A Second Discussion with Hady Amr, Director, Brookings Institute Doha Center, Qatar
With: Hady Amr
December 15, 2007
Background: In preparation for a December 17, 2007 symposium in Doha on global development and faith-inspired organizations in the Muslim world, Katherine Marshall and Hady Amr met again to discuss Mr. Amr's recent work. In this interview, Mr. Amr reflects on his work at the Brookings Doha Center and the role of faith in the public square in both the United States and in the Muslim world. He discusses Islamic social movements and reemphasizes the potential and necessity of a partnership between faith-based and secular institutions.
We spoke in March 2007 about your perspectives on faith-inspired organizations in general and in the U.S. in particular, and some generic obstacles to benefiting from their strengths. You have a rather unique perspective on how the issues of faith roles are seen in the U.S. and the Muslim world. Can you give a quick summary of any comparative thoughts you might have on how the issues are presented?
I currently serve as a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and as director of the Brookings Doha Center. Brookings, the oldest and largest think tank of its kind in the U.S., traces its history back to 1906. I'm proud to be opening the first Brookings research center in the Muslim world. What's exciting about this project is that it's a joint project of Brookings and the Qatari Government, the goal of which is to examine the “socio-economic and geopolitical issues facing the Muslim world, including relations with the US.” What's special is that the audience is so broad: the aim is not just to inform the American public and American policy makers, but to inform the publics and policy makers of the Muslim world as well, especially the GCC. I have written extensively on how joint projects with joint audiences are the true recipe for success.
I also serve as a convener of the U.S. Islamic World Forum that the Saban Center organizes each year through its partnership with the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This year at the conference I am organizing a Task Force on Human Development in the Muslim World.
How do you see the political changes taking place in the United States reflecting attitudes towards religion? There is ferocious debate about religion in the public square. Where do you think it is going?
America has always had a debate about religion in the public square. The “Founding Fathers” addressed it and created the ideals for America to be a country where people could freely embrace their religion. Yet biases persisted. As waves of Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims arrived in America, they each faced successive waves of discrimination. My sense is that America will remain deeply divided between staunch secularists on one side and staunch literal believers on the other. The question is, can we find a common ground where those who want to make America a better place for all because of their religious beliefs feel encouraged to take part in the public square, acknowledging the sources of their motivation—alongside those who choose to keep religion separate from public life. What we must overcome above all else, is the drive for groups to create a “state” (or county or city) religion.
What similarities might you trace in how such issues are seen from where you sit in Doha?
Qatari society is a deeply religious society in the heart of the Muslim world that now is at least four-fifths non-Qatari. Many of those are non-Muslims who want to practice their religions as they see fit. And Qatar is embracing the diversity of faiths with the invitation to create large churches in Arabia. Some might find this innovative, but as a child growing up in Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, I remember coming across in the desert an ancient church that had once stood not too far from here. There were clearly previous eras of religious diversity. My hope is that we return to such an era. My hope is that we will have a convergence between how the role of faith is viewed both in Muslim-majority, Christian-majority, and other countries. That view should be: Faith is good. Faith is an asset. Faith can bring all of us—regardless of our faith traditions—closer together. The central tenet is this: how can we harness our different faiths to make the world a better place for our children and our neighbors? Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. Faith can contribute to the wholeness of the individual. Faiths also teach us to treat our neighbors as we would want to be treated. In the globalized world, our neighbors are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and other.
What is your experience with faith-inspired organizations working in the Muslim world? Lebanon, Jordan? How do the ones you know compare with, for example, Catholic Relief Services (CRS)?
From the Islamic Development Bank whose offices I have visited in Jeddah, to faith-based social movements in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, there are a wide range of approaches. Faith-based social movements are powerful forces of humanity. They can and should be harnessed for the better. The questions that should be put to the Muslim political-social-faith-based movements like the charitable organizations associated with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood are: Are your social programs for the benefit of all, regardless of religion? Are your motivations to make the world a better place, or impose your faith on others? My sense is that over the past half century, places like CRS went through this transformation and came out the other side both truer to their religious faith, and better for the world. Can the existing organizations in the Muslim world go through the same transformation? How can the outside world play a positive instead of a negative role in this process?
How does your experience with Search for Common Ground and its media and communications work suggest for the agenda for our program?
The central test as to whether a program to find common ground can succeed is whether it involves joint planning and joint administration. Only in that way can it succeed. There are many implications of this spirit, which we worked to advance, in many different sectors of activity.
How do you see the interrelationship of the trends in thinking about Islam and human development challenges?
The central two requests of God to Muslims, Christians, and Jews are (i) to love God and (ii) to treat others as you would want to be treated. Given that we all want to create the best world for our children, one that is safe, healthy, fair, and inspirational, this requires us all to work together to create a world that is safe, healthy, fair, and inspirational for all. That means: Less war. A cleaner environment. No corruption. Good governance. Full educational opportunities. Universal health coverage. And the freedom to think and speak in the public square.
As you look at the Consultation at the Georgetown Doha campus on December 17, what are the issues you would most like to see addressed?
How can governments, business, academia, and the media find common ground with faith-based organizations to create a better world for all?
As you reflect on the topic of our first conference (U.S.-based FBO work in development) how does it look from where you sit? What are perceptions in the Doha world? Beyond?
The Qatari government is comfortable discussing and embracing the nexus of faith and development. There is an opportunity to work together in this domain.
How do you see the role of U.S. politics in shaping U.S. FBOs in the next five years? Are the political forces likely to lead to major policy and institutional change?
The next president of the U.S. may have a mandate to make dramatic changes. My sense is that America is becoming increasingly comfortable with faith-inspired individuals acting on the public stage, the test being whether or not they seek to create a better world for all Americans.
How do you view the link between the issue of governance broadly and corruption more specifically and faith-based organizations on the ground?
Faith-based organizations have a mandate from God to act fairly and justly and stand against corruption. The ones that do earn the trust of their constituents.
FBOs depend both on government and on philanthropy, and there large and small. Can you comment on how philanthropy is moving in the global development world? How does the U.S. compare with Europe, for example?
The central challenge facing philanthropy in the Muslim world is how can it develop the institutions to address human development in its broader terms of human growth and human freedom. Can institutions be developed that are modern, efficient, effective, and meet the challenge…?
Do we know much about the religious affiliations and attitudes of high net worth people? Why do you think that religion is so little the focus on philanthropic fora like the Global Philanthropy Forum?
I do not.
Which emerging issues could really benefit from religious/secular partnership? (i.e. the "new" trafficking, Darfur, debt relief, etc.)
It's hard to think of a human development issue that could not benefit from a religious/secular partnership. Global warming and environmental protection in general seem like a good place to start. Also human trafficking makes sense. I would avoid trying to tackle Darfur, Israel-Palestine, Somalia, or any other ethnic or nationalist issue.