed. I loved it for the slow, ambling way it did all of the above. The book is barely academic and I wouldn’t treat it as an authoritative encyclopedia on these religions. But partly because of this, it is a beautiful and very human telling of stories we know in the merest part, stories that disturb and decenter the easy narrow-mindedness of literalists believers and dogmatic atheists alike.
Blessed are the peacemakers, Russell says, who by painful researches seek to remove those veils which have so long concealed mankind from each other. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is exactly such salve and balm for a Secular Age paradoxically brimming with religion.
The collapse of oil has shocked any number of economies over the last few months. The Russian central bank has scrambled to prop up the ruble, running rates as high as 17% to attract foreign capital. Canada’s own Bank actually cut rates by a quarter point, dropping the Canadian dollar significantly. All these responses look like good old fashioned supply and demand economics, but there is more than a little political theology that runs through these rates.
Oil prices aren’t set to recover quickly. Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holdings, nephew of the late King Abdullah, made it clear that Saudi Arabia will continue to double down on these prices. Saudi Arabia, a country that takes nearly 90 per cent of its budget from oil, remains committed to its levels of production, which is to say its supply. The prince blamed the fall in price on demand. The country will not be the first to blink.
“Eventually there’s no doubt that some countries have to blink and reduce their production…I don’t see Saudi Arabia or OPEC countries blinking,” he said.
Students of religion and history can clearly see at least two countries in the crosshairs of this game of brinkmanship: America, and its boom in fracking, and the rival Shia state of Iran. A fringe benefit has been the near collapse of the Russian ruble.
The list of Saudi grievances is long. Riyadh has been annoyed by American unwillingness, or incapacity, to resolve the Palestinian problem, its détente with Iran and seeming tolerance of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Far more than annoyed, it has been heavily engaged in the civil war in Syria, which has now spilled out and threatens the tenuous remains of the Iraqi government after the American withdrawal. Some have even labelled this a proxy war funded by the oil money of religious zealots around the Persian Gulf, lined up on Sunni/Shia religious lines.
Among the many sides of that war include somewhat famously Iran, its subsidized Shia brigades, and its increasingly unsteady overtures to the Kurds and to the West to protect Shias in the brutal path of destruction ISIL is cutting.
We may never see $100 a barrel again, warned Prince Alwaleed on Jan. 23, a statement that if true will cripple (North) America’s comparatively expensive oil production, and gut the state finances of its religious rival Iran. Maybe that’s a happy coincidence.
The oil politics of the Middle East will always have an Islamic political theology, or maybe more to the point rival theologies, running through it. And that’s a lesson that Governor Stephen Poloz, pun intended, took to the Bank.