The secularism of the foreign policy establishment of the United States and the religious influences coming out of the capitals of the Muslim Middle East can play adversarial roles in these state-to-state relations. That was the realistic picture painted by four posts on this blog in January, beginning with this one. Secularism vs. religion, of course, is not the only dynamic that makes these international relations difficult, if not conflicted. States asserting their identities, national interests, and political ideologies also contribute. But the secular / religious picture can seem gloomy indeed. Yet there is a hope.
During the past fifteen years, governments and their diplomatic teams, think tanks, NGOs, and high-level religious leaders have been pooling all sorts of resources to develop credible ways ahead for defusing tensions and peaceably negotiating the rough secular / religious intersection of U.S. – Middle East relations. In fact, there is now a large and steadily growing number of these successful initiatives, big and small. And yet even as I wrote that sentence I could hear readers thinking: What?! Are you nuts, Strohmer? That can’t possibly be true, given all the violence and war.
No, I’m not nuts, nor do I have my head buried in the sand. Of course violence and war is tragically a current fact of life in the Middle East, for any number of significant reasons, which national leaders are fully aware of and which any informed citizen can easily put names to. I don’t want to rehearse those reasons here. Instead, I want us think about a reason for the hopeless picture we have of the Middle East but that no one talks about, because we don’t know about it. It is as subtle as it is influential, and its neglect by us in public debate (in America if not elsewhere) is inexcusable.
I’ll get right to the point: I’m talking about the fact that many if not most Americans take their cues about U.S. – Mideast relations from the news, and the news is organized around the principle: if it bleeds, it leads. Of course, television journalists may say: “We are only mirroring what’s going on in the Middle East”; or, “These things need to be covered”; or, “We are only giving the public what they want.” Well, maybe this is what the public wants, but it is not the only thing the public needs. There are many other things going on in the Middle East other than atrocities, death, and war that ought to be covered, which the public needs to know. But they are not covered. As a result, the remarkable and diverse diplomatic initiatives of governments, think tanks, NGOs, and high-level religious leaders working to defuse adversarial relations and prevent violence and war seem non-existent. Even when an historic exception emerges on the world stage, such as the intensive years’-long struggle to negotiate the nuclear agreement with Iran, the pessimistic energy in America about the Middle East militates against its success.
Television news and Web reporting on the Middle East, with its perennial emphases on mayhem, bloodshed, atrocities, violent clashes, and war is a huge problem. If that is all we know about what’s going on, our understanding has been deceived and we are being made de facto contributors to the violence. We need to take a deep breath, push Pause, and think about this phenomenon.
It has now been over fifty years since Marshall McLuhan, a prescient philosopher of communications theory, introduced into public debate the now famous principle that “the medium is the message.” If so, then the only message in the American media about the Middle East during the past fifteen years is that it is a very violent place. During the past fifteen years, when it concerns the Middle East all of the dominant televison networks in the U.S. – CBS, ABC, NBS, CNN, and others – are constantly reporting on the latest atrocities and mayhem, and they cover these with a barrage of live images from the region.
Even if you don’t watch the national evening news programs, or CNN during the day, you will still get regularly hit with stories and images of Mideast violence on your local TV stations, who get their news feeds from the major networks; where else? (Of course reporting in magazines and newspapers also fans the flames.)
When the only movie you watch about the Middle East is that of violent conflict, and when you have watched remakes of it for fifteen years, it affects your attitude, even your beliefs. If you are chatting with other parents after a PTA meeting and the topic turns to the Middle East what do you say? If you are working in a factory and talking during a lunch break with fellow workers and the conversation turns to the Middle East, what do you say? If you are a chiropractor working on a patient’s back and she brings up the Middle East, what do you say? If you are a lawyer or a sales clerk or a bricklayer, what do you say?
If television and Web news has determined our view of the Middle East, are we going to talk about the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), which was formed to advance understanding of religiously motived conflict? Are we going to be able to say that Jerry White, a distinguished Christian thinker and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, served as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of CSO?
Are we going to talk about the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (ORGA), and say that it is currently run by the religiously savvy Shaun Casey, who advises the Secretary of State on policy matters as they relate to religion? Are we going to talk about how the ORGA complements the work of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom?
Are we going to talk about the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, which launched the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives to partner with faith communities around the world to help solve global challenges. Are we going to talk about the Secretary of State’s engagement with Muslim communities in the Middle East on issues of mutual interest in support of shared goals? Are we going to talk about the National Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement, in which U.S. foreign policy people work with religious actors and institutions to promote sustainable development and more effective humanitarian assistance, protect religious freedom, and prevent and resolve violent conflict?
If television and Web news is our picture the Middle East, are we going to share with our friends, neighbors, and co-workers about even just one pioneering book that makes a wise case for peaceable ways ahead at the rough intersection of the religious and the secular in U.S. – Middle East relations? Probably not, because we haven’t read one.
I’m thinking here of: Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds.); The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations (Scott M. Thomas); Ambassadors of Hope: How Christians Can Respond to the World’s Toughest Problems (Robert A. Seiple); Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik (Douglas Johnston, ed.); Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (Marc Gopin); The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics (John D. Carlson and Erik C. Owens, eds); Religion and Foreign Affairs: Essential Readings (Dennis R. Hoover and Douglas M. Johnston, eds); Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations (Robert A. Seiple and Dennis R. Hoover, eds). I could list others.
If television and Web news has determined our view of the Middle East, are we going to be able to talk to people about how Track Two diplomats (e.g., initiatives by NGOs, high-level religious leaders, private individuals) labor intensively with Track One diplomats (traditional state-to-state diplomacy) to defuse adversarial relations and to prevent and end conflicts and wars? Are we able to talk about the “relational diplomacy” of the Washington DC-based, Christian-run Institute for Global Engagement? Time-tested and much respected in the foreign policy communities of the U.S. and the Middle East, IGE’s relational diplomacy is grounded in a commitment to first study, listen to, and understand the local context before seeking to create partnerships and practical agreements between governmental and religious communities that promote social and political stability.
What more shall I say? Time and space prevents me here from discussing the impressive, monthly Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series run by the Council on Foreign Relations, which gives religious and congregational leaders, scholars, and thinkers the opportunity to participate in nonpartisan, cross-denominational conversations on global issues; or the work of the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the areas of religion and politics, faith based initiatives, legal protections of religious expression, and relations between Christians and Muslims; not to mention the quiet work of many stellar individuals and their small, dedicated teams, who have impressive track records and are risking much personally.
Do we talk about any of these things when we are on the phone, or waiting for our car to be serviced, or down at the pub, or driving a cab, or commenting on a blog post, or standing in the unemployment line, or having dinner with friends, or talking to a neighbor at Krogers? Probably not. We don’t talk about this picture because it doesn’t exist for us if all we know and believe about the Middle East has been determined by television and Web news.
There’s been an education of sorts taking place across our land by our news media about the Middle East. But we need to be re-educated. Look, I get it. You’re busy. Your time is taken up with a career, or course work, or the kids, or the parents, or ministry obligations – fill in the blank. So you only have time to catch the news on televison or the Web when you’re eating dinner, or on the radio when driving to work or to classes. Maybe once in a great while you have time to peruse a magazine article on the Middle East, but it too focuses on some new atrocity or explosion. I get it. Besides, where do you even look to see this other, non-violent picture of what’s taking place, if the only thing everyone else you talk to about the Middle East talks about the mayhem and violence? But even a busy person could take the following simple practical step.
First, you won’t see it or learn it from television and Web news. Second, if you have made it this far in this article, you now do know of many credible, respected, time-tested initiatives and projects – named above – where you can start to learn about this other picture. So, third, here’s your homework assignment for the next two months. Pick just one or two of the above initiatives or books or organizations and make it a priority to find half an hour here and there educating yourself about it. Afterward, take the next two months to educate yourself about one or two others, or learn more about the first one or two. And then repeat the process until your picture of the Middle East starts to change for the better. To grab an old word here, it behooves you to turn your eyes in this direction, to see the more hopeful picture. Finally, find the scene(s) in this picture where you can make a personal appearance as a supporting actor. Even if that support only appears in your conversations with people when the topic of the Middle East comes up, or only in your prayers, you will be doing a good thing.
If it is true that what we eat now can turn so sour, it is equally true that what we see uncritically is what we say believingly. If we don’t know about any Middle East reality other than the violence, what else is there for us to believe and say? We are then passively contributing to the violence, however unwittingly that may be, by talking only about that. I don’t expect the news media to change policy, to, say, eliminate two-thirds of its reporting on Middle East violence and replace it with he more hopeful picture.
But if we as individuals and communities re-educate ourselves by learning at least a few basic things about the groundbreaking initiatives discussed in this article (there are many others), and then if we tell others about them, rather than talking about the violence all the time, we will be actively helping these efforts, which are already in place, to change the picture for the better, toward defusing adversarial relations and ending violent conflict. This is a worthy goal.
The projects, books, and organizations discussed above are creating wise ways ahead for peaceably negotiating the rough secular / religious intersection of U.S. – Middle East relations. In a future article we will look at the role that the historic wisdom tradition plays, diplomatically, in this emerging picture.
©2016 by Charles Strohmer
Top image by Cliff, and all images via Creative Commons.
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