from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

What is the Mission of the State Department?

September 4, 2014

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What is the mission of the State Department, or more precisely what are its core missions?

Diplomacy? Avoiding war? Solidifying alliances? Explaining American policy?

Here’s a new one:

America’s faith communities, including American Muslims, are sources of strength for all of us. They’re an essential part of our national fabric, and we are committed to deepening our partnerships with them. We’re making these efforts to unite religious communities a core mission here at the State Department.

These remarks were made on September 3rd by Secretary of State Kerry, on the occasion of the "Ceremony in Honor of Special Representative to Muslim Communities Shaarik Zafar."

"Efforts to unite religious communities" are now a "core mission" of the State Department? The first problem with this is the First Amendment to our Constitution. Should the federal government really be trying to influence the actions of religious communities in this way? But forgetting about that detail for a moment, the second problem is that the phrase "efforts to unite religious communities" has no actual meaning. Unite them how? Apparently, to "work for peace and put our universal commitments and universal beliefs into action." Which commitments and beliefs do we all share, universally? "We share a moral obligation to treat one another with dignity and respect," based in essence on the Golden Rule.

Perhaps this whole thing should be treated as pablum and not taken seriously. Just more speechifying in Washington. But think about it: Do we all share that commitment? The Secretary was arguing that Islam had nothing to do with the beheading of Steven Sotloff: "The real face of Islam is a peaceful religion based on the dignity of all human beings." This is reminiscent of President Bush’s statement in 2001 that "Islam is peace." Should elected and appointed officials with no theological background be telling us what Islam really is and is not--or for that matter what Judaism and Christianity really are and are not? It’s a bad habit for officials to become interpreters of world religions, just as uniting religious communities is a bad project for our State Department.

Of course the easy response is that the language was perhaps sloppy, but Kerry meant we need to reach out to all the religious communities in the United States and indeed the world. He said "The reality is that our faiths and our fates are inextricably linked. And that is profoundly why we must do this now, because they are linked." Some speechwriter obviously thought this "our faiths and our fates" was a catchy phrase (or maybe a profoundly catchy phrase), and it is. But here again, what’s the actual meaning?

Reaching out to Muslim officials, or officials of Muslim majority countries, is sensible and standard work for State, as is reaching out to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (which is made up of countries with large Muslim populations). That’s diplomacy. That’s not what Kerry said: his outreach, this new "core mission," is reaching out to religious communities. This is very much in line with President Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009, where he did not speak to Egyptians, or to the governments of Muslim-majority countries, but to Muslims: "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world...."

This not at all like speaking to citizens of Middle Eastern countries or NATO countries or to Europeans. Try a thought experiment: what would you think of a presidential speech in Rome that began "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Christians around the world...."  Odd, right? In Israel the President speaks to Israelis, not world Jewry.

It is in my view quite true that the State Department historically paid too little attention to religion, and vastly understated its importance as a motivator of individual and state action. That should lead a Secretary of State to tell his department to get with it, and study that impact--among Muslims in Pakistan or France, or Catholics in Poland or China, or ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, or Buddhists in Burma. Obviously that task requires meeting with priests, imams, religious community leaders, and so on.

But let’s knock off the interpreting of religions by officials who are sure they know, or their speechwriters know, what Islam or any other religion really is and is not. And let’s view understanding religious communities as a "core mission" of the State Department, not "uniting" them.

 

 

 

 

 

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