A Discussion with Imam Yahya Hendi, Founder of Clergy Beyond Borders
May 22, 2011
Background: As part of the Future of Track-Two Diplomacy Undergraduate Fellows Seminar, in spring 2011 Saaliha Khan interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, founder of Clergy Beyond Borders and Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, about the intersections of U.S. foreign policy, religion, and track-two diplomacy.
Can you please tell me about any ways that U.S. government (USG) policy has responded or not responded to the religious multidimensionality in today’s world? Has the USG done well when it comes to thinking about or engaging with religious people, ideas, or organizations?
Though the debate has always been there, unfortunately, it has not been dealt with very positively during the Obama administration, especially the State Department. There has been too much fear and too much restriction of the role of religion because of that fear of overlooking the constitution and the separation between the church and state. I know this has been the case and much discussion over that, over minimizing religious diplomacy.
- There has been a debate, an aggressive debate, within the State Department and U.S. government institutions about the role of religion, not only in public diplomacy or state but the entire government.
- Though everyone talks about interfaith initiatives, but in reality, there has been less religiously engaged diplomacy in the last two years.
- I do not think diplomacy could do a good job if it overlooks religion. For so many reasons, if you are trying in diplomacy to reach out to people and to connect with people abroad and if religion means something to them, then you can’t overlook what’s important to them.
- If we are trying with diplomacy to fight terrorism in the name of Islam, how can we do that without involving religion somehow?
- If we are trying to promote a positive religious agenda and confront extremism, we have to show people another role religion can play in their lives, which means we have to involve religion
- America has a beautiful religious story to tell.
After all, in the United States, we debate religion with passion, but also with patience, intelligence, and wisdom. That’s a good role model. In America, Jews, Christians, and Muslims find ways to work with each like we are at Georgetown University, like around the country when mosques partner with synagogues and churches partner up with temples to do all kinds of social justice programs. That is an example that America could explore. I call that the untold story of America, the story of religious pluralism, being the best public diplomacy America could ever explore and be proud of.
And to do this, we have to involve the American clergy, the rabbis, the priests, and the ministers, the monks who are doing that and the religious activists and the imams. We need to send them overseas to talk about the American story of religion. And I have done so much of that and every time I did, I felt so proud of America and like I was making a difference.
When I talked about how when a mosque was burned partially in Panama City, Florida, it was the Jews and the Catholics who raised the money to rebuild what was burned. When a daycare in Los Angeles was burned some time ago, it was the Muslims who were the first to condemn the act for a Jewish daycare. That’s interfaith. That’s how we do it in America. In America, there are churches where Jewish people hold their Sabbath, and there are churches where Muslims hold their Friday prayer service, and mosques where Christians pray. That is a religious pluralism story that we need to explore because overseas one can’t imagine that happening.
When I talk about how often I am invited to lead Sunday services, literally go preside over a Christian sermon service and give a homily, or how often I give the khutbah/sermon in a Jewish service, Muslims around the world are shocked in how that can be the case.
These are wonderful examples of what America is. Instead of going out and talking about what the Constitution is, go out and tell people in pictures what America is actually doing. That is the best testimony for American diplomacy, if diplomacy is about making real friends and about eradicating enemies only by making them friends. And if they can see a good example of who you are, that’s what you need to do.
Therefore, I believe that the USG has miserably failed in exploring the U.S. untold story overseas. USG has failed to use, mobilize, and work with our clergy on that matter. The reduction of financial support to those programs at the State Department continues to be one of the obstacles to doing that. So embassies in the field want this, but I have been told by embassies that there are so many things we want to do that can be very effective, but we are told we don’t have enough money.
When I was invited to Thailand the last time, the State Department and the embassy sponsored me. The embassy invited me again and said that your work was so successful in every way, shape, and form. They told me that my work was more important than any ambassador has ever done, in terms of outreach. I was supposed to go, but State [Department headquarters] said, "He’s a good man, but we don’t have enough money for you." So the embassy had to use its own internal funding/budget to fly me to Thailand. State said we don’t have money for you.
This is ridiculous and unacceptable. This is bad diplomacy and bad outreach.
The Obama administration has cut down funding on these programs. If you look at [Judith McHale], the new undersecretary for public diplomacy, she has yet to meet with clergy who want to do this kind of work.
So why do you think these government officials are fearful and hesitant in engaging religious actors?
One reason is that some people that we don’t need to cross that constitutional line. The other reason is, there is unfortunate mistrust between the government—the legislative branch and executive branch. The Congress is saying you need to cut down on these programs because there are people lobbying that there needs to be less involvement of imams, in this case. That has gotten some ears on the Hill, who have had hearings saying that these programs are using U.S. tax money to preach Islam. But that is not really the case. And the State Department also gave into that pressure. The current administration is giving into that pressure.
How would it be possible to engage civil society domestically and abroad without having the support of the government?
The problem is that when you go overseas, governments will deal only with governments. When you go to certain countries to engage with civil groups, they say, in our political context, we cannot really interact with you without approval of our government. Therefore, not having the empowerment from government here will make other governments reluctant in having their own civic group interact with civil groups here. You don’t have that green light to be sent overseas. That is not even there as we speak. But more of that needs to happen.
So how can we change that to make it happen?
Well, there is a problem now: Republican Congress and a Democratic executive branch, and they don’t seem to see things the right way. We are up to elections a year from now, so they both calculate their steps too much, to a point of being paralyzed and wanting everyone to be paralyzed. So Republicans who worked in this field are becoming more hesitant now because they are being told that clergy and imams are bad. Religion is being completely pushed out of the equation in so many ways.
In terms of public diplomacy, you can send the secretary of state, whoever he/she is. But, I have been told this by diplomats and people in the field, that "we heard this from so-and-so, and it did not mean a lot because we received it as a propaganda, perceived as government propaganda." But, people have told me, "we know you." When you come with an authentic voice, you are seen as authentic, real person. They say, “You are Muslim. Tell me about your own narrative.” My story makes more sense to them. When Yahya Hendi goes into mosque in Lahore, Pakistan and speaks about why, as Muslims, we need to fight terrorism, then that is more powerful than having an American, white ambassador speak with them on this matter.
What would be your recommendations to the USG?
This current government is not listening to what religion would like to do, can do to help. We, clergy, are saying we want to work with you to promote your agenda. These are our issues and we want to work with you on what you want because we want what you want—to stop settlement, suicide bombing, etc. However, [U.S. government officials] are not interested in meeting with us—well, what does that mean to us?
Additionally, the failure of the government in crafting an agenda that mobilizes American Muslims to become citizen Muslims to the Muslim world has not helped America or the Muslim world. Though I believe the American Muslim diplomats can be in the forefront and want to be there because this is their fight. American Muslims are Americans in heart, spirit, and soul: America is our country and we love it. There is something unique we have, we know the language of the country and know the culture and what can or cannot make a difference, so we are the best link between America and the Muslim world. We can be more effective in serving the U.S. agenda in these places because we know America and the Muslim worlds. That has yet to happen in an effective way with the right agenda, with the right money, with the right resources.
Any specific recommendations?
There has to be a specific publication with a newspaper, a booklet, a CD, a DVD on successful stories of American citizen diplomats of what they have done and the positive impact of their work in the field. And that has to be well publicized, magnified, broadcasted, so all Americans know about it. That needs to get to the Congress, to the ears of the State Department, and lawyers who work for them, in trying to help differentiate between crossing the constitutional border (that no one is asking for) and understanding the reality, and what makes reality actually work.
For me, that needs to happen right away. There are so many beautiful amazing stories that have not been told. My own story as a citizen diplomat who was given the opportunity to travel and talk, to share one example, from one person who heard my message, I received an email saying that: “I was convinced that suicide bombing is Islamic but now I know it is not. And I am working in my community and madrasa to teach that it is not.” That is a successful story for American diplomacy. And an American ambassador or a diplomat from the United States cannot do that.