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Reflecting on 10 Years of the Study of Religion in World Affairs

Last week, the Berkley Center celebrated its tenth anniversary with two days of events centered on the current state of religion in world affairs, as well as what we have learned over the past ten years. The evolution of the role of religion in world affairs is fascinating because its vital importance has began to gain greater attention in the past few years. One of the most peculiar things about it, however, is that until recently it was not given much thought in formal settings and is still viewed with relative unease or confusion.To kickoff the anniversary celebration, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a talk on the current state of religion in international affairs. It was great to hear her perspective on how the government has come to recognize the importance of engaging with religion instead of attempting to separate it from political discourse. It is, of course, disappointing that it has taken this long and that progress continues slowly.

As she continued her talk, Secretary Albright began to discuss religion in the context of recent attacks in Europe and around the world. Perhaps one of the most important points mentioned was how most victims of the Islamic State are Muslims outside Europe and how we must unite against terror, not give in to the idea of a clash of civilizations. With the advent of newer, faster, and more global technologies, ideas can be spread quickly and rapidly across the globe and we need to be more cognizant of how we are using these tools. Secretary Albright warned that the Islamic State is better than the U.S. government at gaining a Twitter following and that we need to reclaim the media discourse on the issue. I could not agree more.

The anniversary celebration continued with a series of panel discussions on the role of religion and interfaith work. In one of the panels, Father J. Bryan Hehir mentioned that our society seems to have a short historical memory of a long problem when it comes to religion, violence, and world affairs. This statement resonated with me because I was struck by its truth. In the West we have become so focused on a very narrow, inaccurate idea of what religious conflict looks like, and that is dangerous.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn looking back at the past ten years of the study of religion in world affairs is that we cannot allow ourselves to view the world in terms of “us” and “them.” While the Islamic State may be fighting the West, it is also fighting Arab societies and affecting Muslims across the world. We cannot turn against them or fail to recognize their losses. The assumption that we are facing a Western “war” against the Islamic State and Islam in general is dangerous and only fosters misguided hate. As Secretary Albright noted, when we use terms such as “war” in opposition to groups like the Islamic State, we only lend them credibility and honor. When we take sweeping, generalized actions in response to threats we alienate potential allies and only fuel the flame of groups who wish to denounce us. I came away from the events with a renewed sense of the importance of interfaith work and the mission of the Berkley Center.
 
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