A Discussion with Maryann Cusimano Love, Associate Professor of International Relations, Catholic University
Background: This June 2010 conversation between Maryann Cusimano Love and Susan Hayward focuses on Maryann's academic work in seeking to bridge the U.S. Government and organizations within the international relations field that have often failed to engage “religious actors and factors” with faith-based organizations and communities that are involved in peacebuilding and development. Though religious groups are not powerful economic actors, they have significant clout with grassroots networks that reach to the core of the communities and can have a significant positive impact on the peace building efforts of other actors in the field. Maryann also focuses as well on how the Catholic Church has approached peacebuilding, and reconciliation, in particular, and how women have found leadership positions within social institutional arms of the Catholic Church.
Interview Conducted on July 6, 2010
I know you are on leave from Catholic University doing a fellowship with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Can you tell me a bit about what you are studying in your fellowship year?
The point of my project is to help upgrade the training and education provided to U.S. Government (USG) personnel for engaging religious actors and factors in international affairs. There is a very modest amount of training that happens right now in the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). When I began my fellowship at the beginning of this year, there were two courses offered at FSI on religion & both on Islam & amongst the 450 courses offered every year. And there are about 50,000 people going through FSI from the State Department and other bureaus who engage in foreign diplomacy. Most of their courses are language training, of course, but there are other policy courses offered, and there has not been a focus on religion. What there is, is focused on Islam. There is a similar focus on Islam in the military academies, rather than on religion more broadly.
Yet there is a greater awareness of religion post 9/11, and post the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There is a hunger amongst United States Government personnel who engage overseas to understand issues of religion better, but there is just not a lot on tap available to them. This is changing more quickly within the military, as the military's new counter-insurgency doctrine, and the new army field manual, underscore the importance of religious dynamics, and social-anthropological issues.
What is the focus of the kinds of training you are helping to develop and promote?
The available materials tend to be problem-focused; in other words, there is often an emphasis on religious groups as a problem intensifying conflict. There is not much on religious groups as partners in building peace. In terms of both military training and FSI, personnel and training tends to focus on “what groups in my area of operation I will need to know & what are the customs, religious holidays, etc.” There tends to be an anthropological approach specific to particular regions, without looking at the overall context and larger trends of religious actors and factors in world politics. Anthropology and a socio-cultural understanding is important, of course, for areas in which USG is working, but USG personnel also need to have a broader understanding of the context that goes beyond Islam, and that sees religion as more than just a problem, especially in reconstruction and stabilization issues in post-conflict societies. So I’ve been putting together case studies and training materials that will be published by Georgetown University, some of which will be available to a wider audience.
This work is important because it is not just the government that has had blinders. The International Relations (IR) field has also tended to downplay religious actors and factors, in part because they are non-state actors, and historically non-state actors have not gotten as much attention in our field as states. Unlike multinational corporations, a non-state actor that indeed is getting more attention in international political economy, religious groups are not big economic players & they are non-state actors whose primary currency in the world of ideas and in their grassroots networks. These are things that tend to get downplayed in IR. Whether you are a realist, an idealist, a Marxist, a capitalist, or a sociologist, all these academic schools of thought underestimate religious actors and dynamics, especially the contribution they can make. The academic field’s failure to address this gap is a problem. So some of what I’m doing seeks to address that gap.
We’ve made some progress already & the new dean at FSI, Ambassador Tracey Jacobson , has revised the course offerings and expanded on them, including one stand-alone course on religious engagement, and greater inclusion of religion in the human rights courses and so on. But there is still a great deal of need.
I’ve also been working with the military chaplains to look at modules that can be used in their training. Chaplains have been asked to do more liaising with religious leadership in local contexts. I’ve gone to the chaplain schools and done interviews with Chaplains to document their international religious engagement and to see how to expand their training.
What special focus is there with the military chaplains?
Historically, the chaplains’ corps has been asked to do everything, from health care to literacy, and many times they have been engaged in reaching out to local religious communities. It is a natural fit to some degree. After all -- here are folks who understand the importance of religion but who are also in military uniform. So it’s an interesting face to put on religious engagement & that the U.S. is a religious country, and the USG is committed to supporting religious freedom around the world. It’s powerful for its modeling capacity.
There are shortcomings as well of course. The chaplains are marginalized within the military, are short on funding, and so on. So you are giving this task of religious engagement to the group within the military that probably has the least amount of capacity to carry out this important mission.
What were your experiences growing up, personally and professionally, that drew you to the field of international relations?
My uncle was a Jesuit educator in Nigeria, and so I grew up with stories about the world beyond my doorstep and his experiences of religious conflict in Nigeria and education of women in Africa. He felt that was a real avenue for development in Nigeria and a means to build peace. So he worked with the Catholic Church in Nigeria to build schools for women and girls as well as males, with the model of local ownership and empowerment. So when I went on to university, I studied international relations and I had an ear and eye for those issues.
I served on the Board and Advocacy Committee of Jesuit Refugee Services beginning in the late 1990s. The victims of conflict, refugees, and IDPs are 80 percent women and children. And we work on how to better serve and accompany refugees and IDPs, how to help empower women refugees through education and economic opportunities so they have better capacity to serve as they do as the pillars and economic providers for their families and communities. And we advocate with the UN and the US government regarding how foreign policy can better serve these vulnerable populations.
And what is the focus of your work with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference? The Catholic Peacebuilding Network?
I also work with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as an advisor on the International Justice and Peace Committee. In this capacity, I work on advocacy and education for them.
I also work on the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (CPN). We started that with our first meeting in 2002. CPN is working to try to bring grassroots peacebuilding communities around the world together -- as well as theorists and practitioners from across the North/South divide & for conversations and capacity building. It looks at lessons learned from those involved in peacebuilding around the world, that can inform theory, as well as what’s available in the academic realm that might be helpful for practitioners. The Great Lakes region of Africa, Philippines, and Colombia are the regions we are focused on, though our membership is larger than that. So in that capacity I’ve been participating in research, writing, holding conferences, and serving on the Board.
These three groups all work in close partnership with Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis here in the U.S.and overseas. We bring visiting delegations from various countries to the U.S.and set up appointments with folks on the Hill and at the State Department, for them to tell their stories and share their needs, particularly when there is a policy issue being debated in Washington that could adversely impact them.
With CPN, I’ve been working on research that is coming out this fall in a book on Catholic Peacebuilding & my chapter is on “What Kind of Peace Do We Seek?” I look at how different government bureaus and organizations define peace, and their priorities for peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction. For example the SSTR activities of the U.S. Defense Department and State Department, and the UN Peace Building Commission's ideas about peacebuilding, have contrasted with the approach and definitions of faith-based organizations.
And how do the Catholic Church and faith-based organizations definitions of peace and approaches to peacebuilding contrast to these government bureaus?
I find a few key differences. One is participation. Caritas Internationalis and CRS and other faith-based organizations put a key emphasis on participation as an ethical norm and a strategic priority. If you take respect for life as a key value, then you need to make sure you are including various participants & not just the heads of state and power-holders, but also folks who are not engaged in the conflict themselves, but are affected by it. Women religious leaders, women involved in faith-based NGOs, get included in that lens.
One other key difference is reconciliation. Faith based organizations have more capacity and tools to address reconciliation & they have appropriate language, tools, symbols, and rituals with which to approach reconciliation. Secular organizations, in contrast, do not seem to have the language and resources to address issues of reconciliation. So political actors, who talk about reconciliation, when you actually open that box and look at what programs they are doing to address reconciliation, you find yourself looking at reform of police and judicial systems, reform of state institutions, etc.. While these things are important, they are not community, much less inter-personal, reconciliation projects, nor are they addressing trauma and healing.
Religious groups are addressing these reconciliation needs with much more depth and success. Religious groups and women seem to have a great deal more capacity to this end. States may not even have a mental map of what groups are out there involved in this work. So one of the things I am doing is trying to document the work of these faith-based groups and the work of women within these groups. It’s important to provide some of this mapping to government or political groups so that they can effectively collaborate with them. Or at least so they do no harm & so they don’t devise programs that may undermine these groups. In some circumstances, they may find that partnership is helpful and may make space at the table for them. So for example one thing I’m interested in is that when the UN Peacebuilding Commission is creating a plan for post-conflict peace building policy and action, one of the critiques they get is that they do not draw on religious groups and women’s groups. They need to do more consultations when developing these plans, rather than merely rolling them out and presenting the plan to these groups after the plans have been devised, as was done in Burundi for example.
Going back to your assertion that religious groups are particularly well-suited to address issues of reconciliation, are there particular issues or activities within peacebuilding that you have found women’s religious groups are well suited to address?
Yes. In issues of trauma healing, especially when the victims of conflict are primarily women and girls, women in faith-based groups can be very effective. This is especially true in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape and mutilation of women are being used as a tool of conflict by armed groups trying to access natural resources. Women’s groups are very well situated to help these victims, and are working in areas where the state is either absent or predatory, reaching out to victims of what the UN calls war crimes and crimes against humanity.’ They are doing effective engagement to give these girls and women healing support, but also in addressing how to integrate them back into the community when they’ve been stigmatized.
In terms of process, women’s religious groups tend to have greater networks and be more relationship-based. This is very helpful in creating trust in post-conflict societies, and with refugees, IDPs, and other victims of conflicts. It is a very effective way to build movements for peace. And it is a fingerprint of women’s groups.
I have done a lot of work on transnational advocacy networks; people who have networks and ideas in this current context of growing globalization, especially when they can be hooked up with information technologies and social networking, can be a powerful force. So I do think women’s religious peacemaking groups have a real value added that can bring great leverage at this time. You see this in Jody Williams work on the International Campaign to ban landmines. And those working to ban cluster mines. Women’s religious groups have great potential to create powerful movements.
In your research this year, have you seen any particular gender dynamics at play in the U.S. military’s religious engagement overseas?
Yes. One of the questions I’ve been asking the chaplains in my interviews has been specifically about gender & about religious community engagement versus religious leader engagement. How are they selecting who they engage with? Obviously, if they limit that engagement to religious leaders, it will be primarily older males. And so they will leave out women and youth. If they expand it out to religious community engagement, you include women and youth as well as those others who are doing work on-the-ground in faith based communities. Women are often very involved in faith-based NGOS, grassroots peacebuilding and reconciliation, health-care, education, and so on. They are very active on the ground in social service organizations. And that’s not captured if you only do religious leader engagement. You miss out on community leaders who may not have the title in the religious hierarchy.
The second question is on the USG side, whether you send women chaplains or women diplomats to engage. I think there is a bit of self-censorship on this end. Women and some among the chaplains seem to feel women won’t be taken seriously, especially if you focus on religious leadership engagement with male religious leaders. There is debate as to whether they will be taken seriously.
The other question is, who is setting up these programs? In Iraq and Afghanistan, where you have non-permissive environments and the State Department had fewer personnel on the ground, you had the military calling the shots on who the USG engages in the civil society. In other places, the State Department takes the lead on civilian religious engagement, and they may or may not partner with chaplains in their religious engagement. I’ve been doing some work in Africa, with AFRICOM, for example, and in those contexts, the individual embassies are deciding whether and how much they engage with religious groups and whether that engagement is defined as male religious leaders, or is inclusive of women in faith-based organizations. In Kenya, for example, they reach out to the Somali expatriate community, which is noteworthy in how they reach out to youth and women who are part of faith-based groups. But in other places, it is primarily focused on titular religious leaders.
This is a gap in the US government. Part of the recent recommendations coming out of the White House Office for Faith Based Initiatives focus on strengthening USG inter-religious engagement. This summer, they are mapping what the USG is doing & they are surveying embassies overseas and USG agencies. They are also surveying lawyers in various government bureaus about the Establishment Clause: what are the variety of legal interpretations that are being offered about what religious engagement is legally permissible? There has been a wide and often inconsistent interpretation of what religious engagement the USG can do. I think this is playing a positive forcing function, showing that the White House is interested in engaging with religious communities internationally. The other side of this will be supporting engagement with women. The appointment for the first time of a woman to serve as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, may have a positive effect on the debate as to whether women can effectively engage religious leaders and communities internationally.
Even in areas where the USG focuses primarily or exclusively on engagement with male religious leaders, they engage on issues that are important to and that impact women. There are so many issues that affect women in conflict areas. It seems as if the places where government and religious communities are most interested in collaborating are on issues that are important to women & education, health services, women and children who are survivors of rape, and issues facing refugees (80 percent of whom are women and children). In the implementation phase of these collaborations, certainly, women have to be included.
How have you seen Catholic women engaged in peacemaking through the Church in various contexts?
It is interesting that there is so much activity, given that the Catholic Church has a male-based hierarchy. The irony is that a great proportion of the work on the ground is done by women. Whether it is education, health care & schools and hospitals & and other social service institutions, a lot of these institutions have been built by women. There are many women religious leaders within the Church; they are just not in the Bishops Conferences. They have found ways to work within the institutional structure. One is through the Catholic NGOs, which are often run and populated by women. So they have found leadership positions within the Church that are not within the teaching authority with the church. They may not determine doctrine, but they do determine how the work of the Church is done.
It is interesting to work with these women and to see how they work with bishops. They leverage both social and horizontal networks & and here the Catholic Church provides a great deal of breadth and depth, and they interact vertically with the male hierarchy. Because many of these women are leaders in institutional roles & at schools and hospitals and NGOs so on & they have access to male religious authority.
I think, for example, of Catholic Relief Services and Caritas. Those groups have countless women who work in them & both women religious and lay Catholic women. So there is an interesting pluralism in the Church. On the one hand, we have a male hierarchy. On the other hand, there are many institutional arms of the Church in which there are opportunities for women to lead.
What questions regarding the intersection of women, religion, conflict, and peace do you bring to our symposium?
I’d like to hear from those who are coming from other countries, their views on whether the UN Peacebuilding Commission has been successful in engaging women’s groups. I’d love to hear how UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is playing out in various countries. I’d love to hear more about the country plans that the World Bank and international economic institutions have asked countries to prepare & how much women have been involved in those plans, and to hear about their needs, capacity gaps, and how we can be helpful & especially in DC & for policy or advocacy support to help them address the issues they face on-the-ground.