What Precedes Diplomatic Training on Religious Freedom? Getting Religion

By: Andrew Bennett

April 4, 2017

Responding to: The Future of Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy Under Trump

What Precedes Diplomatic Training on Religious Freedom? Getting Religion It is becoming increasingly axiomatic that Foreign Service officers in those predominant Western liberal democracies who are making it their business to care about the defense of international religious freedom (IRF) are hampered in their ability to advance religious freedom by insufficient training. Peter Mandaville argues that there is a serious need to augment the diplomatic toolkit so as to provide diplomats with a greater capacity to engage with religious actors and thereby be more effective in advancing IRF in both multilateral human rights fora and in bilateral relations with states. This has been a growing observation among those of us who advocate on behalf of IRF and in many cases have been active members of those self-same foreign services.

And so it should come as no surprise that several countries including the United States, through the Foreign Service Institute, and the United Kingdom, through a partnership between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Woolf Institute at Cambridge, have developed curricula that train diplomats to deepen their knowledge of IRF as a core human right. This is progress, and it is laudable insomuch as it reflects a growing recognition of the need to broaden diplomats’ formation in religious freedom.

This effort is also taken up in the policy brief on "U.S. Foreign Policy and International Religious Freedom," sponsored and recently launched by my colleagues at the Religious Freedom Institute and the Institute for Global Engagement’s Center on Faith and International Affairs. A central recommendation of that brief is to implement the requirement stipulated in the December 2016 International Religious Freedom Act amendments that the State Department develop a training curriculum for all American diplomats in IRF policy and that Congress appropriate the funds to do so. More importantly, I would argue, the policy brief argues for recognition of the importance of IRF policy to the work of American diplomacy, including encouraging diplomats to specialize in the field of religion and religious freedom as a sub-speciality in their formation as Foreign Service officers.

I add my voice to this plea. As Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom, I came face-to-face with the lack of awareness and often willful ignorance of my colleagues on the importance of IRF in the international human rights arena, especially given current trends in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and in the Sahel. What was more concerning was the indifference toward, ignorance of, and often outright opposition to religion and faith as key drivers in international affairs among my colleagues—a clear result of poor formation at the professional, postgraduate, undergraduate, and—dare I say—secondary levels of education.

This serious diplomatic blind spot I believe is a result of two interrelated factors, both with deep historical and intellectual roots. Firstly, an almost complete acceptance of the post-Enlightenment myth that religion is a purely private matter, that it should be kept from the public square, and that it certainly has no place in public policy, let alone foreign policy. Secondly, this blind spot is perpetuated by an implicit and deep-seated acceptance of the secularization thesis of Durkheim, Weber, and Berger, among others, despite evidence to the contrary in most of the world where religion and religious faith shape not only a perceived cultural discourse but often define individuals’ and states’ political, social, and economic views and actions. While we might recognize a deficiency in formation in matters religious and diplomatic and thus excuse some lack of knowledge on the part of diplomats, we cannot excuse in the face of such a reality the decision to not remedy such a deficiency through effective training. This is training that could greatly enrich diplomats’ abilities to engage religious actors and better appreciate religious expression and religiously informed geopolitical actions that shape our world and, more specifically, impact the state of IRF.

I recall a conversation I had with a colleague who had served as head of mission in various countries. This diplomat, like most of my colleagues, was well-educated and shaped by extensive experience in the field. Yet, when I asked whether a recent meeting with a bishop in a country of posting had been with the Roman Catholic bishop of the capital or the Anglican bishop, I was met with a blank stare and the response that they had no idea; as an agnostic it was beyond them to know or care about such things. Such willful indifference would surely not be expected or tolerated if one confessed to not know whether they had encountered a country’s foreign minister or the defense minister and to blame that on not possessing an undergraduate political science degree.

We must aim to counteract such indifference in part through training that educates not only from a theological perspective but from an experiential or faith-based perspective that moves beyond a simple familiarity with doctrines and history. In the first category, a module on Islam could examine what differentiates Twelver Shi’a Muslims from Shi’a Ismaili Muslims. In the second category, training could examine how faith motivates people to act—for example, how tithing of certain evangelical Christians shapes how house churches in China respond to poor social and economic conditions in certain provinces such that the state is taking notice.

The benefits of improved training on religion and international relations will not only include an enhanced ability on the part of diplomats to address violations of religious freedom but also to better appreciate the nuances within conflicts, including being able to determine whether religion is a key driver. More importantly, a greater fluency in religious thought, history, doctrine, and practice through effective diplomatic training will enable a much deeper engagement with religious leaders and with local actors guided and shaped by their religious faith. The deeper engagement that such knowledge affords also builds trust—a value that lies at the core of diplomacy.

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