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.

About the author

Daniel Philpott

© 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.