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Transatlantic Perspectives on Religion and Foreign Policy

On June 20, 2016, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs co-sponsored an event on “Transatlantic Perspectives on Religion and Foreign Policy.” The discussion featured the following panelists: Christian Heldt, a German career diplomat with experience in the German Defense Ministry; Merete Bilde, an ex-Danish diplomat who works at the European Union’s European External Action Service in Brussels and has been involved in many European initiatives that examine issues of religion and politics; and Jean-Christophe Peaucelle, who has worked in a variety of positions and countries for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1987, where he currently serves as advisor for religious affairs. The event was moderated by Timothy Shah, who is the associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center.

Governments and public officials have been slow in engaging religion in the sphere of domestic and international politics. Although there has been increased recognition of the importance of religious actors and dynamics since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, religion is an emerging topic with its importance becoming increasingly evident, and thus it merits more attention and resources than it has received in the past. As Western governments and policymakers engage this issue, it is essential that they ensure that no religion, whether orthodox or unconventional, is privileged over another.

As the panelists shared their insights on the ongoing process of engaging religion better in government policy, there were a few major themes that the panelists agreed were important facets of this conversation.

“When there is so much ignorance, it’s difficult to bring people to mutual respect about something they know very little about,” Peaucelle expressed. Bilde and Heldt echoed this sentiment; there is widespread ignorance about religion and lack of religious knowledge on all levels, from ordinary citizens to high-level officials. Peaucelle said that high-level officials, especially, have a duty to “take into consideration something that is important to society,” whether they personally believe in it or not, and that in diplomacy, the second and third steps are engagement and political action, respectively. But the first step, the foundation, is to know, inform, and explain. When officials skip this step, their ignorance then will affect their engagement and political action and have adverse consequences for religious engagement.

Bilde said that many of her colleagues have started to recognize this, and she sees a huge desire to learn more and to analyze their own mindsets in order to find blind spots and weak points. Peaucelle agreed that such a humility to look at one’s own prejudices, deeply and honestly, is a key to approaching religious engagement. In many Western countries, secularization movements are the basis for modern life, and religion is considered a separate, private phenomenon. Adhering to this secular political philosophy may, over time, have contributed to a decline of overall religious education, exposure, and knowledge, which has manifested itself in present generations as ignorance about different traditions.

The distinction between religious freedom and religious engagement is another interesting theme the panelists addressed; they all agreed that religious freedom is a basic human right, and governments must safeguard that right in order to preserve human dignity. Engagement, on the other hand, is separate from this. The extent or how it should be incorporated into a political framework is not entirely clear yet, and it is pending further formal institutionalization. When asked about the synergy of religious freedom and engagement, Peaucelle remarked that “religions tend to ask for religious freedoms for themselves and not for others.” Peaucelle was present for the development of the Marrakesh Declaration in January 2016, which declared that all human beings have the same dignity regardless of religion. He continued that religion becomes a million times stronger when religious authorities engage religious difference, speak on behalf of their faith, and say that religious freedom for all humans, regardless of tradition, is a part of their religious doctrine. This is a powerful synergy of religious freedom and engagement that suggests that religious engagement must occur in all spheres: political, social, and religious.

This brings us to the importance of civil society actors in engaging religion; political legislation alone cannot change mindsets. Bilde expressed that all the reports published and guidelines set forth do not make the world more tolerant; it is people who do that, and sometimes faith-based actors have more credibility and influence than government officials when pushing an agenda of tolerance and acceptance. She spoke about the power of the individual in facilitating dialogue and having a sense of action without waiting for states to solve all the problems, because individual outreach can combat sensationalization and misconceptions. The current influxes of immigrants in Europe present an opportunity for European citizens to learn from, welcome, and engage with immigrants. Peaucelle agreed, adding that government itself is not religious. Governments can make suggestions, and have the responsibility to support and subsidize groups that facilitate interfaith dialogue, but ultimately it has to be individuals and groups that take on these interfaith efforts and teach people to embrace diversity with open arms.

On the topic of how the EU countries are addressing religious engagement, and how well the United States is addressing this issue, the panelists stressed the fact that each of the EU member countries have different historical experiences, different cultures, different immigrant bases, etc., which all inform their current experiences and attitudes. Peaucelle stated, “Nations are like human beings because they are made of human beings.” He said that countries can collectively harbor feelings such as resentment, pain, and pride. An effective religious engagement policy will be able to sensitively navigate these national feelings so that the citizens of that country will be responsive to change, while also advancing understanding that respects the dignity and reflects the consideration that all humans deserve.

The panelists all agreed that the U.S. State Department has set a good example for the rest of the world. However, European countries cannot simply copy this model, although it may be tempting, because the United States’ foundation and historical experiences are very different from those of European countries. Instead, European countries need to continue sharing policy ideas and developments in working groups and critically tailor solutions to their own needs, without complacently relying on other countries’ solutions. This approach might not result in immediate success, but it will serve to better find lasting ways to cohesively implement religious engagement and understanding in policy. Short-term solutions to extremism, for example, such as enhanced security measures and intelligence, may produce satisfactory results now. But these won’t solve the problem of ignorance like long-term measures such as education and engaging religious authorities will. It is important for policymakers to remember, Peaucelle said, that “what we are doing now will produce consequences in the next 30, 50, 100 years.”

In conclusion, these panelists brought forth many valuable insights based on their extensive experience in European governments about the necessary steps and mindsets moving forward to engage religion effectively in politics. It is evident that no government can deny that “religion is a political factor,” as Heldt expressed, because doing so would represent ignorance about the existing political realities on a domestic and international level.

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