Campus / International / News / April 1, 2009

Douglas Johnston speaks on faith-based diplomacy

Douglas Johnston, Founder and President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), was introduced to a packed Ferris Lounge Friday night. Johnston, wearing a tan suit and faded pink shirt was introduced by Professor Robin Ragan, Co-Chair of the Center for Global Studies at Knox, which, in partnership with Caterpillar Corporation, sponsored the event.

Johnston’s agency has worked in a variety of countries trying to quell religious fundamentalism in places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. According to Johnston, the major issue that the United States has had in Middle-Eastern and African foreign affairs has been a great discomfort with religion: “We simply don’t know how to deal with it.”

In nations in which religion is a major social tenet, everything about daily life tends to run through religious or cultural rituals. In the United States, Johnston said, “Separation of church and state is a crutch” that is preventing effective means of diplomacy. For example, Johnston continued, “When industry and government hear the word ‘religion,’ they head for the hills [because they are] afraid of being accused of favoring one religion over another.”

Due to this, the ICRD works non-governmentally with people in these nations attempting to reconcile differences and work towards peace.

Johnston, a lifelong and devout Christian, said that much of these problems stem from false or incomplete teachings from the Quran. People, especially the poor, in many Islamic nations do not speak or write Arabic, but rather local languages. This leads to hoards of people who “have memorized the Quran cover to cover, but [the people] really don’t have any idea what it means.” The ICRD wants to change that.

Surprisingly, Johnston’s group is able to use very liberal ideas among these often-conservative groups by discussing meanings and pushing them “to think, to consider, and to challenge.”

Many times, the ICRD has met with Taliban officials, as well as Madrasah leaders from throughout the Middle East to promote change. Madrasahs, which were once the model for western universities, have now become breeding grounds for terrorist groups, and other fundamentalist Muslims.

Johnston said that the reason this works is because of the incorporation of religion into diplomacy, and that, “they can feel they’re becoming better Muslims in the process.”

Johnston went on to discuss the problems being far from simply mistranslation or misunderstanding of text: “It’s not only the Taliban who doesn’t know what America wants.”

“We’ve completed the ‘winning the hearts and minds’ phase,” Johnson said of the ICRD, but the United States has not. People in the Middle East are under the impression that America hates Islam as a religion and that, as such, all Americans hated them. The Muslim people living in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Johnston, feel they have been unwilling pitted against the United States.

Johnston went on to speak of a situation in which a group of Korean hostages had been taken and religious intervention, involving the rights of a community to hold a woman, saved the hostages. He spoke of another situation in which an Al-Qaeda leader showed up at an ICRD event. “I came to this workshop with the goal of discrediting everything you have to say,” proclaimed the man. “[Yet], this is the first time I’ve actually felt the soul of the Quran.”

From Johnston’s perspective, it is important not only to consider other views, but also to be active about them and work with the local people—to meet them halfway.

Before starting the ICRD, Douglas Johnston was a professor of International Relations at Harvard University when he felt a calling to go out and make a difference. After writing a highly successful book on religious diplomacy, he felt he “had to walk the walk.”

According to Professor Ragan, Johnston was brought to Knox to fill two niches: “The students at Knox were hungry for religious issues and to understand the problems of the Middle East, so he was the perfect speaker.”

For more information on the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, visit the website at: http://www.icrd.org/.

Marc Dreyfuss


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