David N. Saperstein, senior advisor for policy and strategy at the Union for Reform Judaism and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, discusses President Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
CASA: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series.
I am Maria Casa, director for national program and outreach administration here at CFR. Thank you for joining us.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. The audio and transcript will be made available on our website, www.CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
Today we are delighted to have David Saperstein with us to discuss President Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. David Saperstein is a senior adviser for policy and strategy at the Union for Reform Judaism. Ambassador Saperstein served as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom under President Barack Obama from January 2015 to January 2017. He was the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, from 1999 to 2000 under President Clinton, and was actively involved in passing the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Ambassador Saperstein served for several decades as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where he is now president emeritus. Welcome, David. Thank you very much for being with us today.
SAPERSTEIN: A pleasure to be with you.
CASA: David, this was President Trump’s first foreign trip in office. Could you start us off by speaking a little about the significance of the three countries he chose to visit—Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican?
SAPERSTEIN: OK, so let me do a bit of an overview, then, to start us off, and then we can see where it goes.
So the U.S. had five big interests in the trip. First, that it go smoothly and the president come across as presidential. I think he was thrilled by the sumptuous reception in Saudi Arabia, a clear contrast to the low-key reception President Obama had received on his last trip, and treated to pomp and circumstance. Interesting, the orb ceremony—maybe there are people on the phone who understand a little bit more about what that was about. The warm reception in Israel. Clearly, on that level, that went well.
And, secondly, it was have a clear message about us engaging with key figures representing the three Abrahamic faiths. And so the meeting with leaders of the Sunni Muslim world, with the Vatican and with the pope, and with Israel and its—and its role in Jewish life.
Third, mobilizing and galvanizing countries in opposition to ISIS. And this was—he kept as a central message, both in terms of the statement that came out of the Sunni gathering in Riyadh and in terms of a similar resolution of NATO countries reaffirming their commitment to the fight against terrorism. And on that message—on that level, this succeeded.
Fourth was Iran and trying to mobilize consolidating opposition at the Sunni gathering on that. You know, but on this one—and I’ll get to this in a little more detail later—it seemed that it ended up picking sides in the broader Sunni-Shia conflict, that he has arguably set in motion factors that can undercut U.S. interests in key situations where we need to work with Shia forces, and may have made more likely conditions that could lead to exacerbating conflict between the sides. And that the visit was followed so closely with the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Emirates split threatens some of these achievements, both in terms of Iran and the ISIS agenda.
And fifth was Israel. They wanted to have a wonderful visit, no tensions. In the main they succeeded, but it was hard to see what kind—what the legacy would be on this.
So let me just pause for a minute, and then if you want we can deal with each of those countries in a little more detail.
CASA: Wonderful. Thank you for that overview. Let’s open it up to the group for questions.
OPERATOR: All right. At this time we will open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.) All right. And our first question will come from Ved Nanda with the University of Denver Law School.
NANDA: Thank you very much. I wanted to find out how the embassy from—or to Jerusalem, that issue plays out in that region, both in Israel and Palestine, and how it might impact upon U.S. relations both with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
SAPERSTEIN: OK, so a very interesting question. And let me, with each of the questions, as we get to a new country offer a little bit more context for that country. So, in Israel, obviously, the visit was a lovefest. He condemned Iran, he—repeatedly affirming that it would not get nuclear weapons on his watch; compared Hamas to ISIS. But there were things that were obviously disappointing to many in the Israeli leadership and to others. He did not state a firm Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. His trip shortly followed by the formal determination, related to your question, that the embassy would not be moved in the foreseeable future. His statement to the Palestinians on the damage done by their support for families of convicted terrorists, that, you know, was something that they had been looking for, but it wasn’t quite as strong, I think, as some had held. He had an hour-long meeting with President Abbas, and he had called—I don’t know whether people noticed this—he called Abbas twice in the days leading up to the trip, and that was known publicly, which conveyed a kind of legitimacy and strength of position to Abbas that was greatly appreciated and had an impact in the—in the Muslim world. And he publicly expressed appreciation for their contribution to the fight against terrorism.
But on his central goal that he had set forward of trying to move the peace process forward and reach some kind of agreement, there it doesn’t seem as though there was all that much progress made. It was noticed he didn’t mention the two-state solution. He did emphasize that both Israeli and Palestinians were ready to move towards peace. That was clearly aimed at the growing distrust on both sides at the leader of the other side, neither really wants peace nor would be capable of delivering it even if they did want it. And I think some of the messaging as aimed at—was aimed at that. And it should be noticed—and, you know, he has been critical before going there of settlement expansion as interfering with efforts at the peace process, something that carries on a bipartisan approach from his predecessors over many years. It should be noted, by the way, that in recent days Nikki Haley’s visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu raised the prospect of a peace process that would involve much larger pockets of Israeli settlements remaining intact, which raises or challenges the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state. So we don’t know what specifically was done that moved the process forward at this time.
But the—on the question that you asked in terms of the embassy, I think that many people who are both hawks and doves on Israel issues within Israel had qualms about actually going ahead to do that on a basis that it would destabilize the area, would mobilize opposition at a time that they need to have allies supporting any effort at the peace process that they want. It could be an inflammatory action, et cetera. That has been the position, as I said, of both Republican and Democratic presidents before, and it apparently continues to be that—the position of this administration.
NANDA: Thank you.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: OK. Our next question will come from Khosro Mehrfar.
MEHRFAR: Good afternoon. Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. Two quick questions I have. Number one is the interfaith model, which has been relatively successful, and we saw it in the last Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City. What are your takes on U.S. leadership on intrafaith, and if success to bring the—dial it more down to the people of various faiths at the lower but more populist part of the religious pyramid around the world? That’s question number one. And, if I may ask question number two, I would appreciate that. Question number—
SAPERSTEIN: OK, just—
MEHRFAR: I’m sorry.
SAPERSTEIN: Let me just ask a clarifying question on question one before you go to two. Did you ask about interfaith or intrafaith—interfaith, between different faith—between different faith groups?
MEHRFAR: Yes, that interfaith has been going on for a while. But, to me, it hasn’t been completely successful because the message of peace and harmony looks like it doesn’t get down to the lower level of the people of each religion. Hence, intrafaith: that means really the talk and discussion for peace and harmony among the people, which are more populist, than just the leaders, because it looks like the interfaith has always been between leaders or high-level ranking of each religion. And whether the message goes from those leaders down all the way to the people of that faith, I’m not sure about that.
SAPERSTEIN: OK. And the other question, quickly?
MEHRFAR: Yes. Well, I welcome and I appreciate your opinion on the possibility of having a religious arm at the United Nations. And I know it’s not part of the main charter. That is to provide peace and harmony among believers of various religions. This is, in fact, started by an organization I am a member of, FEZANA, Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, and has gathered some supporters amongst Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Jewish, and Zoroastrians worldwide. There is also a simple (two-page slide ?) for it. That’s how it—that’s how the information and the support was gathered. And I can share it with you if I have permission to do so.
SAPERSTEIN: Sure. I mean, I personally would love to see it. There are several sets of—I’m going to start with the second question first.
MEHRFAR: Thank you.
SAPERSTEIN: There are several conversations that have been underway about developing new modalities of interfaith presence in the United Nations structure. There are groups like Religions of Peace, major nonprofit groups, and NGO groups that have long, for decades, had a quasi-formal relationship with the U.N. and played a very active role. Some are arguing for what you were asking about, if I heard you correctly, about something more formal within the structure of the U.N.
SAPERSTEIN: I personally am agnostic on that. I’d love to hear others as they—if they want to weigh in on the—on the question. I think there are pros and cons.
In general, I think it’s important that religious groups be free to be a moral goad to the contents of the governmental entities, whether those are of one nation or of multiple nations. And when you are formally emmeshed with it, I think it sometimes constrains religion and makes it more tempting for those governmental entities to use religion as a tool. So that’s one of the downsides to this. I think the upsides, you know, are fairly self-evident. If it were acknowledged—an acknowledgement of the central role that religion plays in every aspect of human life, here you could see some advantages to doing it. But I’m—I probably lean a little towards the idea of it’s strengthening the kind of system that exists now, where groups like the World Faith(s) Development Dialogue and—on developmental issues and groups like Religions of Peace and many other groups play an active role interacting with the—with the U.N. But, you know, the more you send around information about this, I’m sure others will be able to respond.
Interfaith. My experience has been different than yours. I have—I’ve spent the last two years of my life, over two years of my life, traveling the country. I think in the two years that I was honored to serve the U.S. as the U.S. ambassador, I was in 35 countries and 82 cities around the world, not just in cities but out in rural areas, and I was always very impressed about how widespread, even in countries that have serious religious divisions, were efforts to build interfaith coalitions. In some countries, clearly, there’s a tradition of that kind of interfaith activity, both at the national level or regional level but also at the grassroots level. And there are countries in which almost every locality has some kind of interfaith entities. I’ve also found that on an ad hoc basis the intervention of interfaith groups—think of the violence in Mandalay a few years ago, when the interfaith coalition that got together to help really stop that violence, and the extraordinary efforts of interfaith groups in the Central African Republic to be responsive to many of the sources of conflict that helped quash the violence for a while. And just think of the pope’s visit and the impact of the pope’s visit.
So I think at times that national interfaith efforts can have an enormous impact, but I think many times that it does go on effectively. Do I wish there would be more of it? I do.
And, of course, there are—that’s why I was asking inter or intra. Very often there are splits within the same faith group that are sources of violence and divisions in a country, and intrafaith is also vitally important as well. But it shouldn’t be either/or, but both/and.
MEHRFAR: Thank you so much.
OPERATOR: All right. Again, to ask a question—
CASA: Next question please.
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. (Gives queuing instructions.) And our next question will come from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School.
BENTSMAN: Hello. Can you hear me?
SAPERSTEIN: Yep. Go ahead.
BENTSMAN: Hi. Thanks for this presentation. Yes. I was interested in your take on Trump being the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall. And I’m wondering how this might reverberate for Israelis and American Jews right now, and also how it interfaces with the question of the sovereignty of that space and the peace process more generally.
SAPERSTEIN: Interesting question. (Chuckles.) The Western Wall issue, I think, felt differently. You asked about, you know, the response in the Jewish world and Israel on this issue. I think it played differently than the question of the embassy to Jerusalem. I think most people in the pro-Israel community, Jewish and non-Jewish, believe eventually the embassy must be in Israel’s capital. It has the same right to have embassies in its capital as anyone else. But the way that the historical evolution of the conflict has arisen, the general consensus has been, both in the international community and in United States statecraft, that making that as part of a final resolution of the conflict is going to be a more effective way of doing it.
The Western Wall, you know, just so overwhelmingly enjoys, from people who are doves and hawks, even those who believe Jerusalem should be divided to provide a capital for the Palestinians in that, that the Western Wall would not be going back. And therefore, the president’s going there, I think, had generally very strong approval by a wide swath of people in the pro-Israel community. They found it very moving to see the president and his family at the—at this place of such historic consequence of the roots of the Jewish people in this land. You know, he’s standing on ground that, if you—if you think about it, the generations going back to, you know, at least 2,000 years, probably even 3,000 years, since the first temple was built by King David and King Solomon, that—you know, in the same area. So it’s—the entire history of the Jewish people is bound up with that being on that site.
My parents were in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. They were actually living at the headquarters of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and many of you I’m sure have visited it on trips to Israel. It’s the reform movement’s rabbinic seminary there, which was the closest building to the Old City of Jerusalem. There’s only no-man’s land in between. And they were amongst the first to be at that wall. And I was able to fly in on one of the first planes after the war, and the feeling of being there is something that is just a transformative feeling for people in the Jewish community. So I think, on this one, there was widespread support for that action within the pro-Israel community, both in Israel and in the United States, as I said, even people who are hawks and doves on that issue.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: All right. Our next question will come from Charles Strohmer with The Wisdom Project.
STROHMER: Hi. Thank you, Rabbi Saperstein, for being with us this afternoon so we can engage with you. So back to one of your opening comments on the Sunni-Shia—increasingly the divide that is sort of implied and going to come out of President Trump’s speech in Riyadh. Wouldn’t it have been wiser for the president to sort of even reach out with a tentative olive branch to Iran during that speech? I mean, he really read them the riot act, and you know, the Saudi Wahhabist extremist element, some of that is implicated in extremism as well. So it just seemed like maybe it would have been a bit wiser to take something like President Obama’s early approach to Iran. What’s your thoughts on that?
SAPERSTEIN: This administration clearly has taken a different view on that question than the prior administration did. The prior administration wanted to find a diplomatic way, if it was at all possible, to restrain Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, and believed that it had done so. And I think if you take Israeli security and military officials at face value, there’s a widespread consensus that the goals of that agreement were goals that had been achieved. Whether or not those were the right goals and whether or not there ought have been some permanent bar of some kind if that were at all possible people can debate. But in terms of the kind of effective halt to the development of weapons, I think that there was consensus in the security and military communities of Israel, the United States, and of friends that this had been an effective step.
This administration has taken a much different view towards Iran. On all three of the “I” issues that were at the center of his agenda—ISIS, Iran, Israel—the president was trying to mobilize support for his agenda in support of Israel and the peace process; in opposition to ISIS, in mobilizing opposition to it; and in opposition to Iran, that not just the United States but a number of those countries that had gathered at the summit of many of the Sunni countries in—Sunni Arab countries in Riyadh see Iran as the key source of trouble in the region, and that its growing influence bodes ill for the—for the region.
The president’s predecessors have tried to walk a tightrope on the Shia-Sunni split, to be, you know, a force that would avoid seeing that descend into a kind of violent confrontation between Sunni and Shia forces. That would be a confrontation that could easily spin out of control. And I think that there are critics of the president’s approach on this that believe by weighing in on one side of that conflict so clearly in an effort to kind of reaffirm relations with traditional Sunni allies in the region, then that it might be an empowering message to some of those who are calling for a more confrontational stance for the Sunni countries there to actually engage in actions that could get out of control. So, you know, two different approaches on this issue.
Let me just say a couple of other things about the Saudi Arabia visit as well. You know, the president clearly made a decision that we would—that he could not take the position of prior presidents on the issue of human rights and religious freedom in these countries as major principles of American statecraft and a major representation of American values that we would—that we believe have been embodied into international law through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and not only that provided wise approaches for countries that wanted to be stable. His words—we’re not here to lecture, we’re not here—that he used in Riyadh—we’re not here to lecture, we’re not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, how to worship; instead, we’re offering partnership based on shared interests and values to pursue a better future and continue to say we must be united in pursuing one goal that transcends every other consideration, that goal to meet history’s great test to conquer extremism and vanquish terrorism. And that’s kind of a concise expression of both the willingness to put other factors—such as human rights, religious freedom—aside and to—and to lift up the effort to conquer extremism and vanquish terrorism.
Of course, many critics would say that you can’t separate those. First, there was very little in terms of hard decisions that were made on strategies or tactics in countering terrorism. There was no indication that the president pushed the Saudis on their own role in spreading Wahhabism across the globe, nor in pushing them on easing religious freedom restrictions in their own country, that’s long been designated as a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act structure of the United States government. He did get a joint statement from a number of those countries, and talked about the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology and the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center. But it’s not clear exactly what these things are, how they’re going to work, how it will be any different than it has been so far. So there were no firm commitments of changes in the approach that flowed out of this—out of these meetings.
But, in doing so, he also abandoned a bipartisan approach, I mean, saying that systematic violations of human rights and religious freedom destabilize societies, engender greater resentments, and lead to more political opposition. Secretary Ross’s comment, who was with him, that—I think it was there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there the whole time we were there—shows a stunning disregard for the repressive policy afflicting human rights, including the right to protest, that exists in Saudi Arabia. And, as I said, it would be—there are great concerns that the president’s message will be interpreted to be giving a free hand to some very oppressive regimes to further crack down on civil society.
And in each case, we—I think the kind of normative view of Republican and Democratic presidents in the last 30 years has been that if you repress a society, it leads to divisions and splits and frustrations and despair that drive expression of culture and religion and politics underground in a way that creates a fertile field for extremists to say you’re never going to have—be able to live peacefully in accordance with your religious ideas or your political ideas of your cultural ideas with this government in place, so work with us and change the government. And time and again we’ve seen those kinds of tensions destabilize countries and thwart our interests in maintaining people, maybe friendly, in pursuing economic goals and strategic goals such as fighting terrorism.
So, you know, there’s, I think, a great debate that’s come out of this visit, and it goes directly to some of these religious freedom issues that are central to us. But the best way of maintaining kind of a stable balance on the Shia-Sunni conflict, to your point about reaching out to Iran, here I think people will be watching to see what’s happened. And, you know, if anyone’s interested we could talk about Qatar and how that fits into it as well here. But thanks for the question.
STROHMER: Thank you, Rabbi.
CASA: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from James Matlack with the American Friends Service Committee.
MATLACK: Hi. This is an old friend and former colleague of David’s, now up on the coast of Maine. David, how concerned are you that many of the specific historic Christian communities of great antiquity are diminishing in number? Some have already essentially evaporated. Is there a serious risk that in critical areas the Christian presence may simply disappear within the fabric of the societies in the Middle East?
SAPERSTEIN: Hi. Is this Jim Matlack? I didn’t hear when they—
SAPERSTEIN: Hi. Hi! How are you here? I was moving from speaker to earphone as they said who it was, so I only heard you say an old friend in Maine. I figured it had to be you here. Jim did great work in Washington for many years on behalf of the Quaker community. Anyway, in addition to being one of my English professors at Cornell, so a double pleasure for me.
So several things. A couple of general comments, and then let’s bring it back to this trip and ask that question in the context of this trip as well.
In terms of the—in terms of the situation of beleaguered Christian communities, there’s probably no single—in the Near East—there’s probably no single issue that I devoted more time to. And considering how much time we devoted to issues like the Rohingya Muslims and the Yazidi communities and a number of other beleaguered minorities, that says a lot. This was trying to find ways to maintain the historic communities that go back almost to the very beginnings of Christianity, these great historic communities that, over the centuries, with the ebb and flow of different kinds of governments and different kinds of religious views of the majority populations, and the Muslim majorities of these countries, have generally managed to thrive and live with relative security during much of this history.
We have seen the evisceration of many of these. Now, part of that was happening even before ISIS came. But ISIS obviously was engaged in either genocidal activity against some of these groups, including the Christian community and the Yazidi community, but ethnic cleansing of many other groups. And ethnic—that ethnic cleansing really did affect much of the Christian community there.
So today, you know, there’s probably one sixth of the population that there was 20 years ago of the Christian community in Iraq. In—you know, in Syria, because of the minority groups in Syria being allied with the Alawites in areas where the fighting wasn’t so intense in the beginning, while the Christian communities have been affected throughout Syria, there was a little more stability and protection in areas of concentration—some of the concentrations of the Christian community.
But there’s nowhere in Syria that isn’t affected by this. And we’re seeing significant upheaval. From the very beginning that was true of some of the Syrian Christian communities that were targeted by ISIS and targeted—even targeted by the regime in some cases.
So this is—this is a very, very unsettling dynamic. As I said, we—forgive me; I don’t mean we—when I was in the government, the U.S. government, the U.S. government spent enormous amounts of time trying to find ways to both protect those communities while they were displaced and to make it possible for them to come home.
What kind of security arrangements would they be able to be confident in that would allow them to return? What kind of rebuilding had to take place? How will we deal with transitional justice issues such as people returning to homes and businesses taken over by neighbors who had invested in improvements of those? How do you sort those out? To what degree were those people complicit with ISIS in allowing ISIS to maintain their presence there? And how do you have reconciliation, something that, Jim, you devoted a lot of your life to conflict situations and finding ways of reconciliation here? And who is going to oversee the rebuilding of the economic infrastructure so that there will be schools and hospitals and utility systems, et cetera?
I cannot tell you the amount of time that we invested in trying to get answers to those questions and set it up so that, as ISIS was forced out, those things would begin to move, obviously, with the leadership of the Iraqi government trying to move as expeditiously as possible. And yet this has lingered on. We know that when people get into displaced-person camps, they’re often there eight, 10 years before things are finally safe for them to return to their homes, if possible at all.
And, you know, obviously we’re watching what’s happening with the Coptic community in Egypt. The Egyptian government has cracked down on civil society in ways that are very alarming and very unsettling. It had done better in terms of the Coptic community with Sisi speaking out on their behalf, coming on Christmas night mass several times, rebuilding many of the Coptic churches that had been destroyed in the violence that happened a few years ago, and, both in what he had said and what he had done, tried to stand up to some of the extremist interpretations of Islam.
And again, people can give political reasons why he did that. But the end effect was to make the Coptics feel more secure than they had under the prior regime; you know, very difficult for the international community that’s committed to human rights and religious freedom if they’re not moving in the same direction, which they usually are. You quash one, you quash the other. But this was an interesting situation. The recent violence that has again touched the Coptic communities was of great concern. If you lose those millions of the largest segment of the Christian community, then it’s hard to see how anyone remains in the area.
So just a word about those themes to this trip, Jim, here. The Vatican, in its relation—you know, he had come from Saudi Arabia here. So the Vatican doesn’t have relations with Saudi Arabia. This has not been a close relationship. It has not succeeded in improving the life of the Catholic minority there in Saudi Arabia, all of whom are foreign—almost all of whom are foreign workers, about 1.5 million of them; the majority of the Catholic foreign workers coming from the Philippines.
In our engagement with the Saudi Arabian government, we have constantly tried to get greater protections for them, more easing of restrictions on house worship that is technically allowable there but often is cracked down by either religious authorities or the religious police here, and tried to make improvements.
But I know this has been a source of frustration to the Vatican. And the Vatican was, you know, clearly concerned about what happened—what’s happening in Yemen as a humanitarian issue. It did have long relations with the Yemen government. It has spoken out—the Vatican has spoken out critically about the Saudi bombing, which they think is so excessive as to violate any kind of rule of just war. That there aren’t real security interests for Saudi Arabia, I think, is the argument I’ve heard from people in the Vatican.
So Victor Gaetan has a very good article in Foreign Affairs. It’s up now. I think the date was June 2nd. People may want to take a look at it, about the relation of the Vatican visit to the Saudi Arabia visit. And people might want to take a look on that.
And, of course, you know, the big achievement, according to the president, was the big arms deal, the $110 billion arms deal. And one has to remember the pope’s visit to the United States and his speech to Congress, where he said why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and societies? Simply for money—money drenched in blood, often innocent blood. It is our duty to stop the arms trade.
So, you know, this is a different vision of the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia than the president’s view. I don’t think—I didn’t hear that this came up explicitly in the visit with the pope, but I think the memorable action of the pope just quietly handing over his compelling book on climate change and the moral-religious argument of our responsibility to protect God’s creation, not only for ourselves but for all the generations yet to come, and handing that book to the president, was another kind of vivid manifestation of the different worldview that the pope has, despite President Trump’s—what was it? When the pope was first—when the pope was first elected, he tweeted—the president tweeted he’s a humble man, much like me, which is why I may like him so much. But despite that, there are clearly differences between the two that are very deep.
CASA: Thank you.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: All right. Our next question will come from Soraya Deen with Women Speak.
DEEN: Oh, hi. You know, you—this is Soraya from Los Angeles. You really answered the question when you said stunning disregard for human-rights violations and religious freedom. And I—that was the question I wanted to ask you about. And, of course, I’m hearing that it is a policy decision. And then I’m really stunned and taken aback by such a shortsighted policy decision, to say the least. But what do we Americans who are Muslims do about it? I mean, as a Muslim activist, I have always struggled from right across the globe to address this issue of Wahhabism. Are they going to keep quiet on this? I don’t know. What do you say?
SAPERSTEIN: You know, the glory of America is the ability to—for religious groups to be a moral goad to the conscience of this country, and to express their views, and to argue for positions that we want to see the Congress take. It is not clear that these kinds of issues, of abandoning human rights and religious freedom as a core piece of American statecraft, will be enjoyed by a majority of the Congress. There are segments of the Republican Party that believe as deeply in human-rights issues and religious-freedom issues as does the—as does the Democratic Party. It’s one of those issues that really cuts across partisan lines.
So I think this is an extraordinary issue to be engaged in. And if you feel that, both as a moral principle, human rights and religious freedom need to be an important part of the American values and strategic interests that are implemented in our relations with countries across the globe, but also as a strategic question, that the effectiveness of what we’re trying to achieve in trying to prevent radicalization and prevent extremism, that embrace of human rights and religious freedom is necessary, then those who believe that need to make that argument as strongly as possible.
And I know there are many on this call—I saw the list of some of the people on the call; not the very final list—but I know how many of you have dedicated much of your life precisely to those goals, with enormous effectiveness, and had enormous impact. These issues are—you know, remember, 40 years ago there wasn’t a Human Rights Bureau. There wasn’t a religious freedom office in the—you know, in the State Department.
There are folks on this call that have helped make that all possible and helped integrate an understanding of the important role in our statecraft on this. If ever there was a time to continue to push, it is now. And this is a place, just going back to an early question, where I think interfaith cooperation can be very powerful here in resolving some of these issues.
DEEN: Thank you.
CASA: Great. Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: All right. Our next question will come from Janet Carroll with the Maryknoll China program.
CARROLL: (Off mic)—Rabbi Saperstein. Going back to your comments a short while ago about the Vatican, given, I would say, that the Vatican is not a global player in terms of economic or political power, what do you suggest might have been some of the goals for President Trump to visit with Pope Francis?
SAPERSTEIN: I see it as part of—there are certain things that presidents do to be seen as influential players on the global scene. And over—for ideological reasons, for aesthetic reasons, for political reasons, engaging with the Vatican, with the pope, has been part of those efforts.
I think it was Eliot Cohen, in writing about this trip, who pointed out that it’s actually unusual to see the start with this kind of a trip. Normally presidents in their first trip end up going to Canada, Mexico, or nearby neighbors to reaffirm relations or to do a kind of goodwill tour in Europe with our historic allies in Europe. And this was kind of a bold step.
On one level, it was a significant success for the president in terms of the presidential character of the trip. And one can pick out pieces that were a little off or went wrong. But I think, as a whole here, it was a well-run trip in a very different set of circumstances. And the president and his staff deserve credit in terms of the process part of this trip.
So I think that was one of the goals, that one goes to see somebody who is the nominal head of nearly 2 billion human beings across the globe; and in this particular case, a pope who has enormous global respect as a moral voice and a moral authority on issues. So I think it was very important for him to have that encounter with the pope.
And I think, from the standpoint of the president, it was a successful visit in that regard and sent this message. I also think, as I said, that he—that part of the construct of this was this idea of touching the key players in the Abrahamic faiths, being in Saudi Arabia, the historic center of Muslim life, and at the Vatican, in Rome, and in Jerusalem in terms of the Jewish community, that there was something very powerful about doing all three in the beginning in terms of his embrace of religion, his embrace of recognition of the importance of this, and his sense of kind of the Abrahamic values that have transformed the world. So does that make sense to you as I’m saying it that way?
CARROLL: In a sense, yes. Thank you.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) Our next question will come from Kareem Irfan with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.
IRFAN: Good afternoon, Ambassador. Having had the privilege of interacting with you on a number of interfaith initiatives within the U.S., I am curious about your overall take, particularly given the backdrop of the president’s recent Middle East trip, on his administration’s national approach within the U.S. to reaching out to and productively engaging with our country’s diversity of faith denominations and their representative leadership, because you’re in a unique position to assess that and comment on it.
SAPERSTEIN: It goes a little beyond the purview of the mandate of the Council on Foreign Relations, but let me just say a couple of words about it.
It—the president’s engagement has been primarily with those segments of the religious community that are—have tended to represent populations more supportive of the president. And he—the administration has fairly eschewed the engagement at—with those with more diverse viewpoints who represent positions often at odds with the president’s, critical of the president’s.
Now, out of fairness, I think, in the beginning of an administration, that’s often true. You know, you’re working with people during the campaign. Your personal history goes back with certain segments of people. You engage with those people afterwards. The question will be, you know, how is the president going to shape his engagement with the religious community more broadly?
And I remember President Clinton went out of his way to invite segments of the religious community who differed with him on positions to some of the breakfasts he had. I don’t mean the famous, you know, breakfast, the national prayer breakfast, but, you know, at the White House he would, a couple of times a year, bring in a cross-section of the American religious leadership, listen to some of them, engage in conversation with them. And it was a very powerful experience.
And, you know, I had the opportunity to work very closely with the Bush administration on a range of issues, particularly in the first term, even though I represent a segment of the Reform Jewish movement, that is fairly liberal in its viewpoints here, but we worked very closely with him on a whole range of issues—the human-trafficking issues, and the Sudan Peace Act here, and the issue we’re talking about today of international religious freedom, and the prison-rape bill. I mean, there’s a whole range of pieces of legislation that we worked closely with the administration on.
So, you know, I’m confident. I’m hopeful the president will expand engagement and be willing to listen to voices that will express views that may differ with his. And we’ll see what he does.
I will point out the president has not appointed yet a successor to Josh DuBois and Melissa Rogers as they had served the Obama administration as a liaison with religious communities. It will be interesting to see if that position is going to be filled and by whom. And there’s not yet been an appointment to the ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
I don’t know there’s been a decision yet about whether or not they will continue the Office on Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department. I really hope they do. There’s some talk they might merge them into one. I suspect whoever the ambassador at large would be, whatever their passion is, religion and global affairs or religious freedom, the other one will be submerged during that tenure.
I think having the two separate offices that overlap with each other and reinforce each other really do make a difference. I think Congress has been very supportive of the work of these offices. And I really hope that they will continue. There’s some talk—the newspapers have been talking about Governor Sam Brownback possibly being the head of the Religious Freedom office. It would be a strong appointment in terms of somebody who has knowledge about the issue and has obviously cachet on Capitol Hill with a lot of former colleagues here. But we’ll see what happens.
Right now most of the undersecretary, assistant secretary, ambassador at large, and special envoy, special representative positions just haven’t been filled at all during the time that the State Department is considering a major restructure of the State Department. So it’s just too early to tell what the nature of the engagement will be on these issues.
IRFAN: Well, Ambassador, you remain an informed and balanced inspiration in this area of interreligious relationship-building. More power to you. And we are there to remain inspired and to back you up. Thank you.
SAPERSTEIN: Well, that means a lot to me. And, you know, Kareem, you work at the local level. And we had a question before the local level on the international scene. You know, no country does better work with interfaith coalitions at the local level than does the United States of America. And everywhere I went, I would speak about the work that many of you are engaged in in local communities throughout America as a model of the good that can come—good in terms of social services, good in terms of reconciliation between divisions in a community, good in terms of an advocate for the common good that is so essential at this time in world affairs with some of the economic—growing economic divisions we have both at a global level and with—you know, in our country.
So I deeply appreciate the work that all of you do in this regard. And you should know it was a message and a vision that I took across the globe for the last two-plus years of my life.
IRFAN: Thank you, sir.
CASA: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: OK. Our next question will come from Michael Saahir with the Nur-Allah Islamic Center. Sir, your line is open. Please make sure your phone is not on mute.
SAPERSTEIN: Go ahead.
SAAHIR: OK, sir. Thank you. Please excuse me. My phone was on mute. Thank you for the conversation. I’m just wondering about your opinion on—with the travel ban that President Trump has been trying to get through, do you think his travels to the Middle East changed the opinion of Muslims, not just in America but around the world?
SAPERSTEIN: I’m probably not the best person to—you know, to answer that question, because it’s so recent. I don’t think publicly we have seen the overall impact of the trip. And there are many who have contacts in the Muslim world that are more extensive from family and friends and colleagues and professional relationships. You know, it’s probably a little early to assess whether that will change it.
I’m really curious. You know, one question that I have not heard asked about the Muslim—about the ban and the effect it had on so many of these countries is that the president said he needed a stretch of time to put things on hold in order to come up with a new, more intensive vetting process for people who wanted to come.
Well, of course, it really doesn’t matter whether people were coming or not coming. He—the same amount of time—it should take the same amount of time, whether the ban was in effect or not in effect, for the president to actually develop the new, more effective and explicit vetting process. As someone who saw from the inside how extensive our vetting processes were, compared to many of the other countries, the European countries, that were taking immigrants in, I’ll be curious to see what he does.
I mean, there were times that the administration was sharply criticized for taking so long, that it could take up to two years to get someone through the vetting process if they were coming from Near East. And that was a source of criticism of people who said this was a life-and-death thing to get these people to safety. You can’t justify taking that long. And now the president is talking about extending it.
Well, you know, as I was saying, he doesn’t—he doesn’t need the actual ban in order to do that. It would be, I think, a very alarming development if we find out—and I haven’t heard this question asked of the administration—if we find out that, in point of fact, they decided not to undertake the process of finding new, more effective ways of vetting people because the ban had been struck down by the courts.
One thing doesn’t have anything to do with each other. And, you know, I really hope we’re going to hear whatever—however much in time is needed—four months, six months of that. You know, soon we’ll be at that point. And I think the world will be interested in hearing how that’s going to work and showing that it will make America safer, and it may be a model for other countries.
But I—and maybe others have heard something about progress being made on this front. But I’m surprised that we haven’t heard about efforts under way on this yet, and I hope it’s just that we haven’t heard, rather than there’ll be an effort to impose a—you know, hopefully if they really do have it done at the end of six months and the court cases drag on, there won’t be a need to have a ban at all here, and they’ll be able to move ahead because they’ll have completed that process. And that’s what we should be hopeful for.
SAAHIR: Yes, sir. Thank you very much.
CASA: I think we have room for one more question—time for one more question.
OPERATOR: All right. Our last question will come from Rabbi Alvin Berkun with Tree of Life Congregation.
BERKUN: Shalom, David. It’s nice talking to you again.
SAPERSTEIN: It’s always a pleasure, Alvin.
BERKUN: Thank you. A number of years ago, the National Council of Synagogues, which represents the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements in the United States, asked the heads of the Coptic church, both in the U.S. and over in the Middle East, whether we as a Jewish group could be of help to them in terms of their PR and with the horrible things that were happening to the Copts. Their answer to us was it would make life more difficult for us; we’d prefer to operate low-key and not have your public support. I think things have deteriorated tremendously since then. And I’m wondering if you have an insight as to whether the interfaith process can be of help to these persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East.
SAPERSTEIN: So this is a good—a good question to end on, because it raises a very urgent broader question as well.
In the fight between extremist forces—and by extremist, I’m talking about those who are willing to use the coercive power of government or the—or violent force to impose their religious views on those who disagree with them—and more moderate forces. And moderation here has nothing to do with theology. I don’t care how fundamentalist, how liberal, the theology or practice of religion is. I’m defining as moderate people who eschew the use of force to impose their views on those with whom they disagree.
So, in the battle against religious extremists that the president has called the world to on this trip, clearly these are battles—and this gets to that intra-faith question we were talking about—there have to be one within each faith group, that it has to be mainstream Hindu leaders who are going to delegitimize and isolate and weaken Hindu extremists. And they’re going—the same is true with militant Buddhists and extremist Jewish groups on the West Bank and who are willing to use force, the price tag—perpetrators of the price tag kind of. And it’s certainly true with extremism in the Muslim community. It has to be the mainstream entities, those who eschew the use of force.
So here’s the question: How do we actually support those groups without, in the battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the streets of those countries, without delegitimizing them? Because extremists will often—when the international community gets behind, you know, prominent moderate figures and publicly embraces them, they say, you see? They’re not authentic. They’re representing Western interests. They’re representing capitalist interests. They’re representing Christian missionary interests, et cetera. And it’s used by extremists to delegitimize them here.
And one of the questions that we face—and, you know, the same is true—I’m talking about countries, but the same is true when interfaith groups embrace some of the very people we want to help. It’s often used to weaken those groups and to challenge their authenticity and to challenge their—you know, who they’re really representing here.
I think this is one of the great challenges that the democratic world faces and that the interfaith community faces, and we haven’t paid enough attention to it. Having said that—and some of you may have heard me speak on this topic over the years as I’ve offered suggestions how to be more effective in doing these kinds of things—but I was actually surprised in real life, as I visited beleaguered groups, as I visited those who were trying to wrest authenticity from the extremists in their own faith communities, how many of them actually were not hesitant to have the support of the United States and of interfaith coalitions.
Ultimately it has to be their choice. And we need to, you know, through a lot of the international interfaith entities that exist, reach out to those we’re trying to help and ask them what will be most help for you? You know, is it our public embrace, our public endorsement? Is it quiet work behind the scenes? Is it providing technological support to your efforts? Is it training leadership in your community? You know, is it on media skills and organizing skills, et cetera? What’s the best way that we can help, and to accept where they are.
So, where a given community is at one point in their history or one location where they face one type of regime and functioning of one type of regime, as opposed to the same group that faces challenges but under a different kind of regime and a different kind of culture, it’s going to change. And there has to be a lot of case-by-case work in doing this.
And that’s where a group like the Council on Foreign Relations, with the sophistication it has and the ability to bring together such tremendous resources, plays such a vital role. Many of us have been part of the CFR’s work over the years, and it has been extraordinary what we’ve learned from each other and from the experts they’ve been able to pull together.
And so, Maria, I want to thank you and CFR for the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of all of us in allowing for these conversations, where I certainly have learned so much over the years from my colleagues who are gathered here.
CASA: Thank you, David. And I’m sure I speak for everyone that it’s always a pleasure to be able to speak with you.
And thanks to everyone on the call for your participation, questions, and comments. You can follow David on Twitter @RabbiSaperstein. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources.
Thank you all again. We look forward to your participation in future discussions.