The 2022 Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop is part of the CFR Religion and Foreign Policy program. The goal of the workshop is to advance understanding of the forces shaping international relations and provide members of the religion community with a forum to discuss issues with colleagues and experts in order to better inform their networks. Held on an annual basis since 2007, this event brings together clergy, seminary heads, scholars of religion, and representatives of faith-based organizations from across the country for discussions on global concerns with policymakers, CFR fellows, and other experts.
The full agenda is available here.
This workshop was made possible in part through the generosity of the Ford Foundation.
FASKIANOS: Good evening, everybody. Welcome. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We are delighted that you could join us, both here in the room and virtually, for the 2022 CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop.
First and foremost, I would like to thank Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation for their support of this workshop and CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy writ large.
I would also like to thank Rivka Gross and the National Program and Outreach team for their hard work on this event and so much more that makes all of our outreach and national events run and work on time.
Founded in 2006, this program serves as a resource for all of you—congregational leaders, seminary heads, scholars of religion, and representatives of faith-based organizations—by offering nonpartisan and authoritative analysis on global issues, with the goal of supporting your work and fostering dialogue within your communities.
This workshop has been held on an annual basis since 2007 with the purpose of providing a multi-faith forum for discussion of America’s role in the world, and we are delighted for the first time to be holding this in a hybrid format and to be in person since we haven’t done this—(applause)—since the pandemic began.
It’s a great way for us to welcome both old and new colleagues back here in the room and to allow people to join no matter where they are. So we encourage you to tweet tonight and throughout the event at @CFR_religion using the hashtag #CFRreligionworkshop.
If you have not already done so, please sign up to participate in our webinars. The Religion and Foreign Policy series covers pressing global issues, and our social justice and foreign policy series explores the relationship between religion and social justice and its ramifications on foreign policy.
We also offer a monthly bulletin with CFR resources. More on that can be found in your folders in the bags that are hanging on your chairs.
OK, so enough with all of that. We are turning now to tonight’s program. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain withdrew his participation in the workshop, so instead we have assembled a distinguished group of experts to discuss the war in Ukraine—a timely conversation—and a very serious one—that we hope will prove useful for your work in your communities.
I am pleased to turn the proceedings over to Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. She will moderate tonight’s conversation with our distinguished panel. She will introduce them, and I would like to invite her to the stage now. (Applause.)
And with that—Felice.
GAER: Well, welcome to everyone to this important Religion and Foreign Policy workshop. We have the pleasure this evening of three distinguished experts, and I’ll introduce them. And then, I’ll offer a few questions for them.
I’m Felice Gaer. I’m from the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.
With us in virtual form from Washington is Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich. He is the George Kennan Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
And if any of you know foreign policy and you know those two names—George Kennan and the Davis’s together—you know how balanced he is. He is a veteran in policy planning from the State Department and a former director at the National Security Council.
He served as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union as well as the special advisor for the newly independent states to Secretary of State Madeline Albright.
Thank you for joining us, Ambassador Sestanovich.
Next to Ambassador Sestanovich, also through the wonder of video, is Charles Kupchan. He is professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations also.
He was previously a senior director in the National Security Council in both the Obama and the Clinton administrations—in the opposite order. His most recent book, Isolationism, looks carefully at America’s skepticism about open-ended international commitments and America’s approach to global engagement.
Thank you for joining us.
And here with me in person, in New York, is Elise Giuliano. She is a political scientist at Columbia University and director of graduate studies at the Harriman Institute. In my day, it was the Russian Institute.
She’s a specialist on Russian politics and ethnic and nationality studies in post-Soviet countries. Her current research focuses on how the crisis in Ukraine has influenced political opinion among Ukrainian citizens.
Now, I had expected to be here today, as you did, to discuss freedom of religion and the U.S. policy—the IRF policies—with the ambassador, and I was looking forward to that conversation. But since we can’t have that, I think there’s no issue more timely and more important than to discuss U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy regarding the war in Ukraine.
At my Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, we’ve been engaging with diplomats and UN officials about the U.S. and international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is now in day eighty-four. And as you know, this is the largest military attack in Europe since World War II, and it’s provoked a major geopolitical crisis. In fact, it poses a direct threat to the post World War II global order—the rules-based global order prohibiting armed aggression and prohibiting the acquisition of territory by force.
Now, this invasion has also triggered an extraordinarily large displacement of Ukrainian citizens. The latest figures are that 13 million people are displaced inside the country, and 7.7 (million) have sought refugee status outside the borders of Ukraine—again Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Now, the devastation has been enormous. The human rights violations have been extensive. They have been documented. We’re hearing from UN officials both about the destruction of cultural objects—UNESCO said 133 objects, 57 of them churches, have been confirmed to have been destroyed or harmed as a result of this conflict. And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has provided data on the arbitrary detentions, executions of civilians, sexual violence, torture, and even she has documented 204 disappearances, and those of you who know that an enforced disappearance is often a euphemism for somebody who’s dead but that it can’t be confirmed.
Now, the impact of this invasion has been enormous and not just in Ukraine and not just in Europe but worldwide, and it’s had a huge effect on any number of issues but food security is one that has been particularly addressed in the context of the rest of the world. On the positive side, we have seen an enormously robust response, at least verbally, from the European leaders and leaders of other countries and a broad repudiation of Russia’s actions. The G-7 statement just last weekend is an indication of the kind of robust commitments that are being made.
So I’m really excited that we have the honor this evening of having such a great panel to discuss with us some of the implications of this conflict on foreign policy and the response to it. So I’d like to begin by asking Ambassador Sestanovich to share his thoughts about really the end game of the conflict and U.S. interests.
We all have heard that President Putin said that the purpose of this so-called special military operation was to “de-Nazify” and demilitarize Ukraine. Well, he’s failed, obviously, so far in both of these efforts. There’s been a lot of talk recently about what the end game should look like and is there a way out in this regard, and there have been op-eds recently, including by distinguished members of the Council on Foreign Relations staff, about possibly allowing Russia to have a land bridge that would unify the territories that it grabbed in 2014.
So Ambassador Sestanovich, my question to you is what’s your view of these proposals? Would it matter that a settlement might not reflect a commitment to the prohibition of aggressive war? You’ve said that a peaceful Europe depends just as much on the stability of smaller states as on the agreement of larger powers. Russia has been isolated. You’ve seen those votes—140 countries at the UN, and the like. Can we continue to uphold the norms prohibiting aggressive acquisition of territory, or are we asking the impossible by talking about that?
SESTANOVICH: (Laughs.) Well, you’re certainly asking a pretty hard question, Felice. Let me start by thanking you for chairing this session and for all your work in this area.
Let me start by picking up on what you said about this war being a challenge to the rules-based international order. Russian leaders are talking about it in exactly those terms because they say the rules-based international order is one that is really just—involves the imposition of American preferences. So when you had Foreign Minister Lavrov a couple of days ago talking about this, he hardly mentioned Ukraine in a pretty long speech on the subject. He was entirely fixated on the question of how the world is organized and who has power and who gets listened to. He says “the rules-based international order”, well, whoever proposed to discuss those rules and who approved them? And so he’s very irate about that. That’s the kind of diplomatic perspective—and, by the way, for Lavrov this is—he says this is an historical turning point like 1917 or 1991 and the stakes are rising every day. So it’s not a small issue for them.
For Putin, who also spoke on this recently, the nature of the war’s a little different. It’s not really about international order, it’s about Russian identity, and the picture that he painted of the war was one in which it’s really all about love of motherland, traditional values, Russian faith, respect for ancestors, upholding what he calls millennial values, and he isn’t referring to people who were born around the turn of the century. (Laughter.) He means the thousand-year history of Russia. This is a pretty fierce picture of what’s at stake, and neither of them allows, at least on the surface, for much give or much diplomacy. For Lavrov, this is really about America’s tyranny in the international order. For Putin, it’s about preparing a strike against neo-Nazis and Banderites, meaning Ukrainian nationalists. Whether there is any room for negotiation here is going to depend a little bit on the military outcome, facts on the ground, and on calculations that Putin makes about what the impact back home is going to be. How much support begins to waver? There’s been a lot of journalistic attention to the fact that suddenly, just in the past couple of days, on Russian TV you had some experts talking about the war is not going well. Is this a kind of recognition that the Russian account of what this is all about and how it’s proceeding is just doesn’t pass the laugh test?
We don’t know of any negotiations going on at this point. Putin, by the way, said that negotiations broke off after the West staged this provocation at Bucha. That’s his view of what diplomacy is all about. Right now it’s hard to see either side feeling that it has something that it can sort of settle for the status quo for a cease-fire in place. How that may change as the military situation unfolds is something we can talk about. There are a lot of military experts who think you’re going to see a decisive weakening of the Russian position in the next couple of weeks but we’ll have to go into that further.
GAER: Thank you very much. Well, it’s a grim situation. We know that.
I have a question for Charlie Kupchan. I’m sure you’d like to express your views on this question of the end game as well, but in the—in some of your recent writings you’ve focused on the fact that the U.S. has been a bit too idealistic in its international engagement and needs to dial that down and pay a little more attention to realpolitik, including in this situation. And in particular, you’ve expressed concern about the situation in Europe and the response in Europe and the need to focus on the threats to Europe from the refugee crisis and from populism more generally. I wonder if you could share with us your view of where you see—what end game would help put a focus on dealing with those issues rather than exacerbating those problems?
KUPCHAN: Thanks, Felice. Great to have a chance to discuss these issues with you and the other panelists, and the group tonight. I’ll take a somewhat more edgy position, I guess, than Steve, and say point blank that I think that the Biden administration and European colleagues should be engaging the Ukrainians more directly and straightforwardly in a conversation about war aims and bringing this conflict to an end. I fear that the success of the initial defensive effort by the Ukrainian military has led to a certain level of optimism about what comes next, talk of victory, talk of, quote/unquote, the liberation of Ukraine from Russian forces, and I worry that perhaps the message that’s being sent to Ukraine is go for it; we’ll give you more Javelins, more Stingers, whatever you need to win this war. And I think there’s an unnecessary risk associated with that strategy and I think those risks fall into four categories.
One, there’s going to be a lot more death and destruction.
Two, escalation. I do worry that we could see Putin, if his back is further pushed up against the wall, widening the war, or going for a use of a weapon of mass destruction, or who knows where this could go? This is, I think, the most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis, maybe more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis because there’s a hot war going on in Europe. Yes, NATO is not directly engaged but it’s pouring a lot of weapons, a lot of intelligence into this conflict. It’s not hard for me to imagine this war widening.
Third, and this comes directly to your point about the staying power of the Western effort, which I agree with you, Felice, has been enormously effective and I give credit to the Biden administration for doing a lot of homework and putting on the shelf numerous lines of effort, reinforcing NATO’s frontier, arming the Ukrainians, sanctioning Russia, ready to go on day one, and that unity has been sustained by constant negotiation, diplomacy, conversation with the Europeans. I just don’t know that it’s going to last. We’re already seeing the French, the Germans, and the Italians talk about a cease-fire, a negotiated end. The data points that we have politically are not that encouraging. Viktor Orbán was reelected in Hungary, Macron was reelected and he’s a centrist, but the hard right got 40 percent. We just had a Republican primary in Ohio in which the winner, J.D. Vance, his policy on Ukraine is I could care less what happens in Ukraine. And so I think as we get near the midterms, the America first wing of the Republican Party is going to come back for life and make things difficult for Biden.
And then my fourth concern here is, we need to salvage some kind of working relationship with Russia. We can’t go back to a Cold War fragmentation in a world in which we are globalized, interdependent—climate change, cyber issues, global pandemics. So we’re going to have to begin to think about a postwar relationship in which we can at least do some business with the Russians.
So yes, I think we need to be more realistic. I think we need to be more focused on strategic prudence and less on our moral and legal commitment to defend Ukraine’s full territorial sovereignty and integrity. I’d like to be able to do that, I just don’t think it’s realistic, nor do I think it’s strategically wise given the risks that we see associated with the biggest war in Europe since World War II.
GAER: Thank you very much. I’m going to turn now to Professor Giuliano. I’m sure you have views on my initial question as well, and of course I’d be interested in you addressing them from the perspective of Ukraine in particular. We’ve seen that the government in Ukraine, not surprisingly, has expressed its view that it wants the West to stay tough, to do more, and to do everything, and to stand firm against the Russians. So my question to you is, do you see Ukrainian population now unified in terms of this desire to repudiate Russia’s territorial ambitions on its territory, and do you think there’s going to be an end that will allow Ukraine to have the kind of democracy and diversity that, well, its population certainly has?
GUILIANO: Thank you very much for that question and thanks to all of you for your attention tonight. I’m very grateful for the invitation to speak to you.
Well, I guess I would just begin by saying that as regards negotiation, when President Zelensky came into office in 2019 he was quite open to negotiation, and I happened to be in Russia a few months after he was elected and saw Lavrov speak, and Lavrov spoke about Ukrainians who were Nazis, and Ukrainians who were denied the rights to speak their language, Russian. None of it was true; it was all lies. But Zelensky was open to negotiation, and yet Russia didn’t meet him halfway, even though certain foreign policy elites at that time in Russia were calling for negotiations.
So I guess just one thought about this point about continuing the war versus negotiating: Would rewarding Russia for using force, by giving them the territory that they already have—and let’s not forget that they have control of Kherson, which is a major city in east Ukraine where people are now under occupation and don’t know what’s coming next. So if Russia—and Putin was not interested in negotiating when he had a more open kind of President Zelensky who was pro-Europe but also had signaled that he was—and he did negotiate; they were negotiating because there was a war in Donbas that began in 2014. Well, if Russia wasn’t interested since then in 2019 and didn’t really meet Zelensky halfway and instead went the route of war, as we see in 2022, if the war stops now, what would stop Russia from regrouping, training their military to avoid the mistakes that they’ve been making, and then trying again? So would that not also result in the deaths of many more Ukrainians who are quite innocent in this particular war?
So, yeah, with regards to the Ukrainian population and their unanimity, it’s such an interesting country because it’s quite diverse religiously; it’s diverse in terms of ethnic identity, has a minority Hungarian identity, has people who consider themselves ethnic Russians; the majority, of course, consider themselves ethnic Ukrainians. But the unifying fact that I think has become more notable since the war began is that since 1991, when Ukraine acquired independence, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became an independent state, over time a stronger Ukrainian national identity has formed and it really is a civic identity. It is—there’s element of ethnic Ukrainian national identity, ethnic “Ukrainianness,” in terms of the national identity, such as the fact that there’s a distinct Ukrainian language, but over time most people in Ukraine have felt themselves to be citizens of Ukraine, and that has really helped them in fighting off the Russian aggression and in support for their government.
And I’ll just say one relevant political point about this which is that there’s a lot of confusion on this point, one of Putin’s points, that the Russophone or the Russian-speaking Ukrainian population would welcome Russia. I think he really believes this because he really seems to genuinely believe that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian person, as a Ukrainian nation, as an ethnic Ukrainian. He sees them as “little Russians,” and regardless of what he sees, he uses this rhetoric of oh the poor Ukrainians, we have to save them from themselves because there’s Nazis there and they don’t have the right to speak the Russian language, as I said. And it seems—it seemed quite cynical to me, this kind of rhetoric, over the years since 2014, that Russia’s been articulating, but I think Putin really has come to believe some of it and in the lead-up to the war in February I found out that Russian FSB, which is the successor to the KGB, did a poll in Ukraine. And the results of the poll show several things, like that popular support for the president and the parties and the parliament at that time was quite low. So it looks like Putin interpreted this to mean that Ukrainians don’t support their national government, and especially Ukrainians who are Russophone are going to welcome us. And they all live in the south and the—they don’t all live, but—because Kyiv is quite—has many Russophone residents as well. But citizens who live in the south and east will welcome the Russian army.
There’s other factors considering—why he considered that to be the case, such as the fact that many people in the south and east of Ukraine belong to the Moscow—to the Orthodox Church that is organized under the Moscow Patriarchate, and also the difference in foreign policy attitudes in the south and the east—namely that there’s less support—there has been for many years less support for joining NATO, and joining the EU, and greater support for Russia.
But that’s also a very simplistic kind of take on how to associate people’s political attitudes and their opinions with whether they feel themselves to be a member of a nation and a citizen of a foreign country, which turns out they do.
So he was not welcomed and a three-day war has stretched into eighty-four days, but it’s shocking that they continue with this rhetoric of, “we’ve got to save these Russian speakers. They’re all Nazis.” People in Russia really believe it. It seems hard for us to fathom that many Russians would actually buy into this, but they do believe a lot of what their government is selling, and not to mention some of the other stories that Steve was talking about with regard to the international order being dominated by the U.S.
So I think it’s good to kind of know that the Ukrainian population is not what Putin considers it to be, but also just more generally that language doesn’t determine political attitudes, and the fact that there’s Russian speakers—maybe you see them on CNN.
There’s a lot of great interviews on CNN, and they’re speaking Russian. Also, the political leaders are speaking Ukrainian. Many of the ordinary citizens who’ve escaped from the eastern cities or from various parts of Ukraine are speaking Russian, and I just think it’s very worth pointing out that we don’t have a situation where the language that you speak determines the political support.
It's a very diverse country in terms of language, identity, religion, and political attitudes, and yet, the war has certainly kind of unified those attitudes in opposition to Russia.
GAER: Thank you very much. My goodness.
We’re going to have a panel—I think a breakout group on the role of the Orthodox Church and the Ukraine situation tomorrow, and there’ll be an opportunity to pursue some of those questions because the change in that church and its breaking from the Moscow Patriarchate are really quite interesting developments.
I wanted to come back to Ambassador Sestanovich. You said that Mr. Lavrov has said, who decided this rules-based order? Who discussed it? Now you’re old enough like I am to remember when Mr. Lavrov was the guy in the UN who was discussing those issues with us and pressing and arguing those points, and even old enough to remember when the Soviet leadership was talking about non acquisition of territory by force in Europe. And that was the basis, of course, for the Helsinki Accords.
So I’m wondering, is this just another one of his cynical ploys, or do you think he’s ever really bought into any of these arguments that he’s making?
SESTANOVICH: A friend of mine who was a classmate of Lavrov, Sedin Megima, says that they used to call him the next Gromyko, meaning two things. They expected him to be a big professional success, and they expected him to be able to argue any brief that he was given. And I would say that has been true of Sergey.
He is a savvy enough diplomat, though, that he knows that what they’re doing is weakened Russia’s ability to shape the international order. There’s a lot of talk among Russians now that their relations with other states are strengthened by this crisis.
Lavrov said our relations with China are at an all-time high. We’re improving our relations with the Persian Gulf states, and many ASEAN groups of states around the world that are unhappy with the—with the American-dominated order.
The question—and there are plenty of Russians who understand this, who know what Russia is sacrificing with this kind of offensive—ethno-nationalist aggressive war.
There’s a really interesting piece done by Yevgenia Albats, who’s a very sophisticated Russian journalist who drove around in the countryside to talk to people, and her conclusion was if you’re over fifty and you grew up in Soviet times, you’re in favor of the war. If you’re twenty or under, you’re probably in favor of the war because you think, as one person put it to her, Putin is a cool dude.
But if you’re in between, if you’re in your twenties and forties, if you grew up with the idea that Russia would have an openness to the rest of the world, it would actually be part of the globalized world, you’re against it because you know what it means to lose that and what it means to have to contemplate going back to a certain kind of Soviet isolation.
There are plenty of people in the Russian elite who are in favor of that kind of isolation, particularly in intelligence services. I did a little piece for the CFR website about the views of Mr. Patrushev, who’s thought to be Putin’s closest advisor, who relishes the idea of a Russia that’s closed off. He’s praising Soviet times.
So for somebody like Lavrov, it’s very easy to adopt the rhetoric of challenging the international order, but my guess is that he understands that they’ve weakened their ability to do that.
One last thing about Lavrov is he’s got to talk a good game to his boss, but I wonder whether he would agree with Charlie that Western unity is bound to crumble because we’ve been hearing forecasts about Western unity over Ukraine crumbling since 2014. Every six months or so we’ve expected EU sanctions to be undermined, and Russian diplomats—although they’ve been trying to pursue this—actually haven’t had any real luck with any of it. And the shock to them now of what has—of what they’re facing is enormous.
So, yes, Lavrov is a canny diplomat who is going to try to work the hand that he’s got, but he knows this is a bad hand. And more and more Russians of his kind—you have kind of exposure to the West. You have an economic technocratic portfolio in the government, who are in business, understand that they are—they have suffered a tremendous amount of damage from this—from this enterprise, and they’re not going back any time soon.
A guy named Andrei Bystritsky just gave a talk in which he tried to characterize—find a historical analogy to this struggle, and what did he come up with? The Thirty Years’ War.
That’s not a forecast for Western unity crumbling. It’s a forecast for ongoing blocks fighting each other as far as the eye can see, and that’s, I think, what experts are telling—when they’re off the record, trying to tell the leadership about what is in store.
GAER: Thank you very much.
I actually want to ask Professor Kupchan, briefly, if I have time still for a little bit more.
Other than the Germans promising to raise their defense spending—which I gather they haven’t done yet—to me the most stunning developments in Europe were the Swedish and Finnish decision to see membership in NATO.
And I’m wondering if you think this is—that we’re on a trajectory where NATO is, in fact, going to be strengthened, and whether you think that there’s any reasonable way that the European partners that are on the borders with Ukraine are going to be strengthened by this war, by this invasion—however it ends?
KUPCHAN: There’s no question, Felice, that NATO will emerge from this war—whether it ends in four months or four years or beyond that—strengthened. I mean, it’s back in business as a traditional collective defense organization. There are now about a hundred thousand troops in Europe, about double what there were before.
Instead of four forward-deployed battalions, three in the Balts and one in Poland, we’ve now got various kinds of NATO combat units in all of the frontline states, and I’m guessing that this is going to not just continue but deepen.
There’s a summit coming up this summer. I wouldn’t be surprised if that summit decides to pull down what’s called the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which was signed in 1997, and it basically barred the deployment of substantial and permanent NATO forces in the new member states.
I think you’re going to see substantial permanent forces in the member states moving forward, and I think that’s a good thing. And I think it’s a good thing that Sweden and Finland are joining the alliance. If I were Swedish and Finnish, and were watching what the Russians are doing in Ukraine, I would be doing the same thing. So no question that this will strengthen the NATO alliance.
Let me just end with one thought about the kind of unity issue because I agree with Steve that Western unity going back to 2014 has been very impressive. I would not have predicted, especially given the Trump era, that U.S.-European unity and the application of sanctions have basically been rock solid since 2014 right up to 2022.
What I think is different—and maybe Elise and Steve and you, Felice, could comment on this—is the costs that are now being borne by Western societies. I was having dinner with a friend of mine the other day who told me he just filled up his car, and it cost him $112. I shop regularly because I’ve got a house full of little kids, and every time I got to the grocery store, the eggs, the coffee, the milk, the bread have gone up. And it’s kind of for those reasons that I do fear where we are headed in terms of domestic politics.
I think the Biden folks are going to be rock solid on Ukraine, but we’ve got midterms coming up very soon, and I do worry that this kind of bipartisanship that we have seen since the war began could start to fray if we see a very strong showing by the Republicans in the midterms, which I think is going to be the outcome.
GAER: Thank you, I suppose, I suppose, for that warning.
We want to give the participants an opportunity to ask questions so I’m going to ask for the first question to be one to Elise. I’m not skipping you on the second round, but I want to go to the audience here.
But that’s a pretty—that was a pretty grim picture, and of course—I mean anyone who follows, for example, Sri Lanka, look at what’s going on there today, and it’s all about money, and the cost, and inflation. And all around the world is food insecurity, and the cost issue is a real problem everywhere.
For the question-and-answer session, I need to remind you to stand—when you’re called on to stand, wait for the microphone, and be sure to state your name and affiliation at that point. And the staff members will be able to give the microphones to you. Just wait for them to come to you at that point.
So now the floor is open to the participants, and you’re welcome to try to get my attention.
Right here at this front table.
GANDHI: I’m Homi Gandhi, and I represent the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America—no less FEZANA. My question to everyone is this has been happening since 2014. The man is playing a chess game. He’s been doing it.
Why are we waking up now and trying to work around this by sacrificing the lives of Ukrainians? Of course, giving them all the supplies and arms and everything—why are we doing it now? Why didn’t we do it long before knowing this chess game which has been played for a long, long time?
GAER: Thank you. I’m assuming that’s a question for Professor Giuliano? I’m not sure that it was, but I’m going to give you the floor first.
GIULIANO: Thank you. Kind of a complicated issue going back to how much the West and the U.S. supported Ukraine following 2014. Sanctions were imposed on Russia. We were just talking about the unified European response—American and European response in terms of sanctioning Russia, so there was that response. It, apparently, didn’t do enough to dissuade Russia from changing its behavior, and the sanctions didn’t bite hard enough.
The U.S. did provide some—well, we didn’t provide weapons until the Trump administration when some Javelins were sent—and they were even mainly symbolic, but we did—NATO did provide some training to the Ukrainian military, which, apparently, has been invaluable because the Ukrainian army has really improved quite a bit since the disastrous state that they were in in 2014 when Russia easily took some territory—much to their own credit—their own commitment, and credit as well. So it’s not all about what the U.S. has done.
But the army really has come quite a long way. This is a much more complicated story because on the one hand the U.S. kind of dangled NATO and European kind of entrance to NATO and dangled it out there and didn’t really support Ukraine, and arguably, is showing the lack of that support by not putting boots on the ground.
So it is a complicated question of the particular role of the U.S., and I think things could have gone another way. So we have this kind of very—a lot of moments of contingency when if—prior to Zelensky—the president of Ukraine was more willing to negotiate, and if the Russian government had been more willing to negotiate, then maybe it wouldn’t have resulted in this nightmare that we have now.
And so I think there’s a lot to be—we need to do a lot of work studying and trying to understand the internal processes of each of the governments. But, speaking from the Ukraine side, unfortunately, there wasn’t always a domestic constituency for negotiation, but on the other hand, Russia was not really meeting Ukraine halfway.
So I think it’s hard to sort of tell a simple story about the last eight years.
GAER: Thank you very much.
Ambassador or Professor, do you want to comment on this?
SESTANOVICH: Yeah, let me add one thing, Felice, because it’s a good question, and there are going to be a lot of people who are saying we should have done more earlier to help the Ukrainians to deter Putin. But there is a real problem when you’re deterring somebody like Putin.
I think the big answer to the question about why we didn’t wake up and see this coming is nobody could believe that Putin would be so stupid as to do something like this. He had always been kind of cagey about the kind of involvement he was prepared to envision, the kind of interference, and other sort of subversion of Ukraine.
Remember, Crimea was taken by little green men. The eastern separatism was supported in an approach that always involved semi-plausible deniability by the Russians. Nobody thought Putin would jeopardize his interests in such a fundamental way by launching the kind of war that suddenly makes people recall 1939.
You got to go a long way to unify Europe in the way that has happened and to shock people, to bring crowds into the streets across Europe. Not even Russians believed this was going to happen. I remember talking to Russian friends in the week after the war started. They couldn’t believe this had happened.
And it’s for the simple reason that I said before, they didn’t think Putin could be so stupid.
GAER: I see.
Professor Kupchan, you’ve been nodding along with that. Did you want to add anything to that?
KUPCHAN: Yeah, I mean I completely agree with Steve. Every Russian that I spoke to in the weeks before the war said no way is this going to happen. I didn’t think it was going to happen because I took Putin to be a toughie, repressive but reasonably rationale and shrewd, and I said, this guy’s not going to swallow a porcupine. He's not dumb enough to do that, but he did.
Just one comment coming directly to the question—and I think Elise was kind of suggesting this same point—and that is I think the U.S. has been trying to walk a tightrope since 2014, really going back to 2008 when NATO said Ukraine will become a member of NATO. On the one hand, we have wanted to stand behind NATO, protect it from Russia. We have given it lots of military advice, and training, and light arms, and then some Javelins under Trump, but we didn’t want to go so far as to appear to be highly provocative to the Russians, right? We’re still not giving them F-16s. We’re not giving them ground-to-ground missiles. We’re not doing a no-fly zone, and that’s because we’re kind of in this no-man’s land trying to defend Ukraine but not wanting to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. And that’s part of the answer as to why we didn’t do more before. We were trying to walk a tightrope.
GAER: The gentleman in the back with your hand up. Yeah.
No, actually the person next to you.
GRIM: Thank you. John Grim with the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University and Yale School of the Environment.
I appreciate the concern for the Western Alliance in your considerations going forward in the Ukrainian war. I wanted to ask a question about the larger Russian republics and the relationship of Russian government with those outlying districts. What is happening with regard to the internal politics of Russia reading what Putin is undertaking?
GAER: Thank you very much. I think I’m going to call on the Ambassador to respond to that one for you. Internal politics in Russia—what’s happening? How are they reacting?
SESTANOVICH: Internal politics—it’s really interesting, and we always are trying to figure out exactly what the meaning of individual events is. Putin replaced a whole bunch of governors just recently, and one question was is this an attempt to make sure that the vertical of power is more firmly established, that central control doesn’t in any way weaken. We don’t have the answer to that yet. It always seems like a good bet when Putin replaces people to think that he is interested in strengthening the vertical of power.
I think he is probably heartened by the limited number of challenges, anti-war protests, individual—statements by individual officials. There are the rumors about this or that high-ranking person who has wanted to leave Russia. But all in all, the Russian state has proved to be a pretty tight instrument, and there aren’t a lot of signs in the hinterlands of defiance of the center.
GAER: Thank you.
SESTANOVICH: Elise may have followed some of this more closely and have a different take.
GIULIANO: Yeah, well, I—thank you. You may be expecting that there will be mobilization in some of the ethnic republics because some of the ethnic republics are sending their sons to die in the army as cannon fodder, which is really quite sad. These are the poorest and the men with the lowest kind of chance for a positive future, so they join the army.
But, how can you mobilize when you don’t even have information about how many of your soldiers are dying? So the information lockdown since the war began has really put a clamp on what people know and how they can therefore mobilize against it.
And the other thing I’ll just say is the massive use of repression—when people came out to protest when Navalny flew back to the country—the opposition figure who was poisoned. When he flew back last winter, in 2021, the Russian—the Kremlin used a really significant amount of repression. So people are afraid of getting beaten when they go out on the streets, and that’s going to damp down protests, and not to mention that many of the people likely to protest have left. But there is different kinds of protests, and we do see it. You have to look a little harder because they are smaller and they ae not as noticeable, but there are more political prisoners these days than there was in the past. So we’ll have to just keep watching. But I agree with Steve that the political system has not shown any weakness at this point.
GAER: We have only a few minutes left and we have a lot of hands up, so I’m going to ask for a lightning round where we’ll take three questions and see if we can get some responses.
Oh, and I’m supposed to take—we have 130 people on the virtual, and I’ll take the first of the lightning round from the virtual questions.
OPERATOR: We will take the first virtual question from Rabbi Joe Charnes.
CHARNES: Yes, hello, and thank you for this topic and your thoughts.
My question is for Ambassador Sestanovich. Felice spoke of—as what I think we all agree of is a grim situation that is taking place by Russia. And my question is on the human—I’m speaking as a human, but you’re an ambassador—(laughter)—is there an ability of allowing or of removing Russia from the Security Council and as a permanent member because shouldn’t there be some level of decency that’s assumed when you are part of the UN in such a prominent position?
SESTANOVICH: Felice, do you want to do more questions or do you want to—
GAER: I did. I wanted to do three questions.
GAER: And I haven’t called on—yes, the lady right here. Yeah, you.
TARIQ: I just came from a conference abroad where we were discussing the Machiavellian use of religion by politicians, and it also happened that one of the participants was the patriarch of Georgia who knows the patriarch of Russia quite well. So we set as a discussion of the conflict now it’s amazing that we’re not giving enough weight to the role of religion, particularly the Orthodox Church in Russia and Ukraine, and also since even this program is about religion and foreign policy, the patriarch of Georgia really believes that one of the underlying cause of the start of this conflict is the strong feeling on the part of many Russian Orthodox people and their relationship to Ukraine. I don’t know if I’m clear in what I’m saying, so all I’m saying is we should not minimize, in any discussion, the identity very much tonight about issue of religion.
GAER: Thank you very much.
And the next question here from the room—the gentleman right over here.
COOPER: Thank you. Rabbi Abe Cooper. I’ll keep this short even though I’m a rabbi. (Laughter.)
Everyone here knows about Bucha, and we’ll be learning about many more of these horrific acts as, hopefully, the war does grind to an end. So on scale of zero to ten, our distinguished panelists and our distinguished host for this evening, could you give us, zero to ten, what are the chance that any Russian military official or political leader will be held accountable before the bar of justice for crimes against humanity and war crimes?
GAER: I think I’ll take the prerogative of the chair to start with that last question and simply say we have never seen such an outpouring of attention to laws of war, documentation, accountability. We have the ICC, we have the ICJ, we have the Council—we have—the OSCE has a Moscow mechanism, the prosecutor of Ukraine has—what did they say—4,000 cases or 1,400 cases—a lot of cases.
And just today, the United States announced a joint program with—we just had somebody from Yale—with Yale University and a series of other institutions to document and present usable information for courts for the kinds of war crimes that have taken place. Will those all bring any of the leaders to account? Well, there’s an awful lot of talk these days about a separate tribunal on aggression being created, and we just had the heads of the parliamentary committees in about eight or ten European countries call for that, and there’s more going on.
So the chances that there will be some kind of accountability down the road—yes. The longer you go down the road, the more likely it is. It doesn’t usually happen very quickly, but we’ve already seen a couple of Russian soldiers in the dock in recent days. So I think—just taking that last question, I think that’s one of the areas where there is going to be some accountability. But whether it’s going to go to the top levels, whether it’s going to be quick, that’s another matter.
Now we had other questions, and I invite the panelists to respond if anybody would like to.
GIULIANO: I guess I would respond to this question about orthodoxy. We don’t know. It’s a very interesting question, and I think there has been an—this question of the role of the church and the relationship to people’s opinions, and thoughts, and hopes is really understudied in Russia.
I certainly hope that the soldiers committing the atrocities and killing people in cold blood, and then stealing their appliances to give to their wives back in Russia were not motivated by their belief in orthodoxy. But also I would just make a point that Russia is not—is still quite a secular country as a result of the Soviet Union—not the same as Georgia, not the same as Ukraine—so we have to be a little attentive to the role of the church and what they are saying and telling people, and then whether there is kind of uptake or belief among Russians in the messaging of the Orthodox Church.
GAER: Thank you.
Ambassador, Professor, any responses?
KUPCHAN: I’ll just add to Elise’s comment that I think that the departure of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate was one of the most decisive events of the post-2014 era that stuck in Putin’s craw. It was a big deal, right? This was a relationship that goes back to 1686, if I’m not mistaken, and to have the patriarch in Constantinople recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church really did cut to the heart of this delusion that Putin has labored under that Ukraine is part of Russia, and that Ukraine belongs in the Russian motherland.
I think we can only take at face value the things that he said before he launched this war. He clearly misunderstood Ukraine. He had a vision of the country that was decades old. He didn’t realize that, even before this current invasion, most Ukrainians, including in the east and in the south, want nothing to do with Russia. Many of them want nothing to do with the Russian Orthodox Church. Although it is very complicated because there are many communities inside Ukraine that have stayed within the Russian Orthodox Church, others have gone and become autonomous and become part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. So it is a big mess. But I would say this is a war that is going to tilt those parishes that have stayed part of the Moscow Patriarchate in the other direction.
And just a quick word on the war crimes: Yes, at the low level. I think it’s going to be very hard at the leadership unless Putin falls from power. And it’s not inconceivable. As Steve has been talking about, there is more open discontent in Russia than I think we’ve ever seen before, but I don’t think one can in any way expect Putin to fall from power. But it’s not inconceivable, and if he does, then maybe—then maybe he would be hauled before a tribunal.
GAER: We have the opportunity—
SESTANOVICH: I think Charlie is right to focus on the question of whether you’re going to have internal change as the key variable in determining whether there is accountability, because most governments prefer to shield their own militaries from international accountability. If you did have significant internal change, probably the more interesting measure of its significance would be not so much whether they went after individual criminal actions by Russian forces in Ukraine, but whether they really reformed the—what are called the power ministries—the intelligence services, the armed forces—because that can have a more lasting significance. A lot of Russian analysts—I mean, I’m—I mean, in Russia—feel that one of the things that was done worse in the aftermath of the—of the Soviet collapse was the reshaping of those institutions. Very little was done to actually create what we would recognize as democratic accountability there.
A quick word about the role of religion, and then I’ll pick up on the question that was directly addressed to me—(laughs)—which is about the UN. One thing to watch for in the way in which religion plays/interacts with the rest of the elements in this internal situation for Russia is whether you have a reappearance of a kind of figure that over the past half-century we’ve actually seen quite a lot of, and that is the dissident priest. It used to be that there was always—there were several kind of charismatic priest figures who had a following who had an alliance with political oppositionists, and this has—is not something that we’ve seen in this crisis. But if it goes on, I would predict it will reemerge.
Last thing about the UN—level of decency is a criterion that countries that have a veto in the UN Security Council have never treated as—(laughs)—as a real criterion for whether they should continue to have that veto, and my guess is you’re not going to get anywhere. Nobody is going to get anywhere in reforming the Security Council on this basis. But it is interesting to see what other changes are happening in the UN; for example, a revived use of the General Assembly voting. You may discover that actually, for all that the Russians talk about how they have a lot of support outside of what they call the collective West, they may discover that they’re, like, on the—on the receiving end of a lot of majority condemnations in the UN’s General Assembly. We’ve already seen them ousted from the Human Rights Council. There are other ways in which the Russian role in the UN can be clipped back.
And I think the Russian—if you just look at the pictures of Russian delegates in the Security Council, they also—they’re generally pretty unhappy campers. They’re seeing their job, even where they have a veto, as increasingly difficult. They’re outnumbered in the Security Council. There are all kinds of measures that can go forward even around their veto. And that’s going to be—it’s going to make New York a kind of less plum assignment for Russian diplomats.
GAER: Thank you very much.
I’ll just add to that just very briefly the Russians, for the first time in seventy-five years, lost the effort to have a seat of the Committee on NGOs. This is the payback committee, the gatekeeper committee that lets NGOs in and now treats them, if they have said things that the governments don’t like. They’re out of that.
They’ve lost—they’ve lost other elections. The only—the only place they seem to be continuing to be anywhere is on a couple of treaty bodies. I was very sad to see that is really the only place where Russian officials are being elected to anything, and there the argument is that they serve in their independent capacity, not representing the government. That’s the argument.
So, yes, it’s—the isolation of Russian in international entities where it has always been really quite prominent because of the veto has been, really, one of the effective tools that is being used now by the international community.
Do we have time for one more?
STAFF: Do one last question.
GAER: One last question? Let’s take it from the virtual.
OPERATOR: We will take the next virtual question from Nancy Abrams.
ABRAMS: Thank you very much.
I really do appreciate all the information and the analysis from the four of you. But I would just really like to ask, if you were in Biden’s position and not so worried about the midterms as about making a decision for the longer term, what would you do?
GAER: And we have, what, one minute? (Laughter.) We have one minute left, so we’re going to give each of you twenty seconds and hope that you can help Ms. Abrams with an answer. Ambassador?
SESTANOVICH: Sure. I think the area where the administration has been weakest is in messaging to the Russian people. It seems to me they have not found a vocabulary here. There’s the routine we’re unhappy with Putin, this is not a campaign against the Russian people, but I don’t think they’ve gone beyond that in a way that makes it clear to ordinary Russians how the United States sees the stakes and how—and what kind of hope there is for a long-term relationship. And not just doing business with Russia, but actually including Russia in an international order that seems just and constructive to them.
GAER: Thank you.
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I would say the first order of business is stopping the killing. And so I would encourage the president to realize that Russia has already been dealt a very significant strategic defeat and to try to bring the parties together—NATO, the Ukrainians in the first instance, ultimately the Russians—to end this as quickly as possible. I don’t have in mind some solution; that is to say, we go and take Donbas back but they can have some of Crimea, we go back to the borders of February 24. I think these are the things that you work out in the middle of the negotiations.
But as I said at the beginning, I worry about simply saying we’re going for victory, we are going to expel Russia from Ukraine, we are going to win. I think we should pocket the successes and bring this war to a close as quickly as possible.
GAER: Thank you.
GIULIANO: Thank you. I would say it’s possible just the sum of that is messaging. So just what you referred to, the kind of we’re going to win, there’s—because the Ukrainian government has been really effective at messaging toward its own people and toward the international community, partly a reflection of the fact their president was an actor. They’ve been really unbelievably disciplined in putting out a kind of positive message and hiding their own military losses. So I wonder if some of that is to kind of keep rallying the population and rallying the troops, because I still see Zelensky as somewhat open to negotiation, although at the same time I think when Russia’s actively losing they don’t want Russia to consolidate the gains that they’ve made at all in Ukraine, so at least kind of push them back to what the situation was prior to the onset of the war a few months ago and then—and then maybe negotiate.
I’m happy I’m not the president of the United States right now. It’s a really tricky and dangerous time. I guess I would say I would devote a lot of energy to increasing our classic spies on the ground in Moscow to have a sense of what’s going on within the Russian government, so that we are not caught unawares if there does emerge some kind of opposition among the leadership to the current advocacy for war that Putin is channeling.
GAER: Thank you very much. A number of columnists and pundits have been saying: What does America really want at the end of this war in Ukraine? And they haven’t gotten a very good answer, but the head of policy planning, the counselor to the State Department, was in a Council podcast just last week. You should have listened to it. Derek Chollet, if you haven’t, he said there are three things: We want to defend Ukraine, we want to punish and isolate Russia, and we want to shore up the European partners. Those are the three key goals. I would say President Biden could be doing more on each of those, and should.
So, with that, I wanted to thank our panelists and all of the—all of you who were present. (Applause.) I particularly want to thank them because they—not only for their expertise, but they stepped in at the last minute the way they did with such grace and brilliance as well.
I am asked to remind you all that breakfast—breakfast? You haven’t had dinner yet. (Laughter.) Breakfast will begin tomorrow at eight a.m. and it will be before the session on “Climate, Faith, and Justice” which starts at 8:45 a.m.
And now it’s my pleasure to introduce Galen Guengerich, the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, who will offer a blessing before dinner is served. And I thank you.
GUENGERICH: Good evening.
As people who care deeply about the role of faith communities in our nation and world, we have gathered to contemplate our fractious world in its broadest dimensions. In religious terms, part of the task is to divine when we should respond with a stinging word of prophetic rebuke and when we should respond with a soothing word of pastoral comfort.
The currency in which religious communities deal, for the most part at least, is neither military might nor economic power, but rather moral suasion and spiritual guidance. With the hope that we may prove insightful in our deliberations together and faithful in our work, I invite you to join me in a moment of prayer.
Spirit of life, God of many names and beyond all naming, source of all our longings and destiny of all our strivings, we pause in humble gratitude for the gift of being, and of being here, and of being here together. We have gathered to be among others who share our vision of a just and peaceful world. We seek transformation of our own lives, of our nation, and of our world. We seek to make the world more truthful, more beautiful, more peaceful, and more just. We seek to expand the domain of human dignity.
We confess our own weakness and brokenness, even as we acknowledge the strength of our calling and the clarity of our vision. In many ways and many places, the values for which we stand have been put at risk and our commitments have thereby been put to the test. Fear stalks our nation and world, and hatred had inscribed itself upon our common life. We bear witness to a love that cannot be diminished by fear or intimidated by hatred.
We pray for those who are responsible to lead during these perilous times. We pray especially for those leaders who have given safe haven to bigotry, hatred, and other forms of animosity. We pray that somehow the mantle of leadership would fall heavily upon them, reminding them of their duty to unite our nation and our world and give hope to the most vulnerable among us.
As we gather into our experience all that is present in our world today, as well as all that is past and all that is possible, we pray that our time together now and our leadership in days to come will be a force for healing and hope. These things we pray together. Amen.
Bon appétit. (Laughter, applause.)
TUCKER: Welcome to this session on “Climate, Faith, and Justice.” We have a wonderful lineup. I have notes for about an hour to begin. But first let me just briefly introduce our distinguished panelists. My name is Mary Evelyn Tucker. I hope I’m going to be joining the comments here with these distinguished panelists. We’re going to begin—actually, we’re going to have a conversation all together.
So Rosalyn LaPier is a professor at the University of Montana. She is also an ethnobotanist, a Blackfoot nation member, and a part of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, a research associate.
Gerald Durley, who I have been—had the pleasure to know for several years—is the board chair of Interfaith Power and Light, one of the leading groups working on climate justice for a long time with religious communities. And he has a book, an autobiography, called I Am Amazed: Reflections on an Awe-Inspired Life, that came out in 2014. He’s had a long and distinguished career in civil rights as well, which is why the connection is so important.
And then we have a very distinguished international civil servant, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations here, Ramakrishna. And he’s been senior advisor to the president and director on ocean and climate policy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, up on Cape Cod. But before that, he had many positions in the UN, including with UNEP. And he’s also taught at a number of schools, including the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Harvard Law School, and Law Schools of Boston University, Boston College, Brandeis, and Yale. So we’re colleagues in that respect.
So I would like to just make a few introductory comments. The litany of climate disasters is getting longer and longer, isn’t it? I think it leaves us all sleepless. It certainly does me. And we can just go through the list of Guterres saying that the latest IPCC report is more than a wakeup call. It’s a call to imminent disaster. We have the heat waves in India that are just astonishing, these temperatures over one hundred degrees for many, many cases. The suffering is immense. The fires here in the U.S. in the southwest and the west are creating our own climate refugees. And the drought there in the southwest, the worst in a thousand years. This is heartbreaking—heartbreaking. The increase of typhoons and hurricanes.
The financial cost of this. For instance, my brother’s head of Chubb Insurance here in New York. They are scared witless about the cost. And there are finally financial statements now from major leaders on Wall Street of the ultimate cost of this for the economy. The financial industry understands this very, very well. Rising seas, that was part of Climate Central in Princeton where they have a map you can take a look and do your ZIP code and you see how the seas are rising all over the U.S., but around the rest of the world. The department—DOD, Department of Defense, for almost thirty years has had white papers on how this is a national security issue. Our own bases in many parts of the world, including west coast and east coast, the seas are already inundating the bases.
A 2019 report said climate change would increase, and is increasing, global inequity by 25 percent. And as we know, and as this panel will address, the most vulnerable who are suffering are the poor, women, and children. We have an estimate, which is, I think, underestimated, ninety million refugees from climate change alone, all over the world. When I wake up every morning and when I take my first glass of water I think of these women and these children in these refugee camps all over the world. From social and economic upheaval, but so many are climate refugees now. And I need not even talk about the food shortages and crops shortages that we’re seeing, certainly in India and other parts of the world.
Now, why then is this topic so important to be connected to the religious communities all over the world? We know 85 percent of the world’s peoples are members of various religions. We want to say from the very beginning, religions have their problems and their promise. And I want to highlight, with the distinguished Gerald Durley here, for me when civil rights became viable and efficacious—I went to college in Washington, DC, where Nancy Pelosi went. We were all involved in civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War in those eras. When civil rights became truly a cause it was when it was a moral issue, an ethical issue, established by Martin Luther King and many, many other leaders at that time. It was a call to change. We’re still in that process of change, and the sickness and sadness in Buffalo is an indication that the moral message needs to go even further and even deeper.
But why then in the most comprehensive problem humans have ever had to face, namely climate change, why will the religious communities be so central to joining with policy people, with scientists, with new economics, with technology. All of these things are in place. They are ready to go and are going. But this particular moral force of religious communities around the world, and the more than religious communities. The spiritual call of the natural world is so powerful. So it’s not just religions in the formal sense. It’s the spiritual, moral depth of we are birthed out of these systems. Thomas Berry, my teacher, says how we have come out of a 4.5-billion-year evolutionary history of Earth alone. What does this mean to say, we are going to save the Earth? No, we are going to align ourselves with Earth’s processes.
So with that context, the big context, the critical nature of the problem, the moral force that is needed to complete the massive amount of work that has been done by so many scientists, IPCC report, sacrificing their time and their efforts, UN leadership, a tremendous leadership on these issues. The Paris agreement, the Glasgow agreement, imperfect as they are, they are agreements. And the UN leadership has been absolutely central. So, and I’ll say just very briefly, I think the religions also need some humility, because in some ways we’ve been late in coming to these issues, while others have been working on it.
But I want to highlight at UNEP, Faith for Earth is doing a very extraordinary job in the last few years, Iyad Abu Moghli and our work, the Forum on Religion and Ecology, Religions for Peace, and many others are working now with this Faith for Earth on an international level. And there’s many, many groups here in North America working as well, which we will now get into. So let’s start with sort of a broad question of why religion matters, and then we’re going to go into maybe more specifics of what’s happening on the ground.
But, Rosalyn, would you like to lead off? Coming from indigenous traditions, we would say you have the primary voice here.
LAPIER: Yeah. So, I mean, I think I would like to begin by reminding folks, especially from the United States, that here in the United States we have had a difficult relationship with indigenous communities, and with indigenous religion. And so we need to remember, of course, that there was an intentional process of cultural genocide, right, that was inflicted upon indigenous communities here in the United States. And it was part of our public policy. And the only way to change that is through public policy. So we went from making indigenous religions illegal and that people actually went to prison or had other types of policing regarding indigenous religion and religious practice. Indigenous people had to make their religions go underground, or they had to mask their religion.
So I’ll just give you a quick example. For example, within my own community we have a religious tradition that occurred in the summer, which is called the Okan, which is improperly translated as the sun dance, that historically occurred in the late summer. So it would happen usually towards the end of August because it had to happen when particular plants were available to be used in that particular religious practice. What our community did, because it had been made illegal, we moved it to the Fourth of July, right? We moved it to the Fourth of July, so it could be masked under the Fourth of July. And because it got moved to that time period, then many of the—again, the plants that needed to be used as part of that got shifted, got adapted and changed.
OK. Fast forward to 1978. In 1978, the United States government passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, right? And it’s only been since 1978 that we changed our public policy in the United States to allow for the free expression and the free practice of indigenous religions in the United States. Not that long ago. Since that time, and over the past hundred-plus years, indigenous people have been adapting, have been sort of mitigating this relationship with the United States, and in the past—so, since about 1978—indigenous people are now reestablishing many of those traditions that had kind of gone underground or that had gone dormant, including our relationship with the natural world, right? Including our relationship with the multiple kind of ecoregions and ecosystems that are part of our communities.
OK. So now we’re into the twenty-first century. We sort of have that added challenge, right? The added challenge today is the growing climate crisis. And so the growing climate crisis is now also impacting that relationship with the natural world, our relationship with—to the areas that we have historically utilized for our religion and religious practice. And so that is sort of a growing concern with indigenous communities. But as we have already had a private conversation previous, also an opportunity as well. It’s an opportunity to sort of reestablish those ties, strengthen, especially within our younger generations, our younger community, a love for our indigenous traditions.
And, again, a pushback. I do work with a lot of young people, because I am a college professor. A pushback and an effort to address cultural genocide within our own communities—something that our elders are still survivors of, and something that our younger people are really interested in reestablishing those relationships. And so these multiple challenges over the generations, including the climate crisis, I think are, or can be, opportunities to strengthen our religion more than impacting it. So I’ll end there. Thanks.
TUCKER: Thank you. Thank you.
And in introducing Gerald, we want to just note that for about twenty—a little more than twenty years, actually, Interfaith Power and Light has been working on the ground in states all across the U.S. GreenFaith has been doing this work as well. There’s an organization called Greening the Black Churches led by Ambrose Carroll that’s about ten years old. So this movement is growing. But Interfaith Power and Light, especially in the climate space, has been absolutely critical. Cooling congregations, showing how you can do this on the ground, cutting your carbon footprint, and so on. So, Gerald, over to you, please.
DURLEY: Good morning.
TUCKER: Good morning.
DURLEY: Good morning! (Laughter.)
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
DURLEY: Oh, I thought I was by myself. First of all, let me thank the Council for Foreign Relations for inviting us here. It’s good to finally feel that we’re moving into the headlights rather than being the taillight. All too often—let me start by saying that I do not believe in any stretch of the imagination that science and faith are incongruent. We’ve always worked together. There’s been some level of skepticism that the scientists are hardline, data proving this, check it out one time or another and the faith people are kind of ethereal in nature, just kind of if it happens then faith and all of this. But I’m convinced now, after all of these years, that the two have come together and have always been together for those that are of the right consciousness.
When I first came, I asked Dr. Tucker, what is the general feeling about organizations like this, with the data that you collect? Do you collect data just to report the data? Do you collect data just to report the data and try to make a difference in terms of organizing policy? And once all of the data has been collected and the policies put together, there are times in our own finiteness that we don’t know which way to go. We wonder did we do it right? Did we do—did we do the best that we could do? And I think it’s at that point that faith has a moral and an ethical position to, when we reach a point where we just don’t know, we step out on something that we feel that we’re not necessarily familiar with.
My background has always been in civil and human rights. And she has said, I started with Dr. King, Andy Young, John Lewis, and all of us. It was very much like the climate movement now. But I never connected the climate movement to the Civil Rights movement. I could have cared less about whether a polar bear reached the next glacier, or the tree huggers, and all of those kinds of things, because I was disconnected. You could say that I was ignorant. I was not stupid, but I was not—I was ignorant, meaning I did not understand all the complexities and how the dots were connected between what we were doing in the Civil Rights movement and what was going on in the climate movement.
Then I began to understand that it’s all interconnected. I began to understand that the economic, the political, the business, the health, and the education were all factors that were very important for the survival of all of us on the planet. But I did not make that connection, but then I began to realize that the foundation upon which the science, the business, and all of them come together would be upon how do we make ethical and moral decisions about the information and the data that we’ve gotten together. And that’s when I began to—began to understand that we’ve got to come together. Interfaith Power and Light, we’re in forty states, twenty-two thousand houses of worship. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists.
And we all found out that in our faiths we understood what the creation was about, who the creator was, and how can you speak about the invention unless you talk about the inventor? And since we said that God, Yahweh, Jehovah, Buddha, whoever it might be, created all of this that we live in, where we our being. We all wanted clean water, and healthy air, and all of this. Now, the scientists would come together and say: These are the causes of air pollution, of certain kinds of things that are going on. And they would be profoundly proficient in what it is that they would do.
We would take that information and understand how does that directly impact in a positive way and in a negative way in our communities? But for some reason, there seemed to be a gap. And so now we’re making a strong effort to put the information. When we first started—out on the table. When we first started in the Civil Rights movement, many people believed, what are they talking about? Why do they want equality and equity? What are they talking about justice? What are they talking about in terms of voting rights? And many people were somewhat apprehensive. I think it was around power and egotism a lot. So we started beginning to explain to people that we’re all in this as a constitutional right. I believe that there’s a constitutional right for everyone to have clean air, clean water.
But what happened as the system began to, let’s say, make—the capitalist system began to make more money, they began to see the discriminatory practices that were profound. So we had to make a stance. We made a stance from a political standpoint of view, from an economic standpoint of view, from an educational standpoint. And I believe that that’s what we’re facing even today. We’re looking at the information that you gathered, the information that we come together, how we come together to make an impact, to really make a more sustained world where all people can begin to prosper from a health point of view, from an education point of view.
And so I never thought that I would be, once again, fighting voter suppression, as we’re doing now. I never thought again I’d see murders that’s occurring now in Buffalo and down in North Carolina, because of one thing. Because of ignorance. Ignorance is fueled by fear. Fear being—not stupidity, but a certain level of ignorance. So what we’re doing—when we come collectively we begin to remove the ignorance about what is happening to the climate, what is happening to the fossil burning individual, how carbon dioxide is so detrimental in destroying people in the eight-five mile track of cancer down there where the petrochemical companies continue to pollute, because putting profits over people. Sometime we got to understand that the two can come together in a mutual aspect.
So our goal now is taking the scientific, technological world in terms of alternative energy, in terms of solar, in terms of wind, in terms of other kinds of effort, and taking what the scientific communities coming together, and look at the moral issue, and bring those things together. And those in the business community can still make a profit, it’s what they’re after. And those of us, like you in this room, we can still have healthy air, and clean energy that can—where we can still exist. I think that that’s the role that we’re working hard. And so many different organizations say how do we—not even how do we, because I think we have an idea. But when do we—when do we place our own egos on the altar and crush them and say, wait, we’ve got to come together from this particular point of view. I think that that’s the role.
That has chipped at me a lot. I’m eighty years old now, so I’ve been on the battlefield a long time. We sing a song in the churched called “I’m On the Battlefield.” I’m no longer on the battlefield. I’m in the battle. And I think when we get in the battle we begin to make a difference. And conferences like this forces us to be in the battle when we look—talk about what they’re doing in the ocean. You can hear all the statistics. I can quote statistics all day long today. Most of you know the statistics. But how do you take statistics and make them live and make a change in the lives of those that we say we’re called to serve across all faiths. And I think that that’s where it’s going to make a difference, at least to take the information.
TUCKER: Since you made a gesture to the oceans, let’s have Rama jump in, who’s been involved in the IPC reports and the millennium assessment reports as well. Thank you so much, Gerald.
Over to you, Rama.
RAMAKRISHNA: Thank you. Thank you for having me here on this very distinguished panel. I would have been happier even if I’m not on the panel, not even part of this group here, but as one of the people just observing the whole proceedings. I’m delighted to be part of this conversation. However, I want to begin by thanking the Council, and Richard Haass in particular, for starting this. The idea that religion has a role to play in foreign policy is something that may be very self-evident now, but not way back when Richard started this exercise.
In the United Nations, where I worked for many years, the idea of entities outside government having a role to play in advancing constructive suggestions on what the world community might do, was—though was there from the beginning of the United Nations, it was more evident from 1972 onwards with the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment about fifty years ago. And the—even then the major groups that were recognized at the time did not include religious communities. It is a more recent phenomenon. In the UNEP, for example, the acronym that is used is the faith-based organizations, FBOs. The faith and environment, the connection is exclusively recognized and then they’re trying to work with faith communities.
But as I was introduced, I worked on climate issues right from the time the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring climate as common heritage of humanity, of common concern of humanity. Was involved with IPCC reports right from the beginning. And I also had a role in playing—a role in drafting the Framework Convention on Climate Change. When you think about that, the issue of climate justice is front and center to climate negotiations. You have a group of countries that had contributed absolutely nothing to very little to cause the problem, are told that now we have this major problem and that we all need to act. And the idea that some may need to continue developing while others need to reduce their industrial emissions was resisted to begin with.
The ’92 agreement, the ’97 agreement start with that the justice matters in this. I mean, one of the classic examples is it’s like saying we all heard about the straw that broke the camel’s back. If the camel is a metaphor for Earth and the stuff that is loaded on it are the emissions from all the industrialized countries. And the developing countries come and say that they also want to develop and then add something more, oh, no, no, no. You can’t do that. If you do that it would break the camel’s back. I mean, this is something along those lines
So climate justice is front and center to the issue. Right now what we are talking about is that we are currently emitting about forty billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per annum. What the IPCC said in the sixth assessment reports that are coming out. We already have seen the science impact and the policy responses. What they’re saying is “catastrophic to irreversible” consequences if we continue what we are doing. And that being the case, we’re already to committed to about 1.2 degree Celsius of warming. And what the scientific community tells us is the moment you reach 1.5, we are really in bad shape in terms of all the impact that we’re talking about. And two degrees is worse. And to get to even a 50 percent chance of keeping the temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we have less than ten years.
So we’re currently releasing about forty billion metric tons, and we have a world of about 195-plus countries with varying levels of economic development. And what the coronavirus pandemic had done was to take away the gains made in economic growth, and social development, in many of these developing countries back several years. So there is an urgent need, call it equity, justice, fairness, whatever. There’s an urgent need to help those developing countries reach a level where they can feed themselves. And I’m glad Mary brought up the topic of the heat waves in India. A billion people going through 120-plus degrees temperature in April and in May. Think about that. It’s not even summer, and we’re looking at those temperatures and what will happen moving forward. The same thing with poverty.
And so those issues are front and center. Climate—I remember being in the negotiating committee with Jean Ripert, who was the chairman of the negotiating committee in 1991. And he said, I do not want to bring any issue that is extraneous to climate. And at the time, that was defined as including only the release of emissions and what we need to control those emissions. Today we have just about everything under the sun that is a—that touches any of us in any walk of our life is part of the climate negotiations, as you referred to both the Paris agreement and then the Glasgow.
So this is, at its very core, as Mary Robinson would tell you, at its very core a climate justice issue. And it is an issue where the faith-based organizations have a phenomenal role to play. And one of the reasons why the Council had set this up is really to inform those that are in the foreign policy about what engages the attention of the public at large, also from the faith-based communities in terms of what’s happening in the foreign policy as well, that is of central consequence to them. So it is not any more the community that you live in or the country that you live in, but the world community that we live in.
TUCKER: Thank you so much. And I’m going to take your last comments and put out there for all of us to reflect on that one of the most important issues that’s come clear is what’s being called ecojustice or climate justice. So I also just want to illustrate that this has been a movement on the ground, as we’ve heard from Gerald and Rosalyn, and certainly a movement in the UN It’s also an academic movement where we’ve had Robert Bullard and David Pellow, and many, many people writing on this ecojustice, climate justice. It is exploding with the next generation. This is what they are really interested in. We’ve been working for twenty years on an ecology and justice series from Orbis Books. We also have on our website an ecojustice hub with many resources. It’s extraordinary.
So in light of this, with the academic movement highlighting these issues. The grassroots—we like to say there’s a field. There’s ten master’s programs now across the country in environment and justice and so on. And this field coming together. So theory and praxis. So, Gerald, I’m going to have you respond along the lines of what’s just been said about ecojustice, about Martin Luther King having this right at his heart as well, with garbage collectors in Tennessee when he was killed. And then we’ll pick it up with Roslyn too. So ecojustice, climate justice.
DURLEY: Well, I think it’s so important, as I said previously, that even in our own community, those of us who are in the faith community, we have a very challenging job to try to speak to climate change. It was not on my radar because we had other priorities in our life—police brutality, institutional racism, political voter suppression. All of those are very real survival issues. And then you have to put survival in its proper perspective. And I used to say, what good is it if we can get the right to vote, the right to buy a house where we can buy, and we’re dead because of climate?
So I had to begin to talk with our parishioners and other people to understand that we’ve got to look at the broader picture, because the climate issue is an equal-opportunity destroyer. The multibillion dollar houses that just burned out there in California, they burned whether they were in the ghetto or whether in—with the wildfires. So we’ve all got to begin to look at a new way of living and a new way of addressing this issue. So in our case, we realize that we were right in what we were doing. We had the Constitution on our side. I think the Constitution is on our side now, for equal rights to—and humanity rights for voting rights. What’s going on down with the Arizona, with the burial situation, those are constitutional rights.
And so those are survival rights. So we had to take it on faith based and give something that’s missing in America today. I think what the faith community really contributes, when you don’t know where to go, faith. It means the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. We don’t know. All of us reach, even in our experimental processes, we reach but we just don’t know. And when you don’t know, you have to step up on faith. That’s just what it is. And sometimes they say there’s a five-letter word that keeps you going. And you used to think it was—it’s not money. It’s not faith. Faith is important. But it’s the touch. And until we begin to touch each other where it’s really a gut issue—and I think climate change now is becoming a gut issue because it’s not white, black, tall, short, gay, or lesbian. This is something that’s impacting all of us.
So we can take the empirical data, and pull that together, and put into people that it becomes real, then we begin to change the lives—then the bees get a break on the planet, the trees get a break on the planet, and everything begins as it was originally designed to work harmoniously together. So to us this is critical and willing to join. And until we do that, we’ll all—as Dr. King said—we’ll all perish—if we will not live together as brothers and sisters we will perish together as fools. So that’s—I think that that’s the imperative that we must begin to involve ourselves with now.
TUCKER: Thank you so much. And, Roslyn, you did a wonderful article, I believe, on the Lummi totem pole coming across the country, and reporting on the effect of climate and justice, of course, on reservations all across North America and in many, many parts of the world. This is an international issue for indigenous peoples. So over to you for the indigenous issues and climate justice and ecojustice.
LAPIER: Yeah. I mean, I guess I’d add that there’s multiple issues, right? So one of the things I would also—as has already been mentioned, yes, climate. The climate crisis is going to impact all of us. But the climate crisis is going to impact some of us more than others. And that’s what climate justice is all about, is trying to think about and address how particular communities are going to be—have greater impact, which is also what ecojustice and environmental justice tries to address as well.
And I think that one of the things that we’ve seen in indigenous communities, both in the United States and Canada, is that because, indigenous communities are primarily in rural areas, these are also the places where most of the natural resources that remain in the United States exist, right? So we kind of see it in both ways, right? We see our home places as being places of natural resource extraction. So we see that local impact of the natural resource extraction. But then we also recognize that that natural resource extraction is impacting the global community, right?
So the more that we extract and the more that we use of fossil fuels is impacting not just us at the local level, but at that larger global level. So much of what we’ve seen in recent years in relation to—for example, in indigenous communities we say protecting, outside of the community they say protesting, right? The protesting of more natural resource extraction, the protesting of not just natural resource extraction, but the building of that infrastructure across sacred areas and through sacred sites, that people are trying to address. And there have been multiple— there have been multiple efforts in the last few years.
So, for example, ten years ago in Canada there was the Idle No More movement that happened that was organized primarily by indigenous women and two-spirit people. More recently here we have seen, again, multiple efforts. But one was Standing Rock. That occurred five years ago. There was an effort there to address, again, both of those things—sort of the natural resource extraction there on the home front, its impacts on the global community, and then also addressing kind of the saving or protecting of sacred sites that were there.
I’ll just add one more thing. That one of the things that we’re seeing recently in the United States and also in other places around the world is a change in public policy in relation to protesting. We have seen a lot of anti-protesting laws occur, especially, again, in some states where there is efforts to address extraction. And some of those anti-protesting laws, I would argue—I’ve written about this as well—I mean, I would argue are also anti-religious laws. Many times when there is a protest that is organized by indigenous people, it is oftentimes not just, quote/unquote, like, “a protest.” It is also religious practice.
One of the things that indigenous people do when they gather for these actions is it always begins with prayer, it always begins with ritual, it always begins with ceremony. Oftentimes before there is even an action, people will bring in religious leaders to sanctify the land, to sanctify the area before that action begins. A lot of times, especially with our young people there, finding these places again, quote/unquote, “of protest,” not as places of protest but of places of religious ritual. They go there for the religious ritual. They go there for the prayer. Yes, this action is happening that is addressing the climate crisis. It’s addressing climate justice. But they’re there for the religion.
And when we have anti-protesting laws that are going to penalize people for coming together, penalize people for being in a specific area, and at the same time it’s a religious activity, then that is potentially also an anti-religious policy. And that’s just something I want to highlight as well.
DURLEY: Yeah. And it’s unconstitutional too.
TUCKER: Thank you.
DURLEY: Yeah. It’s against the Constitution. You have the right to protest.
TUCKER: Absolutely. I just want to pick up one example on an international level of indigenous peoples and also the victimization of protesters, which is all across the world now. But it’s called interfaith—it’s called, sorry—yeah—Interfaith Rainforest Initiative. It’s the Norwegian government has supported it very, very generously for the last five years. It’s a part of UNEP, our Forum on Religion and Ecology, Religions for Peace, and other organizations are working with it.
But what it is doing is the Norwegians said they love their forests. They said we, after giving billions of dollars, literally, over many, many years to forest protection of the rainforest, they said: We can’t do this without the voice of indigenous peoples in the Amazon, in the Congo, and in Indonesia. So they are elevating these voices, and they are saying they must be protected and preserved—their culture, their lifeways, and so on. But they’re also getting the Catholic and Christian groups in Latin America to support them. The pope had an Amazon senate, bringing these leaders from Latin America. There was apologies by the pope and the Patriarch Bartholomew for forced conversion. So this is something very, very important on an international level I wanted to highlight.
DURLEY: That gives hope.
TUCKER: There’s hope.
DURLEY: That gives hope, when you can see that.
TUCKER: Absolutely. And before we maybe go to questions, I want to just take that theme back up to the pope. (Laughs.) The church itself has many problems, as we know. But this particular pope, with Laudato Si’ the encyclical on the environment, is bringing together, as has been eloquently said here, ecology and justice, the planet and people. And that is a new movement in many ways. And he’s calling it integral ecology. The phrase is from Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian in Latin America, the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor, these coming together.
Amitav Ghosh, one of the leading intellectuals and writers in India, is singing the praises of this as a document. Bill McKibben, one of our great environmental leaders, says this—when he came to Yale and spoke a couple years ago—this is the most important document of the twenty-first century. Our environmental lawyer, coming back from the COP in Paris, held it up and said: This is why we got an agreement in Paris, because the moral force was becoming evident after it came to the UN, and so on.
So this particular document, beautiful document, that begins with the science but goes to ecological conversion, and brings in the whole world. And the other world religions have responded very favorably to that. So we have a document. We have movements. And I hope we’ll get into some of the movements. But for this moment, and we’ll also go to those online, a brief question or comment. You name, your affiliation, and you can address it to any or all of the panelists.
Yes, in the back.
HAYWARD: Hi, there. Thank you very much. My name is Susie Hayward. I’m with Harvard Divinity School. And I have a question on Laudato Si’ for you, Rosalyn, in particular. Because Laudato Si’ is a beautiful document. I very much agree with you on that. But of course, the Catholic Church has a very complicated history and role with indigenous communities and with climate connected—climate crisis connected to colonialism and technological advancements and exploitation around the world. So I’m very curious to hear, Rosalyn, your personal response and indigenous response to Laudato Si’ and the role of the Catholic Church as a leader in the climate justice movement.
LAPIER: So, yeah, definitely a complex relationship—(laughter)—with indigenous peoples. So yeah. I mean, I guess I could answer that in several different ways. So, one, there are many indigenous communities who are still seeking an apology, for lack of a better word, from the Catholic Church for cultural genocide around the world. Not just here in North America, but around the world. So that is still a question that—and just recently a group of Canadian indigenous people traveled to the Vatican. I think maybe about a month ago. And one of the issues that they were interested in was kind of addressing that.
I think that there has also been this complicated relationship between the Catholic Church and the United States government in terms, again, of cultural genocide. So indigenous folks here in the United States are also kind of hoping to address something. Last week there was an initial effort that was being made in terms of a piece of new public policy, legislation that was introduced in the House related to a kind of a truth and reconciliation process to begin. So that’s a first step. So one of—OK.
So then the other thing I would say about this is I think that at the grassroots level folks have been talking about sort of what ended up that the pope ended up championing for a long time, as we all know. And so, on the one hand, I think that grassroots people should be applauded for pushing forward that agenda that ultimately leadership is now—is now pushing forward. So I always think it’s good when leadership takes the lead from especially indigenous folks but especially grassroots-level folks. So again, I think grassroots people have been really kind of pushing this for a while.
But I think that once leadership does then make that policy of the institution, it makes all of the difference. It really does. It makes a huge difference of then other religious leaders taking the lead, et cetera. But I just want us not to forget kind of the grassroots level. That is the ones who are really pushing some of these agendas forward, yeah.
TUCKER: Great. And I also want to—sorry—just a quick shout out to feminist theologians. I think Mary Hunt might be here. But many feminist theologians have pushed these issues as well.
DURLEY: We faced the same thing with the Southern Baptists, places like Sojourners, whose Jim Wallis is here. So many of the whites would talk about how great Jesus was or what Jesus did, but they were doing so many discriminatory things that we were going through. And now we see a breakthrough even in that level where they’re coming around and beginning to understand that they were using the theological perspective to keep us in chains that strike—that you are born to be subservient to us, and all that kind of information. So they were—you talk about the Catholic Church and indigenous—but it was right here in America. I’ll never forget the kind of indoctrination that they came in, and we kind of believed in that. But now there’s a much more—we’ve got a common role, particularly around climate change, and other constitutional issues. So it’s not inconceivable.
TUCKER: Thank you. Another question. Yes, over here. Oh, Saffet, I can see you. Nice to see you.
CATOVIC: Yes. How are you doing? My name is Saffet Catovic. I’m from the Islamic Society of North America’s Office for Interfaith Relations and Community Alliances, based in DC Thank you so much for this panel and the wonderful presentations. I know all of our esteemed panelists and great to see you, Mary Evelyn, again, in person this time instead of via Zoom.
My question is simply, the calculus no doubt changed with the Laudato Si’s launch in 2015, and a lot of other religious declarations from religious faith communities, including the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, which I was a part of drafting. We’ve come a long way, but I think I’m finding myself in a situation, I’d like you to comment on it, of one step forward two steps back. The obscene profits of the big oil companies—Aramco now is the number-one valued company in the world. It beat out Apple. There’s a certain level of pessimism that sort of is coming about. No doubt there are efforts that are underway, the UNGA movement hopefully towards passing of a resolution that environmental safety and environmental health are human rights.
But that being said, on the flipside, we have this incredible increase in the production of oil, the extraction of oil and fossil fuels. As peoples of faith and the peoples of no faiths, how do we get the courage to move on? And the declarations have been made. The faith communities have come out with their statements. How do you advise us to continue to move on with the struggle, given those headlines that I’ve just mentioned? Thank you.
TUCKER: While you’re gathering your thoughts, I’ll just say the religious communities have led in the divestment and investment movement, which Bill McKibben helped to launch a number of years back—but not that many, maybe ten. There’s fourteen—is it forty or fourteen—$14 trillion in a divestment now, 40 percent of which has come from religious communities. Started with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, starting with religious auditors saying we don’t want our funds, pension funds, to be in military or drugs or so on. So that has absolutely exploded, the divestment movement from religious communities. But other thoughts. Please, Rama.
RAMAKRISHNA: I would like to react to that, simply to say that it’s like glass half full/half empty situation. We have today, largely because of the kinds of movements that you talked about as divestment and investment, and the encyclical, a range of things, from the religious community has had a profound impact on how the world looks at it. But for every good bit of news that we can talk about, there is a flipside. There is something that is not going right. But being in this arena for a long period of time, I don’t see that necessarily as a negative. What it means is it’s a caution, that you cannot just take commitments on their face value. You need to follow up on them.
One of the things that the pope has done is to use his pontifical academy to constantly bring these various scholars from different arenas to talk about, well, how do we keep track of what is going on? The secretary general, when there is $130 trillion net zero commitment came, he said, well, that commitment is fine. We want to make sure that that is in fact being done. And so, yes, for every good news that we see there is an element of bad news. But my request, or plea, is this: We cannot think that we have made a great deal of progress and things are going to be sorted out. No, they are not. We are really living in a complex world, and complex problems, and we have to constantly be on guard not just about what’s happening in your community, but in your country, and in the world at large.
And the last point I want to make, Mary, is this: the formal processes of negotiation and decision making are very different from the popular movement. There is a lag time. And we need to acknowledge that. But the fact that we’re working so hard to make an impact that is not being carried out should not discourage us. It’s just a question of the tipping point and we need to cross the threshold.
TUCKER: Thank you. So important.
Other—thank you for your question. Yes, please.
IRFAN: I’m Kareem Irfan from Chicago. And I’m affiliated with a council of religious leaders there.
Dr. Durley, the position that you take is so empowering and inspiring when you state that the educational, the scientific, the business, the political, and the faith communities need to come together on a solution in this regard. Being generally the odd man out because I happen to have an engineering background—I’m a lawyer, but I’m also a religious leader and business leader. I am curious to see if you concur with my conclusion that there is a reluctance all over for us beyond acknowledging that you need representation of viewpoints from these five or six communities, that there is a confluence of thought and action that needs to come.
So what I see when I’m at my—speaking to my fellow CEOs is, yes, there is a faith component to it. There is a scientific component to it. And there is the business part to it. And I’ll address to the extent absolutely needed just the business part of it. And I try to bring it out that you cannot segment this. You have to acknowledge that all of these, maybe two or three of these segments, impact each leader at the time. And we need to be bold enough and thoughtful enough to acknowledge that and take actions, recognizing that confluence in between these five or six communities. I’m curious to see what you think of that.
DURLEY: No, I was just saying—I think I even possibly—I was saying that those different organizations, the foundation—because each one of those, whether it’s the engineering, the legal, the business, the professional, the health, they must have ethical and moral decisions about what it is that they do. And if—so if we’re that base, not in the sense that we know everything, but with that base then it can be infused into each of the decisions about what you do around this whole abortion issue, or whatever the issue might be. What are the ethical and the moral practices? So upon all of those, the faith community must be involved in that.
But again, what happens is that the word “fear” comes into place. The fear. Do we lose our particular position as a scientist, as a businessperson? Do we lose our bottom-line investment on this? And the fear is based upon ignorance. And understanding that if they come together and make the decisions, it can all work together, and there can be a win-win situation. And I think that more and more as we see the kinds of things that are happening in the environment, people are beginning to ask questions. And going back to what Mary opened up with, therein your find the hope that I can speak with—we were talking briefly about the oceans and the—earlier about all the plastics that are going into the ocean today. And the corals that are being bleached, where oxygen really comes from.
So we’ve got to be concerned about what he’s saying, but we’ve got to take that and translate it to the everyday person. Everyday people are not really that concerned about this environment or what’s going on. They’re concerned about—they’re concerned about baby formulas. That’s what they’re concerned about. So we can sit in rooms like this and look good and talk good, but until it was translated. So we take it, and whether it’s at the mosque, or at the synagogue, or at the shrine, or wherever it is. We try to take that and say: This is a real issue. And it’s going to come down ultimately to an entirely different lifestyle change.
And America is not ready for a lifestyle change. We’re not ready to give up the gas guzzler. We’re not ready to give up three homes up in the mountains. We want it but we’ve got to—and I think that comes back to decisions. So that’s a business decision. It’s a health decision. It’s a political decision. And certainly, that’s where the faith community, I think, can infuse what it is that we do. And there, we have an opportunity to improve our overall lifestyle.
TUCKER: I would say one of the nodes of change though, as you just said, is health—planetary health. And I would say that every community—I was just reading an article that Bud sent me on the Latino community and their passionate concern for the environment. And along the lines of health and children. I think these are transformative.
OK. A lady here, please.
MCBEE: I’m Barbara Lynn McBee, Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese Buddhist tradition, from Chicago.
I’m struck by your commentary that in the rural areas are where the riches are. And I would like to ask questions about environmental racism. They’re not drilling or mining in the wine country in northern California, which is also quite a rich environmental area. And to your point about what’s happening in Louisiana, I have family there. So they are impacted by what’s now known as cancer alley. I live on proverbial Potawatomi land. And the river that flows there has now become a home to carry garbage back and forth to industries that—we could go on, and on, and on about how industry has moved to what became, historically was, land of color. Yes. So what is the movement for those who haven’t begun or need to begin—how do they begin to address and work in tandem with engineers, attorneys, businesspeople, for the sake of the environment?
TUCKER: Let me go to Roslyn for this, and then whoever.
LAPIER: Well, I mean, I would say—I mean, some of this has already begun, right? And, I mean, I see it most readily in academia. I would argue that many academics today are really interested in addressing the climate crisis, in addressing climate justice. And whether they are in business, or engineering, or in other fields, I think most people that I see in academia—and a lot of folks out here in the audience are from academia—are beginning to think about it. They’re beginning to address it. It’s added to what they’re doing research on, what their students are interested in.
So I think that it is beginning to permeate those fields already. And I think that you’re correct, there are—we can sort of just go down the list and name many places across the United States and kind of across the world that are impacted by environmental racism. I think one of the things that we need to constantly remind ourselves of is that we do hear this narrative, right? We hear this narrative that climate change is a human-created crisis, that it is impacting everyone. And I think that those two kind of statements kind of bring this umbrella of equality over this crisis that is not true. (Laughs.)
Yes, it’s a human-created crisis, but not all humans created this crisis, right? Yes, it is impacting everybody, but it’s impacting some more than others. So I think we always have to remind ourselves when we hear that narrative of sort of, like, let’s have this umbrella equality over this—the entire crisis of saying, wait, wait, take a step back. No. We need to really think about this more critically, and talk about the injustices that are occurring, and making people who are responsible, responsible. Because it’s not everybody who is responsible.
DURLEY: There’s a country-western song by Billy Ray Cyrus that says, “all gave some, but some gave all.”
TUCKER: Yeah, that’s beautiful. I would say also, in twenty-five years, we’ve had interfaith coming together. That wasn’t true even thirty years ago. The interdisciplinary that you’re all calling for now is very much coming together, because we realize we can’t do it without the UN, without policy, business, and so on. And this issue that Roslyn and we’re all discussing is one of the great ways forward, because it brings things together.
Now, I see a lady over there, yes. And then one behind. OK, that’s fine. And then there’s one in front.
DUBENSKY: My name is Joyce Dubensky. I’m with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
And my question, Dr. Durley, is really about the constitutional right to have a climate that works for all of us. Where do you find that? How do you connect the Constitution?
DURLEY: We’re all created in the image of God with certain unalienable rights for all American citizens that are part of that. And I think it’s unconstitutional, like, when you go into North Carolina and you’ve got the largest hog industry, where they’re cleaning up all those hogs but they’re putting it back into the water and destroying the people’s right. They went before the courts. They have a constitutional right. Even when you talk about chlorinated water, those are constitutional rights that are—in certain communities that are negatively disproportionately impacting those individuals, they have a constitutional right for clean energy, clean water, clean air.
But because of the legal system and because of the wrangling, if you will, the Constitution is not allowing those people to get justice issued for those rights that they have a right to as citizens of the country. So we’re using that now, and we’re organizing our communities to say we’ve got to stand together to block these kinds of issues. But you get—you get all of those political—you can get those constitutional rights based on the Constitution. And that’s what we’re using when we see—and even now, and I think it’s going to become much more reality when it starts hitting the money in America, when it starts hitting—we always say, follow the money.
You take Lake Mead right now is a hundred feet down out there in Nevada. What’s giving most—when Las Vegas starts to close down at 8:00 a.m., and people can’t gamble and it starts to go down, you’re going to see other—you’re going to see some real change in policies that are going to make an impact. The multimillion-dollar houses that burned down in California a few weeks ago, what happened—they said, we can’t stop them from burning. The wildfires are coming. But we don’t have enough water. We’ve not conserved enough water here to stop that. Now you’ve got people of power, influence, money who are going to say, wait, we’ve got to change our lifestyle and start mitigating climate change.
But it’s all under what we can take the Constitution to make it law. We understood that you can put the civil rights bill together, human rights, that’s a law. But until we start changing it in our minds and in our hearts, it’s just another law on the books. But I think it’s happening so real now, this effort that is starting to impact all of us, whether they are very wealthy or not so wealthy.
RAMAKRISHNA: If I could add something very quickly. I think the last point that you made is a very powerful one. It is easy enough, although it is difficult in one sense, to have these things codified. But unless we change that codification is not going to make that much difference. But having said that, as with the work of the faith-based organizations on climate issue, for example, the idea of a constitutional right for environmental protection is fairly new. We have seen the first generational rights as political and economic. The second being social and the third being environmental. And now we have the UN Human Rights Commission coming along and saying that there is a basic, fundamental right to a climate in which we can live. It is now recognized that it’s something that we work from UNEP, and working with the human rights body.
There are a number of countries in the world that are now amending their constitutions to include this. And as we have seen, there are a whole lot of climate litigation that are based on this basic principle, though it is not codified. They are taking the matter to the courts, and the courts are reacting to it very favorably to the claimants, that they suffered because of the climate impacts, yeah?
TUCKER: This right to a healthy environment is in some constitutions already. And, as Rama just said, like the Juliana case of twenty-one youth here in this country is suing on that basis. There’s a film I recommend, just came out, Youth v. Gov. Powerful. And the rights of nature is being used around the world.
OK, there was a lady over here. Right there. Thank you, Rama.
MOHR: My name is Robin Mohr and I’m with the Friends World Committee for Consultation.
And Quakers approved the Kabarak call to peace and ecojustice at a Quaker—a world gathering of friends in Kenya in 2012. But we know that even among Friends, there are a variety of opinions and the statements at conferences is one thing and the actual work of local congregations is something else. And I’m wondering what you see as a role for faith communities, whether that’s local congregations or denominational leadership, in helping people cope with the now-inevitable effects of climate change? I see one is around disaster preparedness and response in dealing with the displaced peoples and economic and environmental destruction of the growing number of natural disasters—or, so-called natural disasters. But I wonder if you see there are other roles for faith communities in helping people move through this next generation.
DURLEY: Yeah. Everything starts with a thought. Before I answer your question, I had to think about it. And my thoughts became my words. And my words become my behavior. And my behavior becomes my values. And my values become my destiny. The end product, but it started with a thought. So when I’m in my community and talking with, whether it’s a congregation or a large group, or particularly when I’m speaking with Black Lives Matter young people, who tell me we want to do exactly as you did in the ’60s. And I have to tell them, you can’t do that because it’s 2022. A different world. So they have to change their thought.
So the thought now is rather than start out—for some reason in this movement, the climate/environmental movement, we start off talking about natural disasters and the this—I don’t. I start on the other side. That this is what we’ve got to do from a positive kind of thinking that it is not all over. Now, someone might say that’s pollyannaish, but if we keep saying, well, this village burned down or ten thousand people have died, and this. So the thought pattern starting with one brick can make a wall, and a wall can make a building. So start with the one—maybe one congregation, one neighborhood. And begin to say these are the kind of—this is the reality. But this is what we’ve got to do to mitigate what is going on now.
And two words made us strong in the Civil Rights movement. Two words kept us going when it didn’t appear that we were going to make it. Two words. We were willing to sacrifice and risk. We live in a world where people don’t want to sacrifice too much. They’ll talk a sacrificial mouth game, but when it comes down to really sacrificing I got to look out for me, myself, and mine, and my company, and my business, my family. But sacrificing—and then what am I willing to risk to do that? And to be willing to risk I’ve got to go beyond my own little citadel. I’ve got to—I’m risking this, but I’m willing to sacrifice that. Then we all win. So it’s a matter of each one at that local level. That’s how I tend to look at it.
TUCKER: And I want to—thank you, Gerald. That’s great. I want to say, our students at Yale, like students across the country. Are in deep anxiety about the environment, about climate, about everything. So we’ve put up on our website, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, a section of eco-anxiety. In just a short period of time, all kinds of resources. You go under resources. Look for it. But one of our students is training to be a minister in this area. Another is going up to what was formerly Bangor Theological Seminary this summer to plan rituals of mourning and despair. Joanna Macy’s work on despair and empowerment in the nuclear age is doing this as well. That’s where religious communities will really help the despair, disempowerment, depression and so on.
Yes, Homi and then Eugene.
LAPIER: While the mic is getting there I’ll just add, I mean, I think that one of the things that communities can do is change public policy or strengthen public policy. The way the world works—whether it’s at the international level or at the local level— we rely on what our public policy says and we can use it to our benefit. If it’s not written down in our public policy, we can’t show up some place and wave it in somebody’s face. So I think any way that you can change public policy or strengthen public policy is only to the benefit of everyone—especially around environmental health issues.
TUCKER: So we have time for two quick questions, which we’ll take together, so that the panelists—so let’s keep it short.
GANDHI: My name is Homi Gandhi, and I represent FEZANA, which stands for Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.
Zoroastrian faith from the very beginning has been talking about the environmental aspects and has revered all the elements of nature. What you talked about, sir, about good thoughts, good words, and good deeds are enshrined in the tenets of Zoroastrian faith as—(speaks in a foreign language). I just received this, and I’d like you to read this—I’d like to read this and share your comments on this. And that’s on water. It is interesting and thought provoking that the water which my grandfathers saw it in river, my father saw it in well. We saw it in tap, our children see it in bottle. Where will our grandchildren see it, in capsule? If we still neglect, it will be seen only in tears. Your thoughts, please.
DURLEY: Did you say Rastafarian?
DURLEY: Let me tell you what, I have something on that right now. Just so happens. Zoroastrianism, who created the water and the plants? Who yoked the swiftness of the wind and the motion to the cloud? For I beheld Ahura Mazda as the premier source of creation.
TUCKER: Thank you so much. That was a beautiful statement, lovely response. And I just want to say, on the Forum on Religion and Ecology, we have many of these statements. We’re going to have a new section on Zoroastrian, but the Asian religions are there, the western religions, indigenous religions. And there are engaged projects all around the world. If you’re working on one, let us know. The lists are growing by leaps and bounds.
OK, we’ve got all kinds of people but we have—we’re getting the signal to wrap it up. Eugene, can you briefly wrap it up? OK, Eugene Rivers.
RIVERS: Eugene Rivers, Boston, The Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies.
I want to pick up—my question revolves a real basic thing. Reverend Durley talked about what happened in the Civil Rights movement. One of the things that was a major game changer for that movement was the introduction of culture and music. I’m going to make this quick. Where for the white religious peace world, Bono was—that was all he wrote, Bono. Now, Bono didn’t play in the hood. I didn’t know if you all didn’t know that. (Laughter.) But Bono wasn’t big in the hood, right? How do we connect, as the Civil Rights movement did, the art and the culture so that this discourse that happens here, which is pretty socially anonymous, filters down to touch the community that Reverend Durley talked about? That’s it.
TUCKER: Thank you. That’s a super question. I think the arts are exploding in this area. They are at Yale. But I think the music will be transformative. On that happy note, I really want to thank, again, the Council of Foreign Relations for sponsoring this. And I want to thank each of our panelists for your marvelous comments and your life work. So let’s thank the panelists. (Applause.) And now there’s a half-an-hour break, mercifully. And then to come back for a serious topic of the decline of democracy at 10:30.
DURLEY: Can I say this? We say this at the close: don’t bend, don’t bow, and don’t break.
TUCKER: Oh, I love it. That’s great.
NINAN: Hi, everybody. Welcome. It’s great to have everyone here. My name is Reena Ninan. I am the founder of Good Trouble Productions. I’m a journalist as well, and I’m excited to be talking about a not happy topic, the decline of democracy. We’re going to have an incredible panel here today. I just wanted to introduce them, as you have their extensive bios.
Sitting right next to me is Melissa Rogers, who is executive director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the White House. Next to Melissa is Lisa Sharon Harper, who’s the founder and president of Freedom Road, and next to her is Yascha Mounk, who’s a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you, guys, so much for joining us today.
And I just want to remind everyone, those of you watching virtually as well, there’s going to be time for questions. So please feel free to start submitting those at any point and we’ll take them as well.
So it is very sad and depressing to have to tell you this is now the fifteenth year of democracy being in decline. In fact, according to the Freedom House, a 2021 report called Nations in Transit found that eighteen countries around the globe are—democracy can be found to be in decline and the number of countries designated as democracies are now at the lowest point that we’ve ever seen.
We’re going to kick off and talk about this situation about how faith affects democracy, Melissa, I’d love to start off with you, coming from the White House perspective. Twenty years ago, it was President George W. Bush who actually started the first White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and this is what President Bush said. He said that government cannot be replaced by the efforts of religious and other community organizations but government can and should welcome these organizations as partners, and we know the Obama/Biden administration has continued on with that.
What role do you see government playing in helping to start that conversation and move it forward?
ROGERS: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. It’s great to be here. Great to see all of you, and I just want to thank Irina and all the staff of Council on Foreign Relations for their terrific work and bringing us together for these gatherings, which I know we’re all really excited to be back in person. So thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations and thank you to my co-panelists here and to you as well, Reena.
I’m glad that you focused on that history because this office, White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has that bipartisan tradition. So that helps us to bring people together across lines. When I’m going to more conservative audiences, I make sure to make it clear that President Bush got this office started and President Obama and now President Biden carried it forward.
Another part of the office’s work that has been a helpful factor is—and an instrumental factor is that we work together to serve people in need. I haven’t met anybody yet that we couldn’t find common ground with, even if they may not endorse all the administration’s priorities.
We are able to form groups that are interested in working together to serve people in need and one of the—I’ll just give an example, like, this year on the organizing to welcome Afghan allies. That was something where we saw people coming together across lines of party, lines of religion, lines of ideology, to serve, to help these people who had helped us in Afghanistan, to welcome to them to our communities and to help them get resettled.
So the office continues to work in that fashion and I don’t think anybody thought that this work was going to be easy when it started. It’s even harder now but even more important because of the threats to democracy.
So we’re working across a range of issues now. Helping with refugees I’ve already mentioned, but also strengthening the voter protections and so many other ways. And so I—that work continues and is very helpful.
One thing I want to say, especially at the top, is with this terrible, heinous attack that happened in Buffalo that has been just heartbreaking for all of us, the president was there yesterday and speaking to this issue and talking about the evil that it represents and the need for us to do everything possible to deal with the hate that we see in our country and around the world.
So that is another area where we bring people together to try to work at not just trying to respond to hate incidents and domestic terrorism but also to try to prevent that and get at some of the root causes.
NINAN: I want to talk to you a little bit later about those root causes and how it’s affecting democracy.
Lisa, I want to turn to you. You actually have a new book out just released a few months ago. It’s in your hand right there—Fortune. (Laughter.) It’s fascinating. You’re looking at ten generations of your own family history, going back to 1682 Maryland.
HARPER: That’s right.
NINAN: Pretty remarkable. And one of the questions you ask in this book is how did we get here and how do we repair what race broke in the world. How does race in that conversation that you’ve had in this book with your own family history—how do you feel that affects a democracy in decline?
HARPER: Oh, great question. Well, when I was beginning the research for the book, the thing that really struck me was when I came across the person named Fortune Gay McGee, who was born in 1687, Somerset, Maryland, Eastern Shore, and as a result, she was actually born into the very first race laws that hit America, that were formed on this land. Of course, we were not America at the time.
But those first race laws were formed in relationship to mixed-race children that were being birthed in Virginia first and then in Maryland. And they had a choice at that time. They could have actually moved the colonies into a truly capitalist system where you now have a fee for service because they had a confusion of caste that was happening around that time.
But instead of doing that, what they did was they shifted how citizenship was determined. Citizenship gave cover and allowed people not to be able to be enslaved. So, at first, citizenship, according to English law, came through the line of the father and that, therefore, these mixed-race kids who had white fathers were claiming, I’m a citizen. I should not be able to be enslaved.
And so instead of transitioning into a full capitalist society, they just shifted where citizenship came from and now it comes from the mother in perpetuity. That is what created race-based slavery, and they did it with the sanction of the church at that time. And in Maryland, it was a slightly different story but it ended in the same way and, as a result, my seven times great grandmother was indentured and two successive generations that came after her were also indentured—not enslaved, because their mother was a white woman, an Irish—actually, an Ulster Scot woman, and her father was Senegalese.
And so because of that union they could not be enslaved because she was white. Original white privilege right there. And then—but they were definitely going to be indentured because he was Black. And they were fortunate because they were not enslaved. But you see the confluence of gender, race, and citizenship in that very first law and you see the beginning of the breakdown of true democracy in that very first law.
NINAN: I think so often recently, in recent memory, you think about the January 6 events and you can’t—I mean, that situation in democracy was sort of very much a wakeup call for so many people. How do you believe that day has affected the decline of democracy?
HARPER: January 6 will go down in history, I believe, as the day when Evangelicals began to see the impact of their inaction and their actions over the last century and a half since the Civil War. I think that we see that the movement of Evangelicalism in Europe, particularly 1600s, 1700s, it was actually a democratizing movement.
The movement of Evangelicalism democratized the Christian faith. It took the Christian faith out of the hands of the leaders and explicitly put it into the hands of the—what they call the house fathers—ironically, patriarchy, but there you go. Put it into the hands of the normal people. They could read the Bible for themselves. They could actually interpret it for themselves and have their own faith not ruled or owned by any leader.
But when it came to America, you had two great awakenings. The first great awakening said nothing about race even though at that time we had slavery and we also had already had— begun to have genocide and the naming of indigenous tribes as savage. But—(audio break)—that actually began that to reignite that liberative spirit within Evangelicalism through the creation of the Black church.
So the Black church itself was a protest movement. It was, I believe, the spirit of God rising up and saying, this is not what I meant to do and to say, no, people should be able to pray together and kneel at the same altar and take the same communion not based on race.
And so it was—it was the spirit rising up in Black bodies who marched out of that Methodist Church in Philadelphia and started to two big first streams of Christian faith that exists to this day, the Black church, and also the Black stream of the Episcopal Church.
My mother just recently became a member of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, which was that very first Black Episcopal Church that came out of that walkout, and I’m going there now. So it’s a really beautiful, beautiful congregation.
But what we see there is we see that the Evangelical movement in its earliest days, in its seeds, was a democratizing movement and it—that lasted all the way through the Civil War. It actually was one of the things that propelled us into abolition in the Civil War and created the radical Republicans that came after that established the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
But it was in the twentieth century when fundamentalism mixed with Evangelicalism and then you really—really, what it was, was fundamentalism rising out of that same soil and then kind of taking the moniker Evangelical that we begin to see, I believe, the corruption of the faith. And that—it is especially true when we hit the 1980s, the 1990s, when you have the union of the Evangelical wing of the church with a party.
So now the Evangelical faith has now become politicized and that’s how we can get to January 6. We can have a party manipulate a people, a faith family, into uniting their faith with anything that the party says it wants to do, even insurrection, even racism, even all of the things. (Laughs.)
NINAN: Yeah. I want to ask you about—I want to come back to you in just a bit. I want to talk to you a little bit further, deeper about the Evangelical community.
But, Yascha, I want to turn to you because divisions in democracies are particularly difficult to overcome. My parents are from India, and I think about the largest democracy in the world and the numerous divisions in that country. How do you work it to where these divisions in a democracy can be overcome, whether it’s ethnic or religious?
MOUNK: Yeah. Well, that’s a really deep question. I just read a book, The Great Experiment, which is about that, and I think the starting point is to recognize what we’re trying to do today in the United States but in so many other democracies in the world as well is actually a historically unprecedented starting point—an historically unprecedented experiment.
So in countries like the United States society has always been diverse but democracy was not diverse. At the founding of American institutions many groups were excluded, some in the most extreme ways, as you just described. In other democracies, like Germany, where I grew up, those countries became democratic at a moment when they had become much more homogeneous than they’d historically been because of the Holocaust and the crimes of the first half of the twentieth century.
And so now that they’ve become much more diverse because of immigration of the last decade, they, too, find themselves at a new moment because what both are now trying to do is to build these deeply ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that actually treat people as equals, and there’s no real precedent for that in the United States, in western Europe, or in other parts of the world.
And so I think before we can—so when I started to think about how do I write this book, how do I answer this question of how do we make this experiment succeed, how do we ensure that we get along, that our society doesn’t fall apart in the heinous ways in which so many diverse societies in the history of the world have fallen apart. I started out by thinking, well, let me look at a country that does everything right and I get to spend some time there—that sounds great—and then I can write a nice narrative about all the things they’re doing and say we should just emulate them.
But that really doesn’t exist. There really isn’t a place where we can go to and say, hey, they’re doing everything right. We just want to copy what they do. So I think we actually have to start to answer the question you’re asking by looking at some of the reasons why it’s really difficult to build diverse democracies and diverse societies and that can then allow us to see where we are today and what we should do in a kind of new light.
And there’s three basic difficulties that I point to in the book. The first is that by human nature—and as theologians many of you will have your own account of human nature, but I think this is part of it and I hope it doesn’t conflict too strongly with your theology—we have a deep instinct to build groups and to favor the members of those groups over everybody else.
So I teach at Johns Hopkins, which is a wonderfully diverse campus, and my students think of themselves as some of the most tolerant people in the world and, in certain respects, they are and others, perhaps, not.
But when I ask them whether a hotdog is a sandwich and have them debate that question for ten minutes—(laughter)—the people who say that a hotdog is a sandwich start to discriminate against the people who say that the hotdog is not a sandwich. That is this universal human instinct to say, hey, I define myself by some kind of criterion, but I might be incredibly altruistic to the people who belong to that group but I’m also capable of real cruelty to the people who don’t, right.
And then, secondly, we’ve seen in history that most of the times that gets activated not along the lines of whether or not a hotdog is a sandwich but along the lines of ethnicity, religion, culture, nationality, language. Those are the most powerful kinds of human markers and lines of division that have often been used to justify some of the worst crimes, wars, and civil wars and genocides and forms of ethnic cleansing.
And so we know that when we have a deeply ethnically and religiously diverse society that makes it harder because that activates this in group instinct even more strongly, right.
Then the third difficulty is that as a great believer in democracy I started off thinking, well, democratic institutions are the answer to this and in certain ways they are, and I argue for that. But in one particular respect, it also makes it harder because in a monarchy I don’t have any political power and you don’t have any political power, and so if you have more kids or there’s more people coming into the society who look like you rather than me it doesn’t really affect my political standing. And democracy is always a search for majorities, and so if I was used to being the majority and I had this sense that suddenly more people who look like you are coming in, and you’re part of the population that is growing more numerous, that also has implications for how much political power I can have. And we saw in Buffalo what it means when people act on the fears that that can elicit, right. And so those are the real difficulties of building diverse democracies.
Now, ironically, I think that a recognition of these difficulties can also make it easier for us to find solutions and to be sanguine about our ability to make progress because what I see in this conversation is that lots of people start off with a kind of naiveté about the nature of this project, because it should be easy.
How hard should it be to get along? How hard should it be to like your neighbor or how to be—not to be a bigot, or a racist, or somebody who hates people on the basis of a religious belief, and that’s what makes it very easy to look at the very real problems of injustice as we have today and to despair and to say, look, we’re failing at this easy task. There must be something uniquely wrong with us and how can we possibly make progress.
I think when you place the difficulties of our society today in the context of all the diverse societies in the history of the world that have gone wrong, of our own history, which was a lot worse than what we’re seeing today despite the challenges we have now, you can also start to recognize the progress and you can start to see how living up to the best of our ideals more fully can be part of the answer, how we can actually be sanguine about the fact that despite real challenges the United States is a more just society today that it was fifty years ago, and we can push to make it more just in the coming decades as well.
NINAN: Can you point to a country or an area where there is diverse religious or ethnic differences but they’re able to bridge that gap or push for it? Is there a situation or a circumstance you can—in your research?
MOUNK: Look, so some countries are doing a little bit better than others. But I really don’t think that there is this one place where we can look to emulate it, and that’s partially because the places that are doing a little bit better have conditions which make it slightly simpler than it does in the United States.
So for me, it’s—you can say a few things about the background conditions, right. Certainly, what helps is to have rapid economic growth, particularly in the living standards for average people, right. I think it’s easier to say—if you feel frustrated, if you feel like I didn’t get from life what I wanted and I feel that my children are going to do worse than me, and there’s a neighbor coming in who has a nicer house and a bigger car and who comes from somewhere else, it’s very easy to say, well, why do they have that and I don’t. There’s something wrong here, right.
If you feel like, hey, I’m pretty content with my life, I feel like I’ve made progress in my life, I feel like I’m relatively affluent and I’m pretty optimistic for my children, it’s much easier to say, oh, well, the neighbor has a bigger house and a nicer car but that’s fine. I’ll invite him over for dinner, right. So I think having that is important. I think having universal welfare state institutions, so institutions which makes sure that when you get sick or when you unexpectedly lose your job that’s not a calamity, that you have a way to get back on your feet, that you don’t go into medical bankruptcy, but also have institutions which encourage us to have solidarity with each other rather than distinguishing between us on the basis of race or religion so that we don’t have a sense that we have to fight because if you get something I won’t get it, and vice versa. That’s an important background information.
NINAN: That economic component is really fascinating. I want to ask you, Melissa, about America in the 1950s is not America in 2022. Very different. In fact, I think it was Mr. Durley in the last panel who said he had some folks from Black Lives Matter come up and say, we want to fight like you did in the 1960s, and he said, no, this is not the 1960s. Times have changed.
How do you feel the Biden and Harris administration is going to push forward in this moment to deal with democracy in the decline?
ROGERS: Yeah. Well, it’s a big challenge, and one of the things that the president has been insistent on is to make sure that our own government looks like America and that includes a lot of—we’ve had an incredible record on getting diversity into the ranks of the federal workforce—the president has worked very intently on that—into judicial appointments, people of color, LGBTQ people, people of different ethnicities, people of different religions, and that—and, of course, our now wonderful new Supreme Court justice.
So that push has been really key and I’m always inspired when I walk down the hallways and see that reflected in all of my colleagues because that makes a difference when you are actually represented in government. And then, we worked on a number of other things in this area included, as I said earlier, strengthening voter rights protections, which are absolutely central.
The sacred right to vote, we know, is—that’s an idea that we have in our heads but how do we make it real for people, especially people whose votes are being suppressed. And so the president has signed an executive order on that encouraging federal agencies to do all that they can to expand and promote access to the ballot, also called for passage of legislation, the Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment.
Of course, we know we’ve got our challenges there in getting that passed and so the president has also called for adjustments to the filibuster to make sure that we protect the sacred right to vote. There’s also been a lot of work—I just want to lift up one area, tailing on your last exchange there, about dealing with this problem of not having equity on religious and racial matters and other matters. And one of the things on the first day that President Biden did was rescind the Muslim ban of the previous administration, which was just such an atrocious reminder of the entrenchment of the idea that some faiths were better than others in the United States of America, and other faiths could just be discriminated against in this horribly, blatant way.
So that, of course, has gotten our attention and we’ve been working very hard through a series of executive orders and other policies to ensure that there is equity and looking at, for example, workplace policies that—the thing that people miss sometimes is that workplace policies are very accommodating often of a Christian majority. We can have our holidays off. We can pray and have articles of our faith around.
If you are another faith, your holidays—you have to go through a whole difficult application process to get your holidays off. You do not have an—the workplace is not set up for you to pray five times a day if you need to do that.
And so we’ve been looking at those policies as well and saying what can we do to try to fix those policies. We had a number of those issues with people of the Sikh religion in dealing with PPE policies and their beards and not being able to comply with some of the conventional PPE requirements.
So we were trying to look—work through that with OSHA and HHS and other requirements. So it’s recognizing that the baselines are set up in a way that may—they may look like they’re equal but they’re not really allowing everybody to practice their faith freely so how do we get at that. And then, of course, working, as I said earlier, on preventing this hate crimes and discrimination and harassment, which is so important.
So there are all kinds of things that we need to do to make sure that we make progress. But I think, as the president said yesterday, part of it is coming out and saying, as Yascha was saying earlier, that there is a problem. We’ve got real problems and we can’t ignore them. There’s a poison running through our society of this hate, and we have to name it and say that it has no place, and silence is complicity. If we are silent, we are just allowing the problem to continue.
So how do we use the White House, as the president and Vice President Harris want to, to make sure that we bring people together and galvanize people around this message of reaching this kind of equity that we’ve really lacked for our history and making progress on that? Those are some of the things that we’re working on.
NINAN: I think this administration has done—I mean, just look at the numbers—of having people who look more like America.
NINAN: I mean, it’s not a matter of opinion if you look at the numbers, and somebody who’s Sikh with a beard who has been affected by this you might not realize unless you’re working with them—you have them in your administration—making policy saying this is a community that is hugely important and this is how they’re struggling. It’s a great point.
Lisa, I want to ask you a little bit, going back to the Evangelical community, because I know as a journalist when we cover politics I feel like the one time we talk about the Evangelical community is every presidential cycle, every election they are—and I think people have their sort of stereotypes of what this community looks like.
I think they have far reach. Nobody will deny that. How do you think the Evangelical community is affecting democracy and, particularly, when it comes to January 6 was there any sort of a wakeup moment for Evangelicals when they watched that day unfold on television?
HARPER: Yeah, I do think that there has been. Evangelicals in America are not a monolith. That’s the first thing that needs to be said.
NINAN: And I think often we think of it as being a monolith.
HARPER: Absolutely. Right. We think of it almost like a club, the Evangelical club or the Evangelical voting bloc. But, actually, it is incredibly diverse and a large portion—larger than you would think—of Evangelicals are actually Evangelicals of color, and Evangelicals of color are very different politically. They vote differently.
I’m not the person who is the expert on that. The person to have for that would be Robbie Jones or it would be—Michael Emerson is another great person to have next year, if he’s not already on the docket today.
But what I can say from my experience, is that when you ask the question of what does it mean to be Evangelical today after January 6, I think what you’re seeing is, you’re seeing a wakeup call to many Evangelicals who actually would have considered themselves moderate or even right of center before January 6, and I think what’s happening is there’s beginning to be a reckoning with the level of complicity in their silence in the past.
I took part in—one of the things that Freedom Road has been doing over the last several years has been—I’m consulting with various organizations, big national organizations—and one of them that we’ve been working with has been the Carter Center, and the Carter Center hosted in December, with Freedom Road, a gathering of institutional leaders within the Evangelical world, and there were several different sectors represented with all of these institutions.
And the question over the course of our two days together online, Zoom—thank you, Zoom—was how have we been complicit. How have we contributed to the deep division in America and in the church right now? How has our inaction, how has our silence, how have the things we’ve said, how has our theology, how have we helped contribute to building the wall of hostility that Paul talked about in Ephesians—Ephesians 2:14?
And what struck me was, first of all, in several of the groups—actually, in one group, in particular, the influencers group, there was an enormous sense of trauma, actually, that many of these people, mostly white men, were feeling, what Michael Emerson has now begun to call—he and his researchers have begun to call betrayal trauma, that they feel betrayed by their own faith, by their own faith communities.
And so there was a sense of not even really being able to put together a coherent sentence because they didn’t really know how to interpret what they’ve been through since January 6 in their own congregations. Other groups could actually trace back to actual decisions they had made as the leaders of their institutions, that those decisions, when they were honest with themselves, they said, I have made decisions that got us here.
So I think—and that’s on the leadership level. I don’t think it’s trickled down to the Fox News-watching level yet. (Laughs.) But it’s still there. It’s happening and it’s happening within denominations.
I watched Michael Emerson give an amazing talk at one denomination’s midyear conference and there was a sense of an a-ha when he said the majority of white practicing Christians, that’s white people who say, I’m Christian and go to church at least once a week. Y’all know them. Y’all are probably them. You know what I mean? Like, this is the majority.
The majority of Christians in America, according to his sociological study, are actually not worshipping Jesus. He actually said, sociologically, we can see that majority of white practicing Christians are actually worshiping something that he calls “the religion of whiteness” and that religion of whiteness, he says, has totems and the totems are the flag and Jesus, usually put side by side, and you could see those totems on January 6.
At this denominational meeting there was this oh, my God, like, a breath, an inhalation, of ahh, that’s what we’ve been encountering.
NINAN: Do you feel they got it? They understood within—
HARPER: There’s a—yes.
NINAN: —within the Evangelical community?
HARPER: Yes. I think that there is an a-ha happening right now and I think that that a-ha actually has made Evangelicals, and not only Evangelicals but actually white—the white church in America more open to hearing the truth about themselves and seeking the truth about themselves than ever before. And the reason is because right now that sector of the church, that stream of the church that has been completely taken up not only by the Republican Party but also by white Christian nationalism, is now driving the whole nation off of the democratic cliff into fascism.
And so people can see this. People understand something’s wrong and we are—it is—we are beholden for the sake of the nation to figure it out.
NINAN: Yascha, I want to turn to you and ask you, your latest book is called The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. You give me a little optimism there on the how we can endure. I want to ask you, how do you feel that democracies can endure? What have you learned from your research?
MOUNK: Let me step back for a moment because I think this is a really interesting conversation but also I’m a little troubled by the way we talk about each other. So you all are religious leaders. I’m not a religious person.
But I think that the starting point of interfaith work, as I understand it, is to try and have a charitable account of each other and a charitable account of what people believe, what drives them in their religion, of how they perceive the world even though we might have doctrinal differences, right.
And I have to say that I’m very concerned about many of the things that are going on in the United States and I’m very concerned about January 6 and I’m very concerned about what I call a rise of authoritarian populists who don’t believe in the basics of our political institutions.
I’m also concerned about the way in which elites in this country, of which, as a fellow of this wonderful institution, I definitely am one, tend to talk about the rest of the country, about the way in which, perhaps, some of you look down on each other or look down on the rest, about the way in which we like to call them names and say that they’re all bigots or racists.
And so I find it troubling to say that some sociology professor has done a study and determined that people who believe themselves to be practicing Christians are, in fact, just worshiping something like whiteness. I think that that is, perhaps, falling foul of its own kind of tendency to say we here are the enlightened people. This is our group, the enlightened people, and everybody who disagrees with us can be characterized in the worst possible ways.
Now, I think what’s true is that there’s always a danger with any kind of identity that you describe yourself by the most noble version of it, but you’re actually driven by something else. And I think it’s true, probably for many white Evangelicals as well as for members of many other faiths, that what’s actually driving you is a set of cultural and ethnic attributes, where a part of a particular demographic group, in a particular part or region of a country, and we have sort of solidarity with each other. And the sort of label we use for that is a religion even actually what’s driving it is a much more basic set of atavistic hatreds in the way in which, a very peaceful religion like Buddhism can be the avatar for terrible ethnic cleansing and violence in a place like Myanmar, right. It’s not because of a religion. It’s because it’s being used in this kind of insincere way.
NINAN: So, Yascha, I want to—
MOUNK: But that, I think, should make us reflect a little bit about the terms of a conversation and what we—how we need to reconceptualize some of the basic terms of a conversation to have greater respect for each other and one of the—
NINAN: Yes. Yes. So go ahead. Please go ahead. Yeah.
HARPER: I’d like to respond.
HARPER: The terms of the conversation that you are proposing are the terms that have been the conversation for the last four hundred years. The terms of the conversation that you are proposing are the kind of terms that create a false equality between the morality and the actual politics of actual people.
NINAN: So, this is sort of the point, I think, we are, in many ways in our country of people feeling something so passionately, feeling that there might be an awakening, another group feeling isolated—not understanding where the other person is necessarily coming from and feeling isolated.
How do we, as a global community, religious thought leaders, people who care, in essence, in the work that they do about humanity—where do you believe we are moving that gives you hope and optimism that democracy will survive and will thrive?
MOUNK: Well, again, I really think that—(inaudible)—we sometimes need to change the ways in which we’re speaking and I think to imply that the way that I speak about the world is the same as people spoke three hundred years ago—
HARPER: That’s not what I said.
MOUNK: —is just unfair.
HARPER: That’s not what I said.
MOUNK: But let me talk about one thing. So if I make myself unpopular let me make myself even more unpopular. (Laughter.) But I think that the idea is to have real debates here, right.
NINAN: Oh, OK.
MOUNK: We’ve rightly been condemning for the last couple of days the conspiracy theory of a great replacement, right—a baseless and terrible theory, which, clearly, helped to motivate the terrorist who killed people in Buffalo a couple of days ago.
I’m struck by the fact that a way of talking about the United States has been accepted by the United States Census Bureau, by journalists across the political spectrum. It’s one thing that liberals and conservatives, that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, and it’s been accepted by many religious leaders, and I think it’s something that from a philosophically liberal perspective, like I have it, or from most religious perspectives like you have it, should be rejected, and that is the idea that the way to think—one fundamental way to think about the United States is a division between whites and people of color, that you can project the demographic changes in the United States from now for the next couple of decades so that the United States Census Bureau comes to the conclusion that we’re going to be majority minority by 2045, and that this is likely to have real political implications, so that because Republicans tend to have more white voters and Democrats tend to have more non-white voters you can predict that this is really going to help the Democratic Party.
All of those three things are widely believed in the United States and presented as fact, even including by some government institutions in certain contexts, and I think that that is actually just as wrong and quite close to that conspiracy theory. So let me explain to you why that’s wrong and why especially religious leaders should reject it.
NINAN: You’ve got to sort of wrap it up. I want to make sure we have room for—hold that thought. I want to make sure that—I know the debate is pretty hot. I want to make sure that we’ve got enough time for people here as well for conversation.
I want you guys to know we’ve got mics open. Feel free to raise your hand if you’ve got a question, and if you will say your name, your institution, and where you are coming from and also, virtually, we’re ready to take your questions as well.
Yes, right over here.
RIVERS: Thank you. I want to be very modulated. My wife made me take my medication this morning, right? But I needed it today, right?
Sir, my question is there is a robust body of historiographic literature, David Brion Davis to Genovese, across the landscape, which, fundamentally—any detailed reading of Genovese, Davis, et al., fundamentally, your propositions are incorrect and violate—and violate, and this—I got a question coming—violate the basic facts of the history of slavery.
It’s not an interethnic thing. The model that America is driven by some interethnic difference of opinion and if the Blacks could just act better and be more generous and that somehow we could resolve a fundamental contradiction, which is at the heart of what happened on January 6, which was a white supremacist violence—violent. I mean insurrectional initiative.
My question is how do you align your assertions with the vast body of scholarly research at every level? There is not one major scholar in the United States that has done any work on the historiography of slavery. And I’m not talking about interracial, Black, white. The historical fact of slavery. There’s no evidence for that.
And so would you please explain and document concisely how you arrive at a conclusion which is not supported by any of the historiographic literature that exists in this country?
MOUNK: Wait. Sorry. Just to clarify, what are you saying my conclusion is and what are you saying—
RIVERS: Your conclusion was irrational and not factually based, the assertion that, first of all, there is a level—this is the good point—of sort of normative and political equivalence. Oh, wait a minute. We have some well-intentioned people over here, we’ve got some well-intentioned people over there, and if they could simply be more polite and more generous and more charitable, that’s a ridiculous proposition, which contradicts the history.
RIVERS: There’s no evidence for that, this argument of equivalence.
MOUNK: I know that—I know that—
RIVERS: Last point. Last point. Would we use that argument if we were talking about Germans and Jews?
HARPER: The answer would be no.
MOUNK: Well, I’m a German Jew, so perhaps I can answer that question.
RIVERS: I don’t know if you can or not. You might be able to.
MOUNK: I’m a German Jew and I, certainly, do not equate Nazis and the Jewish victims and I, certainly, do not equate slavery in the United States and the many people who were enslaved. I don’t think that I, as a German Jew, get to sit in judgment today of all non-Jewish Germans, and that is a very, very different thing. And so when the term—so anyway, so back to that.
Look, my last book is called The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. I was one of the first people who was warning about the danger that an authoritarian populist like Donald Trump posed to democracy in the United States.
RIVERS: Black people—
MOUNK: I, certainly, am not equating the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 with decent Americans who want to live by the most basic rule of our political system, that it’s elections that decide who governs and not a mob who storms the Capitol.
So to imply in any way that I’m equating these two things is simply unfair. But I do think that when we go beyond that and say a majority of white Christians in this country just worship whiteness rather than worshipping Jesus that is an interpretive claim that I don’t think is founded by the literature, even if there’s one or two studies by scholars who claim to show that—
MOUNK: —in ways that I, simply, think is not conducive to having a real conversation. And—
RIVERS: The literature (doesn’t say that?).
NINAN: OK. Sir, thank you. I want to keep—
MOUNK: And just to give one example, I mean, we had—
NINAN: I want to keep the conversation going. I want to get—
MOUNK: No, no, but can I—can I just say one more thing, since—
NINAN: Please. Please finish. But we’ve got a lot of other questions, so I—we can be here all day talking about this one point.
MOUNK: Right. (Laughter.) Just—
NINAN: I want to make sure this is equitable and other people get in their questions.
MOUNK: Just let me say one thing. I think you misunderstand the nature of the attack on democracy today, which it’s important to deal with if you just think of it as whiteness or white supremacy. There’s elements of white supremacy within it, absolutely.
But when you look at yesterday’s Republican primary in Pennsylvania, a majority of votes went to two candidates, to a Muslim man who might count as white by the strange criteria of the United States Census Bureau, which would not be seen as white in most parts of the world, coming from Turkey, and to a Black woman.
Now, that doesn’t excuse some of the things that these two candidates believe. They’re, certainly, not candidates that I, personally, would support. I think that some of them are very dangerous for democracy. But to understand what is actually going on in this country and what the nature of the Trumpist coalition is and what the nature of its danger to our democratic institution is, I don’t think that broad slogans are going to help. I think you have to actually look at some of the much more complicated realities that are playing out.
RIVERS: Well, I agree with you on—(off mic).
HARPER: So I would like to respond, if possible.
NINAN: Yes. Yes, but let’s keep it short, Lisa, because I want to make sure we—
HARPER: I will. I’ll keep it short. I just want to say that I think that what’s important for us to understand if we are to understand the context within which we’re having this conversation, we must understand we’re having it in the context of a post-colonizing nation, that the ultimate issue that we are dealing with is actually not race. It’s not even white supremacy.
It is colonization, that Britain colonized this land and, as such—and across the globe wherever colonization happened by Western powers the very first thing that they did in order to divide and conquer the people was to set up racial caste systems all over the world.
So Blackness looks different in America than it does in Brazil, than it does in Australia, but it’s still there. Whiteness looks different in America than it does in Brazil and Australia, but it’s still there, and it all means the same thing everywhere you go because it was the same powers doing it from the same philosophical foundations.
So when we ask the question of how do we repair what—this thing called race has broken the world, we have to actually ask the question how do we repair what colonization is breaking in the world, and that’s what’s so fascinating when we look at Russia because what’s happening right now with Putin is an attempted rise again, a resurrection, of the age of colonization.
So colonization is about the extraction of resource in order to fill one’s own bank account and the subjugation of a people group in order to fill one’s own bank account. So people of African descent were colonized, our bodies were colonized, our families were colonized, our religion was colonized for four hundred years—two hundred and forty-six as enslaved, ninety in Jim Crow, and now fifty in mass incarceration and all the other kinds of segregation that are still happening.
But we are in the context of a decolonizing moment and I think that is what brought January 6 on. That is what brought—is making people scared to death because to decolonize means to take whiteness from the top of the hierarchy of human belonging and it doesn’t mean—it doesn’t have to mean to replace. It can mean to bring down in relationship and community with all the rest in order for us to figure out how to live together in the world in a new way.
NINAN: Thank you, Lisa. I just want to say, we’re having this discussion, and I’m very grateful to CFR for allowing us to really have—express these viewpoints in one room, which says a lot. In a lot of countries you wouldn’t be able to do this, I can tell you.
But we can’t even move past our differences, right. I mean, it’s just people feel so passionate, and you have a strong viewpoint on this.
Melissa, I want to bring it back to you, from a government. We were talking earlier—Melissa’s here. (Laughter.) Melissa, I want to bring it back to you because public policy matters even in this space and, particularly, when it comes to democracy.
When you have—and you feel the passion in this room today—you feel the passion—when you have people who are coming from such different perspectives or just looking at things from a different lens, which is normal, how do you bridge that gap? Because this conversation and what we’re having, which is healthy and great, is also what we’re seeing in democracies where there are different religions, where there are different ethnicities, all across the world and leading to the decline of democracy.
ROGERS: Yeah. Yeah. It is a challenge, and one of the things that we have to do, I think, is listen a lot, listen to one another, because a lot of times—and I agree entirely that just being nice to one another is not going to fix the problem that we have in the United States of America. But listening with charity toward one another because I think a lot of times we’ve created a sort of language about each other that we can’t even understand.
Like, I listen all the time to people in rooms that cannot even understand one another and are immediately getting their backs up against one another. And so we have to try to encourage spaces where people can actually speak real truths and hard truths because there are hard truths to say, but to create conditions where people with good hearts, and good motives, and good intentions who may say the wrong words sometimes. and may not say everything perfectly, can actually enter into the conversation as well.
And I do think that there’s a real problem of not being able to talk across these differences, and getting our backs up too quick, and assuming bad motive, because I will say, for example, I think about friends—white Christian friends who have never really thought about these issues and that’s because—and I grew up in the South, and I didn’t hear these issues talked about from the pulpit, and I didn’t know—I didn’t even have a concept of it until adulthood. And so when somebody challenged me I was able to begin to go on that road. But I still get things wrong and I still say things wrong.
So I think bringing people together with charity to say hard truths to one another, and to think about all the people that we know of who have maybe started from a place of privilege and moved to a different position through dialogue of understanding that there is a lack of equity, that there’s a fundamental problem in our ways we’re dealing with each other, and our history, and our laws, and our policies, and we have to change that.
So I have always hope that we can do this because I see it happening. I do see people being able to engage. But I think it is very, very treacherous and difficult. That’s why I’m really grateful that, as I referred to earlier, when we have this diverse workforce, even within the workforce we can challenge one another and we can make sure that we are listening to the right people and taking an account of not just equality but equity in our policymaking.
So I want to be generous and charitable while also telling hard truths.
NINAN: We need to. Yeah. The listening part is very hard to do. I’m saying that also as a journalist who—we need that skill set and it’s very hard.
I want to see if there are any other questions here. Great. Yes? All the way in the back over there.
SMEDLEY: Thank you. Don Smedley, Rivendell Institute.
If I could change tack just for a second. So democracy is in decline around the world, and if that’s the case my question is why should other countries adopt democracy? And when I ask that, particularly as a political philosopher, I want—what I’m looking at is, are there moral reasons to do it.
If so, what could they be? Natural law? If not that, there would be legal reasons. But that’s really a nonstarter, right, because if they have laws in their country where—I’m thinking about one country in the Gulf states, for example, who’ve written quite a bit about this, and they feel like democracy right now is a danger, right. So if they were to adopt democracy or not, as a matter of law that would be their choice. So that’s not really an argument to get them to adopt democracy.
So what are your reasons or your thinking behind why other countries should adopt democracy? I mean, it’s often said you can live by democracy or die by democracy. So anyway, I’ll just—to the panel, whoever would like to answer it. Thanks.
NINAN: What a good question. Democracy. Lisa, do you want to take that?
HARPER: I’d love to share—just one initial thought is that democracy is about the ability of individuals to exercise agency, and for my faith tradition, I understand from the very first page of the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis it says that all humanity is made in the image of God and, as such, they are created and called to exercise agency, to exercise stewardship of the world.
Unfortunately, we have built a world where there are these hierarchies of human belonging that actually only allow certain people to exercise that agency and then have created systems whereby others’ capacity to exercise that are crushed or twisted or covered over or limited.
Democracies, as a governmental structure, they actually allow more of the image of God to flourish in jurisdictions. I think that the reason—one reason—why we’re experiencing the decline of democracy around the world is that we are also experiencing decolonization around the world, and as you do that the people—those who have had the assumption of power under democracies because they were the majority are no longer experiencing that assumption of power.
Dr. King said in 1967 just, literally, months before he died—he said in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?—he said the white segregationists, but we should—we can say now what we’re talking about is nationalism—white nationalism—the white nationalists would prefer an American—in his context—form of fascism to democracy if democracy required equality. And that is, I think, what we’re experiencing, not only in America but around the world, as people who have—are formally colonized begin to find their voices and their power.
NINAN: Yascha, I’d love for you to take that. This is something you’ve researched thoroughly as well.
MOUNK: Yeah. So I think there’s a normative response and an empirical response, right. Part of a normative response is that you said in the question, well, why shouldn’t they be able to choose for themselves. And I agree that they should be able to choose for themselves.
But there’s a huge question about what that means, and that’s not a question that you can get around with formal cultural relativism, right, because at the moment the people of the UAE or the people of Turkey or the people of Venezuela or the people of North Korea don’t get to make their own choices. There’s one or two people who have appointed themselves their leaders who get to make their choices.
And so while I absolutely think that we should defer to the different cultural preferences of different people, to a certain extent—not when it comes to genocide or other things, but in general—it’s just not clear to me that listening to the dictator who has control of that country is a meaningful way of letting them make that choice.
And so I think each of us have to ask: Well, what is a legitimate way for people to make decisions? And I think that the best, most legitimate way we can come up with is that through some way—and the particular mechanisms will vary—there should be real popular participation in making that decision of what the fate of a country is. And when that’s lacking then it’s not, in fact, the people of the UAE or of these other countries making those decisions; it’s a couple of people imposing that decision on them. So that’s a kind of response to the strain of, well, they should be able to decide for themselves, right?
Empirically, there are simply good reasons to think that democracies perform better than other political systems. Not perfectly and with some real variation, but whether you care about economic growth, whether you care about the respect of rights, whether you care about behaving in relatively peaceful ways towards the countries around you, democracies certainly don’t have a perfect record on this but they do better than the alternatives when you compare in political science to dictatorships, and monarchies, and theocracies, and other kinds of—forms of government. And in particular, popular participation can avoid some of the worst disasters that you get. It can avoid starvation a lot of the time. It can avoid extreme forms of genocide. It can avoid the worst violations of individual rights and autonomy that we need to live a dignified life. That’s, of course, only true when all parts of the population are, in fact, included in the democratic government. It hasn’t been true where parts of the population have been excluded in extreme ways, like in South Africa during Apartheid. But where you have democratic systems that give at least the right of the vote to all of their members, they tend to be much better at avoiding those extremely negative outcomes. And that’s one of the reasons why democracies are preferable.
NINAN: Yascha, I want to ask you a little bit, a lot of the democracies that we look back on in history, from Athens to Rome, they are really homogenous communities. Even the founding of America, a completely homogenous community. How does a democracy survive if you have ethnic or religious divisions? I particularly think of the Muslim community around the world, whether China or, think about the Rohingya Muslims, around the world who are facing cleansing, who are dealing with this. How do you survive as a democracy if you’re not homogenous?
MOUNK: Yeah. So I think part of the answer to this is that our political system actually has two values that we need to live up to.
So one of them is the democratic value, the value of self-government, right? So the—the idea of democracy means rule of the people in Greek, and the idea simply is that we want to rule ourselves, collectively determine our fate, rather than having a dictator or a monarch or an army general or a priest or an imam or a rabbi make decisions for us, right? And that’s very important.
But there’s a second element to what political scientists call liberal democracy—not liberal as in left or right—or what conservatives in the United States sometimes prefer to call a democratic republic, and that is individual rights and individual freedom. And that means that there is a certain area of our life in which the government doesn’t tell us what to do, and the majority doesn’t tell us what to do, so that I can criticize the president or the prime minister without having to worry about getting locked up, so that I can engage in a form of religious worship that the majority might disapprove of without my house of worship getting ripped down by the state, or a mob of the majority forming and trying to burn down my church, right?
And so in order to find ways to deal with each other peacefully, we need to sustain both of those things. We need to sustain collective self-government, but we also need to lower the stakes of politics by, unlike in Athens, unlike in Rome, not allowing the majority to tell us how to live, by preserving this space that protects us from the preferences of the majority when it conflicts with us. So that’s one part of the answer.
And the second part of the answer is that, as I said earlier, human beings are groupish, right? We have this instinct towards forming groups. And that’ll always remain the case, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s what gives us the wonderful religious variety in our country. It gives us a variety of cultures that we have in a country like the United States, which is I think one of the appealing things about a city like New York. But we also need to keep it in check. We also need to find a way of ensuring that we still have connections with each other above and beyond our membership in those groups. And so there it’s the task of our society to build connective tissue, to inspire a national identity as well as subnational identities, to make us think that we’re Americans and that means something even as we recognize that we have those differences. And that’s why I think it’s so important to talk to each other in ways that allow that level of shared dignity.
NINAN: I love that, finding ways to build that connective tissue, so important.
Yes, the woman there in the back? Yes. Thank you.
JACKSON-WEAVER: Hi. Good morning. Karen Jackson-Weaver from NYU. I’m wearing my hat as a minister, as well, from Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey, as well as vice chair of the board of trustees at Princeton Theological Seminary.
But my question is from me personally, and it’s a comment and a question for all of the panelists. I want you all, if you can, please articulate for me how you understand the historicity of the meaning of democracy and what it means in this particular contemporary context. And what I mean by that—and I wanted to make sure that I got this right—I’m asking because we know that democracy means rule by the people, the majority rule, but when I think about January 6 and what that represented it was not an acknowledgement of this being a democracy. It was not an instance of respecting what the majority had decided. It was an act of domestic terrorism.
And what I—my question is framed the way it is about the historicity of democracy and what it means in this contemporary context because I think we often forget the iconography that comes along with some of the ideas of what the Constitution means and what democracy means. And I want to take us back to the Census, the original Census in America, in 1790, which said—and I want to make sure I got this right—there were six categories: free white males ages sixteen or older, landholding males; free white males under sixteen; free white females; all other free people; and then enslaved people. Now, you all know the Census has evolved. Different categories were added over the 1800s, 1900s. Now, when you check the Census, the first question is: Are you Hispanic, yes or no? And then it goes into other categories.
And I’m bringing this up because there is a racialization and a hierarchy that is tied into systems—economic, political, and social systems that impact our democracy, not just here in America but as you said as well, Lisa, globally. So I want to know if the panel can speak to what it means to understand the historicity of democracy and what it means in this contemporary context. Thank you.
NINAN: Thank you very much. Melissa, do you want to start? No. OK, you’ll pass on that. OK.
ROGERS: Sorry, I’m a government policymaker, lawyer, and not a—not a historian.
NINAN: Doesn’t want to get involved. But, Lisa, you want to take that?
HARPER: Sure. I mean, just to start us off, I mean, I would just say that that’s what I—that’s why I started with the very first race law, right, because the very first race law, it’s the soil that planted this pumpkin patch. Like, this—it’s the soil we grew up in. And the soil that we grew up in, the feed that planted us as a nation, had as its—some of the first laws passed on this land were to create that hierarchy of human belonging by law that then—and those hierarchies did not disintegrate when we became America. Rather, they were further entrenched. And every denomination in America experienced a split around the question of whether or not those laws should operate within our denominations, within our body as Christians. And that means that half of Christianity in America actually chose slavery, said slaveocracy is OK.
And it didn’t stop after slavery. With Jim Crow, it kept going. So the historicity—(laughs)—the historical nature of democracy in America is the reality that we’ve actually never fully been a democracy. We never have. We have never, ever had a point in American history where we are fully embracing of the agency, the capacity of human beings who are citizens—all human beings who are citizens—to make decisions about how we will be ruled on this land. And that was the struggle of the civil rights movement. That was the struggle of the suffragist movement. That was the struggle of the LGBTQ movement. That’s the struggle of the disabled movement. That’s the struggle of the Native American movement. That is—that has been the struggle, is actually to expand and entrench more and more democracy on this land.
NINAN: Let’s take another question. Yes, gentleman—I’m sorry, sir, right here in the front. Do we have a mic for—and then I’ll get to you next, sir. Yeah.
TARIQ: My name is Mohammad Osman Tariq from United States Institute of Peace.
Actually, I may not have a question, but I want to comment on some point of discussion. On the decline of a democracy, I have no much information in the U.S., but I can see it in a very short life that I had here, which is totally on the line. But coming to other countries, as I have experience, in some cases people around the world see U.S. as a model of democracy. When it’s coming to some of the politics, it’s going to undermine democracy, for example, in Gulf countries or in some other countries. U.S. has good relation with—(inaudible)—and they embraced them. That gives a mentality to the people, to the common people, that U.S. is not promoting democracy here because they are supporting these dynasties, the heritage of monarchy, in one way or another.
In some cases, when they are going to promote democracy, those people who are against democracy, they are using the religion as a block against democracy. And that is because the people doesn’t have enough knowledge of religion; otherwise, all religions are based on the principle of democracy. As I know from Islam, no one can say that there is no voting system there. No one will say that people doesn’t have the right to go and complain and say something to the first person of the country. But it’s not happening here.
Like, today in Taliban government you cannot go and say something which will be against their ideology and mentality. However, that’s not Islam. They’re exercising something else. But people are pushed to accept this system. I believe in some other countries the same thing happened. Thank you.
NINAN: All right. Thank you very much, sir.
We’ve got time for one more question. I know I promised the gentleman right there in the middle to wrap it up. We’ve got about sixty seconds left, so we’ll make it quick.
AL-MARAYATI: OK. Thank you. I don’t think that people are against democracy.
NINAN: Sorry, can you tell us who—yeah.
AL-MARAYATI: Oh, I’m sorry. Salam Al-Marayati, Muslim Public Affairs Council.
It’s not that people are against democracy, even though democracy’s in decline, especially from the Muslim world. I think the way the Muslim peoples are seeing it, they wish that Western democracies would act more democratically in how they deal in foreign relations and deal with the people rather than with tyrants. And I think that is the next phase of our foreign policy that we really need to address.
And in listening to the way domestic terrorism is being addressed today as opposed to the way international terrorism—i.e., Muslim terrorism—there are many similarities, including how Muslims are saying don’t talk about our religion that way and people are saying don’t talk about white Christianity that way. I think that same reaction is happening.
And so my question to the group is, one of the keys in counterterrorism is having the counter-narrative. What would you suggest to be one or two main points the U.S. government and us as faith communities should have in a counter-narrative to the great replacement theory?
HARPER: Ooh, that’s good.
NINAN: Melissa, do you want to take that? You want to wrap up with Melissa?
ROGERS: Thank you. Yeah, it’s a great question and I won’t do it justice here. But I do think lifting up some of the stories of cooperation that we have in the United States, which we haven’t talked much about today, which are a very positive thing—and actually, this—I want to just give one example, even though it was a negative thing in the start: the attack on the Colleyville mosque—Colleyville synagogue, where the hostages were taken, in Texas. There was a rabbi there who was in deep connection with Muslims and Christians in his community, and when they found out that he was being held hostage they immediately flew into action, called the police commissioners, and made sure that a Muslim could be there to translate and work with the hostage-taker; and that Baptists and other Christians were coming to the church, and they knew the rabbi’s wife, and bringing baked goods and surrounding them with love. These kinds of stories are the stories that we need to really baste in, I think, and lift up more because they do represent the best of the United States, also I think the best you can replicate these stories around the world, you can see them around the world. And if we show people that there really is the possibility to come together across our differences and form real, authentic friendships that validate one another—validate one’s equal rights and equal dignity and equal humanity—that those are some of the things that can really be so powerful, and then building on those networks.
And I’ll just—so many friends in this room are doing that work I can’t call all your names, but you know who you are. And thank you for it, because I think that’s part of the way we get out of a very difficult situation.
Also, just wanted to state again, of course, the government, its—one of its fundamental objectives is to protect the free exercise of everyone—everyone—however they sincerely express their faith, as long as they are doing peacefully. And we are protecting them all in equal measure. We haven’t lived up to that, but we need to live up to it whether it is—and we can’t—we can’t play favorites in that. We can’t have Democratic favorites that treat some people more equally than others and Republican favorites that would treat others more equally than others. We have to treat everyone equally, and that is a big, big challenge for us all.
But I do think some of these stories will be so helpful in creating the capacity in people’s minds to believe that it is not just a theory that we can all live together and cherish one another, with equal rights and with love for one another, but it actually is a reality and we can expand that reality through a lot of very hard work.
NINAN: What a great way to leave it. I apologize. I know we—I know you guys have more to say, but we’ve got to wrap it up.
I want to thank all of you. I want to especially thank CFR for having this dialogue where we can sort of talk to each other, work these things out, for having a White House representative today. Melissa, Lisa, Yascha, I want to thank you, all three, for joining us today. And grateful for this conversation, very grateful. (Applause.)
I just want to remind you all your working discussions are going to happen, working lunch discussions. Lunch will be served outside your rooms, and we’ve got lots of CFR folks to help you get to your room where you may want to get to. So thank you all for joining us. Thank you very much.
HARPER: Thank you.
ROGERS: Thank you.
BREYER: Well, good afternoon, everyone. I’m Chloe Breyer. I’m director of the Interfaith Center of New York and assisting at St. Philips—in Harlem—Episcopal Church. We are four of seven women delegation that recently went to Afghanistan with the focus on education and peace.
And what we’re going to do this afternoon, is to review a little bit as we’re coming up on the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and look a little bit at both some of our own observations about it, and where we as a country might be able to go next vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and the myriad of issues that that country is facing—the least of which seems to be that it has really fallen short in American consciousness as the war in Ukraine has taken up a lot of our time and attention.
So I just want to begin by saying to just review that the purpose of this short week-long trip that we made—the seven of us, all of whom had done a lot of different sorts of work in Afghanistan, mostly since 2001. The focus was on at the time celebrating girls returning to schools.
If you remember, March is the beginning of the school year in Afghanistan, and there was much anticipation that girls would be returning to school, and until the last minute we thought this would also include high school girls. And sadly, just before we left, we heard, as you did, that it would not include high school girls. And so what we thought to be a celebration turned out to be yet another matter of concern.
The second reason we went was to try to learn a bit about the impact of the U.S. and other countries sanctions—specifically the $7 billion of financial assets that were from the Central Bank of Afghanistan that are now, I believe, in the Fed. And what the freezing of those assets has done to the country, and what we as Americans should know about the impact of our government freezing those funds.
So in addition to the people that you see here on the stage with me, who I will introduce in just a moment—though they don’t need much introduction—we really are—our leader of this group was a woman by the name of Masuda Sultan, who was one of the cofounders of Women for Afghan Women, and a member of the Council. In addition, we had with us Medea Benjamin, the cofounder of Code Pink, and Kelly Campbell, one of the founders of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
So to my left here in order of I guess how we’re going to be speaking, we have Daisy Khan here, who is the founder of Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, and her presence with—she’ll talk a little bit about the work that she did on women scholars in Afghanistan and their work in interpreting Islam.
And we also have Sunita Viswanath, who is the founder of Hindus for Human Rights, also Sadhana Progressive Hindu Coalition.
And a cofounder of Women for Afghan Women, Ruth Messinger, who after twenty years in New York City politics turned her attention to leading American Jewish World Service, where for twenty-something years she grew the organization and went to a myriad number of countries around the globe addressing poverty and education. Her crown—the crowning moment of her career, I just would add, is becoming a board member of the Interfaith Center of New York. So this weekend I’ll remember that.
So let’s begin, and my first question is for you, Daisy. When we arrived—when we sort of set foot on the ground in the Kabul Airport, we were greeted by representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that’s now the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and you presented this individual with the Universal Muslim Women’s Declaration of Rights.
Given what has happened since we returned—in other words, not only have girls in high school not gone back to school, but we also have heard an edict from the supreme leader this past week that burkas were recommended, and women should stay at home.
Given that, do you think they read your document? (Laughter.) And anything else you’d like to say.
KHAN: Well, first of all before we left, we all had to do our wills and all of our good stuff at home because our families were pretty much shocked that we were even going to consider to what they thought was clearly a war zone.
So when we arrived, we were surprised to be greeted by the VIP section of the Foreign Ministry, and they told us that we are welcome to go anywhere and that we were the first American delegation—or American citizens who had come to Kabul since August.
So they were intrigued to see who we were—this band of, like, eight women, each representing itself and its own organization. So yes, I went there, Chloe, because I had heard that the Taliban had made a declaration that they would guarantee rights of Muslim women provided they were under the framework of Islamic law, and that is—a lot of my work is in that area. And I had actually done work in Afghanistan before that for about seven years through my partner to train imams.
So this was perfect for me because it was my work, and I thought, oh my God, this is my chance to actually deliver this to them. So the problem is many of them do not speak English, so the declaration—I didn’t have the Dari and the Pashto version with me, but I had the English version with me. I gave it to them.
But giving a declaration is not sufficient, that’s the first thing. It’s really just legislating the laws, and it was clear to me after spending some time there that they really need our help. And they need the help of people with the right kind of expertise on how to legislate, how to write policy, because they are former warriors.
They do have a vision. They can get things done. But do they know how to write policy? Do they know how to govern? Do they know how to—do they understand the process of how to—what education requires? I don’t think so because they don’t have those skills there.
So we all went there with this very clear mandate in our own hearts that we wanted to see how we could help the Afghan people, and that would include the Taliban because we are worried if we don’t help them then they might go back to their old ways.
BREYER: Can I just ask you, too, there was a—to tell the story about our discussion with some of the women, ulema, and how they prioritize their concerns, if you would.
KHAN: So we met with—I’ve done a lot of work with imams and also women, ulema. They do have religious leaders who are women. Some of them teach in universities. Some of them have founded madrassas.
Contrary to what we think, we think that Afghan society was almost all locked down, that’s just not the reality. There are a lot of highly educated women there with PhD’s, and the women that have survived and have stayed on a lot of them are women that are soul-practicing women, so religious women.
So we met with these women, and we thought that, for them things would have been just good, hunky-dory, but one of them was—used to be a prosecutor, and she said I was just told that a woman can’t be a judge.
And so here we have a very narrow interpretation, a very Deobandi interpretation of the particular school of thought that does not want to see women in a public role, and they completely disregard the fact that there is no justification for it within Islamic jurisprudence. The prevailing opinion is the opposite. There’s no rhyme or reason why a woman cannot be head of state or a judge.
So here’s a woman who is religious, who identifies with some of the things that they’re saying, but also realizes that their policies are going to be detrimental to her.
Another woman that we met was a teacher whose husband was also a teacher, and both of them have three daughters. And the two daughters were going to school, and the middle girl, the high school girl, was not going to school.
So you have two parents, a nuclear family, and this is the reality of Afghanistan. These Taliban people think that they have large families, but not everybody has large families. People have small families.
And so this couple is constrained by the fact that they have no one to take care of that one daughter and she’s not going to school, and she keeps asking, why am I not going to school?
And then the woman who is the head mistress said that her mother is sick, and she lives in a village. And so she has to travel because her husband has to stay behind, he has a job.
And so they put down an edict—a new edict that women cannot go beyond seventy-five kilometers once again using Islam as a justification. And so I said, what is this edict? Where did this come from? I’ve never even heard of it. Well, the prophet said that a woman shouldn’t venture out beyond seventy-five kilometers.
We did a lot of digging and found out that it’s really not seventy-five kilometers. It was three days in seventh century, which means if you’re on a camel, you’re going at a certain pace. But the bottom line is that this ruling has no basis in today’s time because the times have changed.
So the Taliban can’t wrap their head around that. They just don’t know how to wrap their head around modern times, traditional times. So here’s a woman who wants to go see her mother, but she can’t because now she has to take her husband with her because that’s what they said that they had to do—that a woman cannot go out without a mahram or a guardian.
So it’s putting tremendous stress on the men. It’s putting tremendous stress on the women, who are working women, and generally speaking, people don’t know what’s coming next.
BREYER: So I want to turn for a second to the issue of poverty, and I’m going to address this question to you, Ruth.
We are just—Christiane Amanpour yesterday told us in her interview that there are 9 million people—half of the country is at risk of famine right now. You have about 1.2 million children who are malnourished, and you also have 20,000 at least that are living in famine conditions.
You have spent a time in a lot of places in the world where poverty exists. Can you tell us a little bit about what made Afghanistan different in your understanding, and what are some of the systemic causes for this?
MESSINGER: OK. Since I’m on your board, I’m not going to answer your question. I’ll get to it in a minute. But I just want to put it in a slightly broader context.
First of all, I really want to thank the Council for doing this panel, and I want to thank you all for being here. And I want to say much more loudly, what Chloe said quietly, which is we have come to a point—maybe we’re always there—but we have seem to have dramatically come to a point in America—probably in other counties also, but I’m talking about America—where we can only focus on one crisis at a time.
So COVID happens. It upset everyone’s life. Many people in this room probably lost—but that was all people talked about for the last two years, is how it was affecting them, how it was affecting the country. It is a matter of great concern, but it doesn’t mean everything else in our lives goes away.
And on a foreign policy issue, this country was fixed—or maybe fixated on Afghanistan for many years—who was in control, what were we doing there, should we have troops there, what was the— what was or was not the connection to 9/11—a lot of things.
The Taliban took over last August to the surprise of many people, even in a moment where we’re supposed to have all the intelligence in the world in our State Department, and we were tremendously concerned until a crisis occurred between Russia and Ukraine.
It is a crisis, folks, but it doesn’t mean that we have a right, frankly, the way I see it, to just drop Afghanistan from public view and pay no attention to what’s happening—whether to women and girls, whether to the money or the Central Bank or whatever.
So if you want to travel any place in the world, you should put together delegation like this. There was one moment at the press conference where a woman journalist asserted her legitimate problems, and her understanding of how harassed women were in the country, and that the Taliban official from the State Department said she attacked him, and he said, look, when a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Hebrew all come to this country, then we must be doing something right. (Laughter.) So that was the high moment of our visit in terms of reception.
But as you heard, we were incredibly well received. We had a chance to speak to officials in the Taliban about the rights of women and girls, and we had opportunities to talk as high up as with the head of the Central Bank about this issue of our money. And I’d like to make sure we go back to that, but Chloe asked me to talk about poverty.
And it was dramatic because this is a country, which actually, based on the Afghan people that I spoke to, has enough food, but nobody can afford the food because the economy has collapsed. And the economy has partly collapsed because, as you heard, basically half the society’s been taken out of the workforce in a variety of ways, so it’s not just—(audio break)—to go there, which is the right of all girls to have an education—but women playing key roles from teacher to jurist to doctor.
We happened across at our hotel a medical school graduation from a private medical school elsewhere in the country. They came to Kabul for their graduation party. From the point of view of an American, there were an amazing equal number of men and women graduating, but when you ask the women what they were going to do, they said they had no idea. They had no idea if they would be allowed to practice in a country in which—because of its levels of poverty and because of the gender issues in the religion—basically if a woman wants to be seen for a problem, she has to see a woman doctor. But women doctors aren’t going to be—anyway, it’s crazy making.
And you see—as Chloe said, I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of places where poverty is spreading, and most significantly where hunger is spreading and reaching the point of famine. And we went, a couple of us, one morning with one of the local NGOs that’s doing emergency food distribution—something I’ve seen many times, and two little beignets from that visit.
One was we asked this mother who told us—first of all, she told us that there’s no money in the family, and so her husband is working overtime and called one day from his role—he’s basically a—helps people move things around in the business district—that he called one day because he was hungry because he’d been working for twelve hours.
She sent one of her children out with food for him, and her child was hit by a car and run over. So she’s dealing with that crisis.
Later in the interview, we ask her—we tell her that we’re particularly concerned about girls going to school—and her daughter’s maybe eleven or so—and what is going to happen with her daughter? And she said, girls going to school? I can’t put my son in school because I need money for a notebook and pencils, and I don’t have it.
And you see the clear evidences of escalating poverty, of families with no money to feed their members. This is sliding into disasters that the United States has seen over and over again.
For those of you who have traveled internationally in countries where there’s famine, one of the recognizable features is that children’s hair turns red, and that’s always an issue because Americans say, oh, isn’t that cute? He has red hair. No, it’s, actually, not cute. It has to do with hormones.
But I saw that—three different children in that—in that slumville that we were visiting, and I know what the consequences are. And I want to say to all of you—all of whom have key positions influencing public policy—this is a country where we may not be happy with what we accomplished or didn’t accomplish there. We may not be happy with who is in charge now.
But why we should in 2022 tolerate the movement of another country into the status of a failed state is beyond my understanding. Hunger is increasing. Poverty is increasing. Famine is spreading. There will be innumerable deaths due to bad health and lack of care, and we’re letting it happen because we got distracted by Ukraine, or because we’re embarrassed that the Taliban is in charge and may not be our vision of how to run a government.
There’s so many things that we could do and—I know I’m going to stop now and we’ll come back to this—but I just want to be sure because I didn’t understand this from my friends until I went. We have $7 billion of money that belongs to the Central Bank of Afghanistan in New York and Washington, and we are not making it available to the Central Bank of Afghanistan.
BREYER: Thank you, Ruth.
I took Economics 10 as an undergraduate, and that taught me very little, but it was enough to know that the function of a central bank is to—let me find my notes—regulate the currency and prices, so that, for example, you can have it so that bread doesn’t fluctuate enormously, and that the basic staples of life have a certain degree of the—their pricing doesn’t change too much. That’s one function.
And the other has to do with regulating remittances, which in the case of Afghanistan is a huge thing. And now the only way to kind of, as far as I know, you can get in is through the hawala system, which is just like fraud in the making. I mean it’s a very easy system to abuse.
MESSINGER: When we send money to not-for-profit organizations, which some of us are doing, they are limited in what they can take out of their bank accounts. It’s not like the bank disagrees. The bank agrees that the money is there, but they limit withdrawals. It sounds like 1928 and ‘29 in the United States. You have money in the bank, but you can’t get it out because the economy might collapse. But we’re doing that to this country.
I want to say one other thing about poverty that I forgot because I’ve traveled in a lot of places, and you’re all very used to—anyone who’s traveled, there are stores for tourists, and then there are stores, and then there are market stalls. And the market stalls are most exciting, and that’s where most people do their business.
(Audio break)—main street, every place that we saw a list of—a place of market stalls, we saw people in sitting front of the market stalls surrounded by a couch, a pile of plates, some glasses. And they were selling their own housewares in order to have some money to buy food for the end of the day.
BREYER: Thank you so much, Ruth.
OK. Sunita, this is a question which is probably not on the foremost of a lot of people’s mind, but the role of religious diversity and religious freedom in Afghanistan. And specifically, how does that relate to the issue of security, which we found defined in numerously different sorts of ways?
VISWANATH: So we visited the Hindu temple and the sacred Varah in Kabul— and I’ll come to that, but I think it’s important that I first introduce why I went.
My twenty-one-year engagement with Afghanistan was through the women’s rights movement. I—as Chole said, I’m a cofounder for Women for Afghan Women. I want you all to not have any confusion. I’m no longer with Women for Afghan Women. I’m a former board member. I, like most of us—maybe all of us who went—we’re all affiliated with Unfreeze Afghanistan, an advocacy organization.
And during the twenty-one years of doing work with Women for Afghan Women, it began in New York City, but we grew to be the largest women’s rights organization in Afghanistan—active in fourteen provinces, 1,200 staff.
What Daisy described is very similar to the situation in which we were doing women’s rights work. So it’s not like you had a secular democracy and then suddenly on August 15 you had an Islamic Republic.
So the work that we did over twenty-one years was women’s rights within an Islamic framework, and so we—and it wasn’t—there were many things that were not ideal.
In the beginning when a woman was raped, we could not say this is a rape victim and we are prosecuting her rapist because there is such a thing—and this is before—there is such a thing as the crime of zina, which is the crime of sex outside of marriage. And if she said she was raped, she would be put in jail for having committed this crime.
And this is one of so many examples of the hugely challenging terrain within which we were doing women’s rights work and making miracles happen. Every single bit of Women for Afghan Women’s work happened within an Islamic framework because if we did not work that way nobody would work for us, and no one would come to us for help. It’s the only way that you could do work in—whether it’s Afghanistan or the Afghan-American community.
And I have been part of that work, and I understand it through and through because I’ve been there from day one. And so anyway, that was one thing I wanted to explain.
And so why did I go on this trip? So for me, the reason that I left the organization that I cofounded is this question of what do you do? Do you engage or do you not engage the Taliban?
For twenty-one years, the work that I did in a way was a challenge to what the Taliban represented. It was trying to achieve women’s rights, human rights, in a space where there was a very extremist expression of religion. And incidentally, the work I’m doing as a Hindu against Hindu extremism is in a way very similar.
And I hope that India’s constitution, which makes it a secular democracy—I hope we are able to save that constitution and that’s what the fight is. So I wanted to go to Afghanistan because I said—my gut told me that it was important to engage.
I am a women’s rights activist not in favorable circumstances. If things got worse, I need to up my commit, not lower it. And so because I said engagement was so important, I wanted to go on the trip and meet members of the Taliban and advocate, and that’s what we did.
I also wanted to see what happened to women that were supposed to be in the protection of women’s organizations, and many of us—I mean, Masuda and I because we’re from the women’s movement—but many of us met women that became destitute because women’s NGOs were not able to take care of them during the transition from the previous government to the Taliban takeover.
But—and this is keeping me going right now—we went to two women’s organizations that continued work, that did—nothing changed. What changed is they had an agreement with the new Taliban interim government, and they negotiated their own protection.
And they were able to take—continue to take care of the women and girls that were under their care, and even increase—I mean, increase their capacity to care for women and girls. And one of the shelters that we visited told us that people from the Taliban government were bringing destitute women to them.
So this is what I wish my organization could have done, and I’m being very open here. So there’s much more to say about all of that, but let me answer the question about the religious diversity.
BREYER: One or two minutes.
VISWANATH: One or two minutes, all right.
So we went—so all the years that I was going to Afghanistan—I’m a Hindu. I would always go to the temple, and I would always go to the Gurdwara. The Hindu and the Sikh community in Afghanistan, they don’t themselves as separate. And if I ever went to the temple, there were Sikhs there, and if I went to the Gurdwara, there were Hindus there.
Only a tiny minority of the community is Hindu; most of them are Sikh. And in the past when I have gone there, the community was much larger. There used to be maybe—no one counted, but maybe 600 to 1,000 people. Now it’s down to like maybe 150 people countrywide.
Just super brief, in the past there was a big concern for security. Now it seems—I mean, they told us that they were not concerned about security. They felt safer going around the city, and their kids—in the past, they were not comfortable sending their kids to school. In the Gurdwara, they had their own school. They did not think their kids were safe going to school, and now we met little kids in their school uniforms who had just come back from school.
So security was not the top concern of these people. In fact, we saw the wall at the Gurdwara. March 2020 there was a terrible attack. I think twenty-five people were killed.
It was an ISIS attack on the Gurdwara, and they had built a huge fortress-like wall with barbed wire. So we saw that wall, but they also told us—they pointed up and they were flying their flag, the Gurdwara’s flag, and they said that before they did not feel comfortable flying that flag.
And they told us that in the earliest days of this government change, the Taliban came to the temple and the Gurdwara to say, how are you? You are welcome here. Do you need security?
This is—in the ’90s when the Taliban came in, in the beginning people said they felt safe, and then we went into the darkest hell. So I don’t know what is coming tomorrow, but it is our job, because we went to Afghanistan, to come back and tell you the facts of what we heard.
BREYER: So with that, I think we’re going to open it for questions. If you could raise your hand and somebody with a microphone will come to your aid and assistance momentarily.
Great. Yeah, there. Please introduce yourself.
AL-QAZWINI: Thank you. Sayed Mahdi Al-Qazwini, Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, Costa Mesa, California.
My question is to any one of the ladies on the panel. Based on your observations, what has been the plight and struggle of a woman from the Hazara community? The fact that they are already an ethnic minority and then religiously most of them are Shia Muslim, has that compounded their plight? I mean, what can you tell us about that?
BREYER: Daisy may have something to add. I just want to observe, as we all heard, that the explosions continue despite the fact that the mantra was when we got there, before this last government we had jobs but no security. Now we have security but no jobs.
So it seems that the Taliban is priding themselves on the security as long as you don’t disobey the rules. People who were traveling from one end of the country to the other. Men were telling us they were traveling from one end of the country to the other.
Despite that, there were those horrific explosions, right, in the Hazara part of Kabul. So it’s clearly ISIS or somebody. Somebody’s doing these, and to me, that’s the biggest threat to the Hazara—to those girls. It continues to be, but I don’t know if you disagree or have something else.
KHAN: I just want to point to something maybe more high level, and that is that just like we—the earlier panel we mentioned that not all evangelicals are the same, so not all Taliban are the same either. There are many, many factions.
In fact, I heard from another government that there are like sixteen factions, and they range from all the way to extremely moderate. And those are the ones that we met, and they’re in Kabul governing right now. And they’re the ones who want to move their country in a different direction because they’ve been exposed to the world.
They’ve been interacting with many different countries. They’ve been in direct talks with the United States. They’re in Doha. They’ve seen how the world lives, and they’ve seen how Muslims operate in other countries. So their exposure has—having this exposure to the rest of the world has really shaped their own vision of where they want to go.
But they’re always held back by the rural areas, which are extremely conservative, and have certain kind of tribal leaders that are very conservative and want to destabilize this particular faction. And so the destabilization then takes the form of, oh, you think you’re going to get security, we’re going to attack the minorities, right.
So the quickest—the fastest way to go after is the boys’ school and the Hazaras. So there was a young Hazara girl who came to our hotel. Remember the poet? She’s a beautiful young girl. I have her picture, in fact. If we had the picture, we could have showed it.
And she told us how they’re a family of like ten or twelve, like eight children, and they’re destitute now because the father’s lost the job and she cannot go to school, and the situation is really bad—economically the situation is bad for them as well as the Taliban.
The current IEA—is that what they call them? The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They are so frightened of everybody else that they think that they’re only ruling over the Pathans—the Pashtun—and they don’t realize that for them to be a legitimate government, they have to include the Hazaras, the Tajiks, and all the other minority groups to have real representation.
But the fear of getting others to come in, they are really afraid of that because they are only accustomed with the Pashtun groups, and they don’t know if these other groups will be infiltrators. They pretty much told us, how do we know this guy is not going to be a spy?
This is what I mean by they need help. They need help in governance. They need somebody to come and tell them this is how you govern, and this is how you ensure that the person is not an infiltrator.
So I think right now they don’t see the Hazara community as necessarily in opposition to them. They have come out publicly. Every time there’s been this bombing, they’ve said these are our brothers—Shia, Sunni brothers.
So they are not against the Shia. This is not the feeling I got from the people we were meeting. And I think that the attacks are deliberate to destabilize the moderate faction and/or to use as a bargaining chip, which, by the way, my own perception is that the girl’s education is a bargaining chip for some other groups.
BREYER: Yes, back there.
GOLDEN: Jonathan Golden, Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture, and Conflict. I have—well, it’s kind of two questions, both about education—and Daisy you’ve talked a lot about that already—and just how to fix those problems, right.
So one approach has been—and Sunita and I worked together with a wonderful woman who came to Drew University and graduated a couple of years ago. The one model is women come to the U.S. and study and then return. The problem is that many or most, in my experience, don’t return.
And there’s this sort of ethical question. If someone comes here, can establish a new life for themselves, how can you expect them to go back? But if no one ever goes back, it won’t have that exponential impact that we’re looking for.
And then the other is just a question, we also—for some years my students were doing remote education, like using Zoom before the pandemic for many years, to actually tutor. It was mostly around the TOEFL exam for women but other tutoring there.
Is that safe now, right? Because my concern is that now if someone found out that a woman were going to the library to get online, to be speaking with someone from the United States, that that actually could put them at risk, and so we’ve been—as much as we wanted to restart that program, we’ve been hesitant thinking that it could put people at risk.
VISWANATH: Hey, good to see you.
I want to say about the previous point as well—so about the Hazara community. During the past two decades there were so many attacks on the Hazara community as well, and it was never like a particularly rosy experience for Hazaras in Afghanistan at all.
And so it would be surprising if it suddenly became any better. I’m not surprised if it’s worse. And so the two points I want to make is that, one, in order to—in order to make Afghanistan a livable place for the people who must live there, who don’t have a choice but to live there because they can’t—a small minority will get to be evacuated. Most people—close to 40 million people will have to stay.
The engaging and the putting pressure and the advocating is really important, and so a little bit—we did soft diplomacy. But the countries of the world have to engage. I mean, we learned that—I mean, we were welcomed and everybody that we wanted to talk to talked with us.
And so—and when we—and do remember when we went to the Ministry of Education? There was a Swiss delegation who were giving them Swiss chocolates and saying please, can all girls go to school? And I think that they—any of us that want to go and advocate we can. That’s one thing.
The other thing is that we knew this was coming. This wasn’t—I mean, I’m not a foreign policy expert, and I wasn’t surprised by this. So everybody who is a foreign policy expert should have—we all should have been more prepared for this, and it’s on us.
We should have—why were we talking to the Taliban—and maybe not recognizing them, but still talking to them and making them more powerful, and now we don’t—I mean, yesterday we did a congressional briefing. Or was it today? We just did a congressional briefing and the head of Human Rights Watch made it very clear that we—the United States can talk to the Taliban about this money issue without recognizing them. And it behooves us to—what Ruth was talking about, about the dire poverty, I read that more people are going to die as a result of this famine than in the last twenty years of war.
It is outrageous, and we—because of Ukraine we won’t talk about it? And we’re social justice activists and people of faith?
MESSINGER: And it’s not just Ukraine, it’s that when the Taliban took over it was like something we didn’t expect and we know—if you read the newspapers, our intelligence folks were totally surprised at the speed with which that happened. And there’s something about, like, oh, so we lost, so we should disappear because we’re embarrassed.
We spend our lives as Americans—all of you who are involved in foreign policy just think of the numbers of times in the last century that our government has engaged with leaders that it didn’t like.
Churchill said you don’t negotiate with your friends; you only negotiate with your enemies. I’m not suggesting that we make that clear a distinction, but we spend lots of time as the United States in a diplomatic level working with governments that we don’t agree with, that we may have been at war with, that we may not yet be in a stable—but we do it because we care about some of the issues.
And here we have a country that was dramatically the concern of America for whatever set of reasons, that we are all telling you is sliding into acute poverty. The economy is being destroyed. I promise you that the women will be the worst losers. They’re losers now because they can’t go to high school, but the entire female population of that country will be the worst losers of the continuation of this lack of relationship, lack of help, lack of aid.
And I’m going to say again, humanitarian aid would be useful. Negotiating with the Taliban on some of these issues would be useful. But so would be giving them a tranche of their own money, not to the Taliban, not as a humanitarian aid, to the Central Bank to regulate currency and to figure out something that—as Chloe was talking about—to stabilize some prices so that families can eat.
We’ve done this in all kinds of parts of the world, and we’re now not doing it in Afghanistan. And we’re just going to watch the creation of another crisis that then will become the crisis of the moment, and we’ll wonder how we got here.
VISWANATH: On the education question—super quick—the people—the only segment that cannot go to school right now is high school public-school kids. So everyone else is in school. And before August 15, a third of girls were not in school.
So we have to keep all of this in perspective when think about this. And in terms of the online school, one of the programs we went to, which is a girls afterschool program, they are actually starting an online school program. And so it’s a great idea, and they’re on it.
KHAN: So as far as offline—so when I was with the Taliban and we were sitting as a delegation, and we asked them what is the problem with the girls’ school? Because they were saying we want to send our girls to school, so what’s the problem?
So they finally relaxed and said that our rural areas are conservative—culturally conservative. And of course, this forty years of war has taken a toll on people’s evolution and spiritual evolution, and they said they don’t want their girls to go to school. They don’t see a need for it. They don’t understand why.
And we want to create a system which all schools open at the same time. That kind of stuff. I said, “we’ve done a lot of work with the imams, and we know how to do education outreach. Would you allow us, me, to come back?
This is your jurisdiction. I am not an Afghan, but I’m well-meaning, and I want to help you. And I have the arsenal. I have all the information, the content, the presentations.
Will you let me come back here with NGOs that I already know and join other NGOs and basically go out in all the provinces and do offline one on one, face to face, educational outreach with the people that really need to be elevated up to the next level?”
It was shocking to me that not only did they welcome us, they said we need you guys. We need you to come back and do that.
So there is—they understand the limitations that they have, and they have a vision, but they can’t realize that vision because there’s nobody there to help them. What they don’t want—the change theory there is they don’t want any Western cultural imposition.
They are frightened of that, and this is why they keep saying we want everything under the banner of Islam. And this is why Muslims who know the kind of Islam that really belongs in Afghanistan, which is the Hanafiyya School, which is the most liberal school. That is the school that is most appropriate for Afghanistan and is most liberal and most tolerant. And I think that those of us who are in that space have to join together with others and make that happen.
BREYER: OK. We’ve got two more—or two questions or three questions. One, two, three.
KHAN: Can we take them altogether?
BREYER: Yeah, why don’t we—because I think we’re getting—OK, great. OK. So let’s—and we’ll just try to keep the answers succinct as well. Yes, sir?
TARIQ: Mohammad Osman Tariq from United States Institute of Peace, and was deputy minister for Religious Affairs two years ago, and deputy minister for education just until the 15 of August.
My point is that it seems that you are not finding ways, but there is a way, which is created by U.S. itself, and that’s the Doha Agreement.
BREYER: The do- what?
AUDIENCE: Doha Agreement.
TARIQ: The Doha Agreement.
TARIQ: The Doha Agreement, there are promises from—commitments from both sides. The U.S. did all the commitments, but Taliban did nothing. The commitment in that agreement is the Taliban will develop a roadmap of peace with the other Afghan sides. If that was the government of Ghani, that is gone. But they were not accepting the Ghani government at that time; they were saying Afghan sides. Afghan sides are all there. If you go to the ethnic, Hazara is there, Uzbek is there, Tajik is there. If you go the Northern Alliance and Taliban and Hezbollah, I mean, they are there. Why they are not talking to them, and why are they not making a roadmap?
And there was an agreement to make an Islamic-inclusive government. Why they are not doing that? Why the U.S. is not pressing them towards those people and those countries who were in the agreement as observer, as a kind of supporter, and as a people who kind of made the guarantees? This is the chip that they can use.
TARIQ: But no one is talking about that agreement except Taliban. The Taliban are talking, but they are not acting on it.
The other point is that I don’t believe the Taliban changed. I worked in their government in 1999, 2000, and 2001. I was in the Foreign Ministry and I was watching. The decrees were coming and banning many things. The last decree when I was in Special Office of Mullah Omar in Kandahar and they asked me to type it on the computer, that decree was saying that computer is not allowed. (Laughter.) And I told the person who is now the director of Office of Administrative Affairs, Maulawi Ahmadjan—I asked him, this letter says that you have not used computer. I couldn’t write it on my computer. And that has not gone through the application because 9/11 came and everything collapsed.
Well, the point is that there are chips to be used. Otherwise, Taliban has to respond, because in Islam commitment is one of the hardest bind.
KHAN: Yeah, you’re right.
TARIQ: Even if you are going to get rid of Muslim to the Quarysh people, there was no problem because prophet promised that and he did it. He extradited. Why they are not coming to be on their commitment? That’s the question. Why it’s not raised with Qatar, with Pakistan, with other countries?
In my opinion there are ways, but who to press that? This is not the way that—you came with a kind of gray kind of discussion. On one side you praise the Taliban, and on other side you condemn them. Then what is the proposed suggestion of you?
VISWANATH: So what I think is going to work in Afghanistan, from where I stand—
TARIQ: What is your suggestion for—
KHAN: So my suggestion is there has to be internal pressure in Afghanistan. The pressure cannot come externally because when it does, they resist it. So the best pressure for Afghanistan, internal pressure, are the religious leaders who are speaking out now and are actually saying the very kinds of things that you’re saying.
If you’re talking about amnesty, why’s that amnesty not being upheld in a way that it truly is upheld? If you’re talking about women’s rights, how are you defining these rights? The latest decree on the burka; the hijab decree said that at woman—if a husband—if a wife doesn’t wear the hijab and she goes out, then the husband can be brought in.
TARIQ: That’s un-Islamic.
KHAN: Well, but that’s what the religious leaders said. And that’s what—what happens is when Afghans fight back, they don’t know what to do anymore. They scale back. So those decrees are basically decimated, every decree. The beard decree, decimated. The hijab decree is gone because people are not listening to them. Afghans are resisting it, and we have to help Afghans to continue to resist it. And that is—
TARIQ: To support them.
VISWANATH: To support them, exactly.
TARIQ: Because they will never stop.
TARIQ: A stronger support in the last two decades to Afghan religious—(off mic)—
TARIQ: —I never saw.
TARIQ: You know that the whole budget for the religious affairs ministry was 0.04 percent of the whole budget, and that could not go to anywhere. Otherwise, our fight was with a group who was claiming religion.
KHAN: Mmm hmm, exactly. And then you have to have—
TARIQ: But we didn’t have any activity to be against them from the religious scholars and leaders. I am one of them. I never received the response to these things from international or national government that we have to improve support for religious scholars, that they have stand out and talk and spoke out against Taliban. Thank you.
BREYER: I want to address your question, though. Would the person who’s most familiar with U.S. politics on this. Over here, I want to hand it to you in terms of what are we doing as members of Unfreeze? What is our official position that we’re asking our congressional representatives to do?
MESSINGER: I would say that’s actually interesting because we’ve contacted as a delegation without—as a self-made delegation without an organizational sponsor, we’ve been contacting the various members of Congress that we know, and I would say that we’ve had an amazing response.
And that is—it’s at the staff level, but the staff is eager to talk to someone who has been there and who has something to say. All of the objections that they’re getting about, well, they’re still unfair to girls, well, there’s this, well—but the answer, as I said, you negotiate with who is in power.
We do that all the time, and you do it in a controlled way. None of us is asking—I suppose you could make a moral argument of some sort, a legal argument of some sort, that there’s $7 billion in an account and it belongs to the Central Bank to Afghanistan, so we should just give them the key and go away.
But none of us is talking about that. It’s like figure out the people to talk to. I would start with the bank and not the Taliban, and find a tranche of money.
Pick your number, frankly; it’s $7 billion. So let’s say $500 million. If we give this to the bank, what will you be able to do with it? To stabilize the currency, and to address the question of food prices, and to try to keep this country from falling into a new set of disasters.
No conditions other than we ask you what you would do with a small tranche of money, and it’s clear to you. We say, if you do that, we can keep releasing money to help you to rebuild the country, and if you don’t, we don’t. But instead, it seems to me—like I’m not an expert, but I see a lot of evidence of doing nothing.
I will say, a few of us have talked to people in the State Department, and they tell us that these issues are on the table. But I think the members of Congress that we’ve talked to are like, first of all, there’s no focus on Afghanistan right now because the focus switched. And second of all, it’s like, well, how could you negotiate with the Taliban?
And to get really parochial for a minute—since my rabbi, Visotzky, is sitting right there—while I was in the shower in an international hotel in Kabul trying to figure out how to come back and plan my Seder, it occurred to me to come back to my Seder and say, remember? Moses went and negotiated with Pharaoh.
We could actually go and talk to the Taliban. We don’t have to recognize them. We can go and talk to them. They’re in charge of a country, and that country needs food aid. That bank needs its money.
I want to just ask that any of you who don’t know what we’re talking about, please leave here learning about it. This is their money. We told them basically—just think about this as an amusing fact—that we would keep their money for safekeeping because the country was in turmoil.
And I think that was not a bad thing for the United States to say. And they said OK, and then $7 billion—it’s actually about $9 billion if you consider Western European money also—that they don’t have to regulate their currency, to allow people to use their bank accounts.
There’s something fundamentally the matter with that, and humanitarian aid won’t fix it. And for sure, waiting and negotiating with them about how many girls can go to school won’t fix it.
We could—from my point of view—keeping all the pressure we want internally, externally, on let these girls go to school because your country is hurting tremendously by losing women from the labor force, by not educating girls.
But separate from that, we have your money, and we are prepared to discuss a way in which we would give you some of that money to see whether you will use it for the most immediate and obvious purposes.
BREYER: There’s a question back there. Yeah.
VISWANATH: Can I just say that—
BREYER: Sunita, let’s just get one more. Yeah.
GAER: Thank you very much. Felice Gaer, the Jacob Blaustein Institute.
Daisy said that the latest development—that the latest development is the law about the girls, and hijab, and men being accountable. The latest development I saw was on Monday that the Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan has been dissolved and zeroed out, allegedly for budgetary reasons, but we know that those are not the only reasons.
So the question here is, you want to save lives, and I think everyone in this room understands and appreciates the deep belief in doing that and the need to do that. But there’s also a need to pay attention to the issues Tariq was just describing to us—Mr. Tariq, and in that context I want to ask: Who has leverage? Ruth is talking about the U.S. government and the Congress, and I’d like to raise the subject of the United Nations.
The United Nations is there. They’re delivering food. They’re insisting on providing humanitarian aid in a variety of ways as well.
Do they have credibility with the Afghan people? Do they have—and women in particular? Do they have credibility with the Taliban? Do they have leverage? I’d be interested in a response.
BREYER: Just very briefly, the World Food Programme, which is one of the only places operating originally back in the ’90s, is doing, I think, $43 a day for an enormous—in like all these different provinces.
And we had a contact there who worked on the ground for them in Kabul, and what was interesting is they periodically stopped doing their distributions because the Taliban has been asking them to do things they don’t want to do.
To have that requires it seems to me a lot of integrity in some ways, given the needs that exist, but they do seem to be not being pushed around. And that is an example, I think, for any institution operating there.
But I want to turn it over. And Sunita, you had something that you wanted to say from an earlier question, yeah.
VISWANATH: Yeah, I wanted to say about—I really am moved by what Tariq said, and I—the Taliban are here, and I don’t think anyone in this room—actually, I shouldn’t assume, but I hope that nobody in this room willed this to happen or wished this to happen. But it is the reality.
And as a grassroots women’s rights activist, the question is what do you for everybody who has to live there, and that’s the question that guides me. And Ruth said it, we have to do something. We have to find possible ways to reach the ground to serve people, to bring aid to people.
And to the question of the UN, I think I saw some of the work that’s happening. Women for Afghan Women is actually doing work with the UNHCR right now, which is really wonderful, and bringing life-saving food and cash assistance to people who would starve otherwise.
But what needs to happen—and the Taliban ministers that we met told us this—if we—one thing that would help a huge amount is if we actually give the assets, the financial assets, in whatever way that makes sense if it’s in tranches, if that starts to happen then the moderate people that we met who told us—the guy who said I have a daughter, I want her in school.
We didn’t meet a single person that said we want girls to not go to school. We didn’t meet those people. But they said that their job of getting the highest-ranking people in the Taliban to do the right thing is getting harder and harder because people are starving, and that would—to me, you said what can be done. I think that—just making—and not as humanitarian aid, but as money that goes back into the bank so people can take their money and spend it to resuscitate the economy. That would do a lot for us—for the moderate Taliban.
We met young Talibs who were showing us their social media. I have three sons. They were like my sons. They don’t know about politics and religion, and they’re just young people. They want to live, and they didn’t make this happen. They—I mean, they’re twenty years old. This is the world they were born into.
And so I think the work of Unfreeze Afghanistan to put pressure on this country and the European countries that have the assets, the financial assets, of the Afghan people. The Talibs that we met said it’s not our money, it’s the people’s money.
MESSINGER: And I just want to pick up—Felice, yes, the UN, and we did thanks to Masuda, who Chloe referred to before, but early on some money went to UNICEF to pay teachers because teachers were not being paid.
And Jonathan, the same thing. Both of your strategies are fine, but they are extra strategies. They are—bring some people over here—should they or shouldn’t they go back? Is there a way to launch an online learning program? We think there might be, but we don’t think it's going to reach five million girls.
So the UN conference was this country is in disastrous shape, and it’s about to get worse. And they need $4 billion and $2 billion was pledged. But I don’t want us as the country to think about it as just as a country that needs humanitarian aid because there’s something—sorry my language—screwy about that if we’re not looking to figure out a way to move these assets and see what happens if the currency is stabilized, prices are regulated.
We saw people—I don’t know, forty women, maybe, on the sidewalk waiting for the bread store to open up and give them some free bread. People are desperately hungry. That is not a situation in which anything good can happen. I think everyone knows that. There will be more attacks. There will be more resistance. There will be more fundamentalism.
We have an opportunity as a great—as the United States, as a large power, to figure out a way to deal with some of these issues, even piecemeal, and it looks to most of us as if we’re doing—we’re not doing things that we might be able to do that would prevent the creation of a failed state.
BREYER: Any last comments because I think we’re wrapping it up.
A final reflection on anything that you learned, that you didn’t have a chance to say, and how you might apply it, starting with you, Daisy—or anything else you want to say as a final comment.
KHAN: The levers are the United States is desperately needed, and they actually want to engage with the U.S. They pretty much told us that. They would rather engage with the U.S. than Russia because they already know Russia.
And they have a relationship with the U.S. They don’t hold any—at least they told us, we have no animus against the U.S. anymore. They are gone. We have our country back, and we want to engage them. So they’re inviting Americans to come and invest because they have done three things besides the stuff that you mentioned.
One is they have stopped child marriages, forced marriages—baadal marriages, which are exchange marriages, they’re banned. And they’ve also banned the poppy fields. So you can imagine about how much agricultural investment there is. There is an opportunity to do a lot of agriculture investment. The levers of the United States is more key more than Europe or any other country.
And the second lever are the neighboring countries, Muslim-majority countries, that they feel ashamed of every time they come up with these new stupid decrees. They have to then answer to these Muslim countries—whether it’s Turkey, Pakistan, all neighboring—Iran—that tell them what are you doing with girls’ education.
So that’s a very important lever, and I think U.S. can lead that effort because we always bring people together. Remember, we bring allies together at wartime? This is peacetime. This is the time to bring the allies together and say you Muslim—fifty-seven Muslim-majority nations need to come together and enforce certain things upon these people.
Then the best lever too important within the country levers are the religious leaders bar none. I know that they are. And then the Afghan people themselves. You know why? Because they are frightened of the Afghan people. They have never ruled over these people in the urban areas, and they’re frightened that they will not be liked.
And so this is an important lever for them because they want to please the people, and so whatever we can do to support the local Afghan people.
BREYER: Thank you. We’re being given the hook, so sorry.
I want to thank all of you, and thank you, particularly for bringing up the Doha Agreement, and that was just super helpful for me.
So thank you so much for your time, your attention, your questions, and to the Council and Irina—she’s somewhere around here—for her patience and understanding and imagination.
So good. Thank you. (Applause).
SINGH: Good afternoon. Welcome to the final session of the 2022 Religion and Foreign Policy Program. Congratulations on making it through the day. (Laughter.) Most of you are still with us. Thank you for your contributions and your presence.
Thank you, Irina, and your team for putting all of this together. (Applause.) And thank you also to the wait staff who has made sure that we have been nourished this whole time. (Applause.)
I’m Simran Jeet Singh. I’m the executive director for the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program. Our focus is ensuring that we advance religious pluralism in our society. And that’s a vision where all people—people of faith, people of no faith—have the opportunity to thrive as we live together.
By background, I’m a scholar and historian, trained at Harvard and Columbia. I focus on South Asian religions. And I teach currently at Union Seminary, just up the road. I’m also a writer, and my new book comes out this summer with Penguin Random House, and that’s The Light We Give; How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.
HAASS: How what can transform?
HAASS: What was the subtitle?
SINGH: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.
And the focus for me is what does personal storytelling look like in terms of giving us all the answers we need to our world today. And I also want to say one other thing in terms of where I’m coming from today. I mean, I’m literally coming from up the road—I live on 72nd Street, so that’s one place I’m coming from today, but I’m also with the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m a term member and on the advisory committee for their Religion and Foreign Policy program. So on behalf of the committee, thank you all for your work in the world in addition to what you are doing today.
I wish I was the star of today’s session, but that distinction belongs to Dr. Haass here who needs little introduction in his own home, but we will give him a brief one.
Dr. Haass is coming up on twenty years of service as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s the author, editor—(applause)—he’s the author or editor of fourteen books. His latest, which I had written down and should remember off the top of my head because I teach it, is also with Penguin Random House. It is The World—
HAASS: A Brief Introduction.
SINGH: A Brief Introduction. (Laughter.) And a brief title.
So Dr. Richard Haass is here to share with us some of what he is seeing around the world today, particularly with regard to the topic that we are most interested in, and that is religion. And so the place I want to begin is a place where I haven’t actually seen anyone begin in a conversation on this stage, and that is by asking you how you are doing.
HAASS: I can give you a tactical answer or a strategic answer. (Laughter.) The tactical answer: good and not so good. Good—I literally about ten minutes ago mailed off the final draft of my next book, and as anyone who has written a book can tell you, this is now what I call the storm before the calm—(laughter)—and so the writing phase is over, off—comes out in January, and it’s an interesting book for me, at least. You have to be interested in your own books or you can’t finish them. This is the first time I have written a book about domestic policy, and it’s a book about American democracy, and the reason is people always ask me when I give talks what’s the biggest threat—is it China, or Russia, North Korea, Iran, or terrorism, climate change, what have you, and I say, yeah, those are all pretty big threats. But the biggest threat is us. And if this society can’t hold together, we’re not going to be in any position to contend with any of those threats. We certainly won’t be able to contend with them successfully.
So I decided—since I kept saying that—I might as well write a book about it: how we got to this point and, more important, what do I think we need to do to dig ourselves out of this. So I am in a very good mood because I just finished that.
I’m in a not-so-good mood because I literally was—last night in Washington we had all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Council in Washington. It’s an amazing setting when the six generals and admirals sit there. I was doing conversation with them. Afterwards I took, the last flight back here, so we pulled back from the gate, and we go out, and I fell asleep. Then suddenly we’re back at the gate. And I said to myself, “well, that’s a quick flight. That was great! I slept through the whole thing.” Except we never left Washington. It turned out Delta ran out of space at LaGuardia so they wouldn’t let us take off. So we then sat there for about two hours. Then we—after a conversation—took off for Kennedy—JFK—but then halfway there in the air the pilot basically called an audible and we got to land in LaGuardia after all, just a few hours late. And then I had to get up at 5:30 for a meeting this morning because I was meant to be in Europe this week but couldn’t, for various reasons including this, and last night, and a meeting tomorrow. So I’m tired. So this is tactical.
In the larger sense, every Friday night—I am of the Jewish faith—and for me one of the great ways to end—I actually think, whether you are Jewish or not, the concept of Shabbat—the Sabbath—is one of the world’s greatest inventions. The idea that you take a timeout to pause, to stop doing what we all do all the time, and to be with—whether it’s in—for me it’s in synagogue for about an hour and fifteen minutes that night, or be with—have a nice dinner afterwards with family and friends.
So I’ve become very good friends—is Elliot here? Elliot Cosgrove—or not—my rabbi? Oh, he—I go to his services; he should go to mine. (Laughter.) I just want to make this clear. You are all witnesses.
But Elliot is the sensational rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue—and this is a ten-second aside—if you ever want to—if you haven’t experienced a Jewish service, between Elliot’s sermons and the cantor there, Azi Schwartz—who, when God was giving out golden voices basically had some left over and gave him extra—it really is, intellectually and musically, as wonderful a service on Friday nights as you get. And Elliot came up to me—Rabbi Cosgrove—and said, how are you doing? And he said he reads my stuff on Russia, Ukraine, all that. He said, see, you’re dealing with all this stuff all the time. He said, does anyone ever stop and give you any pastoral support? And I said, well, thanks for mentioning it, but that’s why I come here, and I get the support I need. I don’t get discouraged or depressed by what I do; I actually get motivated. I feel it’s important and it’s relevant. It’s a long way of saying I am doing fine.
I’m worried about what’s going on in the country. I’m worried about what’s going on in the world, but I wake up every morning—I think if one feels, one, healthy and, two, purposeful, it doesn’t get much better than that.
SINGH: Yeah. Well, one of the observations that I’ve made in my interactions with CFR has been something seems to be changing. And that something—if we can put a finger on it, and Dr. Ramakrishna this morning pointed to this—he said, historically religion has not been a serious consideration when it comes to foreign policy. And that I think has also been true here at the Council for the longest time. But when you joined, you decided to put together a program where we really took religion seriously.
I’d love to hear some reflection from you on why that was, what the intervention was that you thought needed to be made, and how that seems to have been playing out.
HAASS: Well, I feel like my answer should be—since you used the word intervention—it was divine intervention which led me to do it, but it wasn’t.
I can’t remember where it was—actually there’s a couple of things: one—a little bit of biography here—I was a religion major originally in college. I was at Oberlin. And I went around and I said to my friends—I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I was a typically undirected young person, and indeed, I was always nervous by people who knew, like, from the age of fifteen they wanted to be a right-shoulder surgeon. (Laughter.) That kind of specificity always really unnerved me. I never understood that. But I digress.
I went to people and said, who is the best professor on campus, and they said, “it’s Professor Frank—Professor Tom Frank.” And I said, “that’s great; what does he do, what does he teach?” And they said, “New Testament.” And I said, “we never go around to that one in my house—(laughter)—but I’m game. Bring it on!” And it was fantastic. It was actually—if you ever needed a lesson that a good teacher can make anything fantastic—and because of him I then went off to the Middle East. It was the summer after I think—get my years right—my sophomore year, so this is 1971—spent the summer working on an archeological dig, then spent my junior year abroad in Israel, traveled all over the Middle East, and essentially ended up getting my degree finally in modern Middle Eastern Studies.
So my background had a lot of comparative religion at Oberlin, and I should say subsequently in my career it was a fantastic advantage. I was President Bush, the father’s, Middle East, and Persian Gulf, and South Asian advisor at the White House.
Well, how could you possibly deal with the challenges in that part of the world without understanding what was, in many ways, the principal driver of culture and societies? So I think people who’d had narrow political science-type backgrounds or economic backgrounds were—they didn’t have a lot of the—I thought—the toolset they needed. So I thought it—one, if you are interested in international relations and you want to understand other societies, I would just argue you’ve got to—not got to—you are advantaged if you have that.
In my own writings, it has had a big influence. When I wrote a book called War of Necessity, War of Choice, about the two Iraq wars—the Gulf War being the war of necessity; I argue the 2003 Iraq War being the war of choice—that concept of wars of necessity, wars of choice was not original. There’s this guy, Maimonides, a great medieval Jewish thinker who talked about wars the king had to fight—was obligated to fight—and wars the king did not, and had very different criteria. I found it a really useful approach.
And then soon after I got here—that must have been like maybe fifteen years ago, a couple of years after I got here—I was reading somewhere, and I can’t remember the statistic now, but a stunning percentage of Americans once a week went to a house of worship—well over 150 million Americans out of roughly, at that point, say, a society of 300 million Americans. Now it didn’t get into the details of what percentage of them stayed awake during the sermons—(laughter)—but on the off chance that it was a fairly high percentage, I said, wow, what an amazing thing. So you all—people who are religious and congregational leaders—I thought, had an ability to reach a swath of Americans who, quite honestly, are not necessarily reading Foreign Affairs magazine, as good as it is. And it was part and parcel of a much larger change we made to this organization. We were over a hundred-years-old elite—I guess is the word I would use—or establishment, and one of the things we did about ten, fifteen years ago was say we’re going to continue doing all the stuff we’ve always done, hopefully better, and so forth, but we’ve got to find ways of reaching a much larger chunk of Americans. And we started special programs for high school and college, now middle-school kids. We’ve done it for journalists who are local all over the country; for governors, and mayors, and people who are not normally part of the foreign policy conversation; and people such as yourselves: religious and congregational leaders. It was a way to reach you, and through you, to reach others, to get people interested—almost Jefferson’s idea that we want informed citizens, but also to hear from you. You are in touch with all these people. You are reaching Americans every day that we would never come in contact with, so I thought you would also be a great teacher and resource for us. So that’s how it happened. It was really pragmatic, and I actually think it is one of the best things we’ve done; that sort of getting, broadening the conversation. You all have been great participants in this conversation.
SINGH: I want to ask you about a key pressing issue, and that’s religious freedom. Its meaning is contentious—
SINGH: —its implementation is contested. Some say that it is—it’s a tool that is weaponized. I would be interested to hear your perspective on how this discourse and its application is playing out both in the U.S. and abroad.
HAASS: It’s a big question, important question. Look, in this country—and you got at it in your introductory remarks—we’ve always believed in freedom of religion and freedom from religion. You can practice whatever faith however you want, and you can practice not having a faith if that’s what you want. And the Constitution is pretty clear about the non-establishment of—well, in that sense we’re very different from many other countries, so—and I think the challenge for us is to keep it that way.
And interestingly enough, the statistics show that America is becoming much less religious. The secularization of America is really an interesting phenomena, and all sorts of things—not necessarily healthy—flow from it. But we’re also, at the same time, becoming—in pockets of America, intensely religious as part of our larger sense of this country is, in many cases, rather than a melting pot, not even a mixing pot; it’s just separate pots. And we’re seeing that. So I think at one time—at one and the same time we’re having pockets of intensification of religion, often one religion, based upon the locality. At the same time the overall trends in the society are moving away from religion.
There has actually been a—who was it? I think Fareed Zakaria wrote about it a couple of weeks ago in his column, the statistics—the new book recently came out, so I can’t remember the name of the author on this. We can get it—the name of it, Irina, afterwards to people—but about the rather rapid secularization, if you will, of—because we went from being one of the most religious countries, certainly in the developed world, and the quote/unquote, “Western” world, to now we’ve kind of joined the pack, which is quite interesting as to why and what are the consequences.
I think in a lot of the world now there’s less freedom of religion because it’s seen as religion is a source of independence. It’s an independent authority, independent loyalties and affiliations, and in big chunks of the world that is unacceptable. If you won’t allow people to act economically—because people who have economic independence might be somewhat then free of the powers of the state or might want to translate some of that economic power into political independence—same thing goes for religion. And authoritarian figures historically have always been suspicious; fearful even. So yeah, how many divisions does the Pope have? Well, in many cases, the Pope has quite a few.
I thought it was, shall we say, no accident what happened in Hong Kong the other day. Xi Jinping has obviously tried to clamp down, and the whole original clamp down on Hong Kong was to clamp down on “the virus,” quote/unquote, as he saw it—not only COVID; I mean the political virus of liberalism and separatism. And religious authority represents a form of independence.
Now we’ve seen in Russia almost the opposite; I mean, where Putin—yes, clamping down, but the behavior of the leadership there, I think, has been extraordinarily unfortunate. I don’t mean to offend anybody if I’m offending anybody, but it really is. Unfortunate is a delicate word.
But I think in general if one looks at Freedom House over the last two decades, there has been a recession, a backsliding in terms of our freedom—measurements of freedom and democracy in the world, around the world. Religion and repression—we saw it obviously with the Rohingya. At some point, religion, and culture, and societies are intermingled.
But I think in general there has been greater repression, greater intolerance, and times of stress bring it out. COVID has been a time of stress. Economic problems are times of stress. Social media tends to be a real divider and an accelerator of these things, so yeah, I think it has been a bad—it has been a bad two decades for, if you will, classic liberalism, and even modern-day liberalism isn’t always liberal. So it’s—in a classic sense—so I think it’s been a rough time in terms of religious freedom. I wish I could say I thought it was bottoming out, but I don’t think we’ve—we’re there yet.
Sorry—I’m the most depressing person you will ever interact with—(laughter)—and I apologize—I apologize for that in advance. (Laughter.) I have many—I have much to ask forgiveness for as a result—(inaudible).
SINGH: Well, I’ll ask forgiveness, too, because I have a follow-up question.
I don’t think the emergence or at least the assent of religious nationalism is unrelated. I mean, I think it’s directly tied to some of these religious freedom issues we’re seeing. And we can look around the world and point to Myanmar, India. We’ve just had a large conversation about Afghanistan—
SINGH: — no religious community seems to be exempt from this challenge, right? We’re talking about Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus across the board.
SINGH: And also I think one element of this issue that has become apparent to us is we no longer have the luxury of pointing our fingers elsewhere only and saying, you guys are doing it wrong. I mean, the rise of—and the growth of Christian nationalism here has really created a crisis in this country that we can no longer avoid.
And so I’d love to hear you speak for a moment about the role of religion in fueling some of the most difficult crises in our time today.
HAASS: Well, the answer is it does. I mean, I worry about, in some ways, Hindu nationalism in India. I mean, India was born as a secular country, and indeed, it resisted the creation of Pakistan because it said Muslims in India do not need to find a sanctuary country of their own. We are a tolerant, secular country and hundreds of millions—oh, tens of millions at that point of Muslims disagreed and formed their own country, and now here we are, three-quarters of a century later nearly, and India is becoming more of a Hindu country. And you’ve got over two hundred million Indian Muslims. And the question is what does this mean, not just for those individuals, but what does this mean for the fabric of Indian society? What does it mean for India’s relationship with Pakistan which, shall we say, doesn’t need much additional kindling? So there’s that.
So I worry about that kind of—it’s part and parcel of a larger phenomenon. You can talk about religion, but in many ways, the popular—if you think of a religion not just as something that is a religious force but as an identity type thing, the idea that it would become slightly more assertive, slightly less tolerant, accepting of others—well, that’s kind of where we are with populism. That’s where we are, if you will, in my arena, in the political arena. So it’s not surprising to me that we’re seeing it more and more in countries, and we’re often seeing governments—for whatever reason—mobilizing public opinion in favor of X or against Y. I think that’s been the trend.
I mean, what’s going on in Afghanistan—since you mentioned that—yeah, I mean, the Taliban obviously represent a fairly, I would say, extreme or radical strand. It’s disappointing but not surprising what’s going on there. To me it was pretty predictable based upon my own experience with Afghanistan. Again, it becomes a form of identity and social mobilization, and particularly for those who are the most—what’s the word—active defenders of their system or regime, religion becomes a mobilizing force, and the problem is, by definition, that it becomes illiberal; it becomes intolerant of those who don’t, one way or another, get with the plan.
It becomes also a matter of identity, and matters of identity are inherently intolerant. By the time you get to matters of identity, how do you compromise? Almost by definition identity doesn’t lend itself very neatly to compromise. And religion can fuel that, and we’re seeing that around the world. So you have interesting things. You have kind of the mobilization of religion in a place like Afghanistan or India, and then in places like China, in an authoritarian system like that you have the repression of religion because it’s a competition, to put it bluntly. It’s a competing affiliation, a competing loyalty. It’s a competing belief system. If you are trying to spread the notion that Chairman—President Xi’s thought is an all-purpose explanation and is all you need to make sense of life, then religion is just competition so there’s not a lot of place for it. So yeah, we’re seeing all of this.
Let me say one other thing. I think in this country it’s different; it’s neither of those in some ways, but I think also that religion does become part of identity, and it becomes—when people are feeling fearful or confused, religion can be a—something to—which is fine, and I’m respectful of it, and being devout is great unless its aim—unless it becomes, if you will, zero sum, and then that someone else is going to pay a price for it. If you choose to live your life in an orthodox manner, devout manner, so be it. That’s your choice, and that’s part of freedom of religion, to do that. But when it comes at the expense of others, then it’s something very different.
SINGH: Yeah, I—so bringing it home a little bit, I think given how apparent it has become that these issues of religious nationalism, religious freedom are our problems as much as they are the world’s problems, how do you see that affecting the effectiveness that the U.S. has in claiming, or advocating, or even attempting intervention abroad? Clearly, there is some level of hypocrisy there, but what’s—to you, what’s the right balance in terms of focusing inward, engaging outward? Do we do both at the same time? What does that look like?
HAASS: Well, I’d say—before I even got to that I’d say one has to be aware of it simply as a phenomena, and when you are dealing with other societies in which religion is a powerful engine or definer, a driver of dynamics, then you’d better take it into account. It’s just a fact of life here, and I don’t care if you like it or loathe it; it’s just there. And you ignore it or underestimate it at your peril.
And in places like Afghanistan, or some places in the Middle East, or what have you, you’ve just got to take—(inaudible)—with secular societies you don’t have to much, but you just got to think about it.
Look, I think our ability—I’d say—I’d actually broaden it beyond religion. Our ability to cope successfully with our own differences, with our own challenges has two great virtues. One is that, by definition, it doesn’t then divide us. We’re then in a much better position to meet the inbox of challenges we face. And second of all, we can—I’ve often thought the most important thing we do in terms of many issues is not what we say or do, it’s what we are. And we represent a successful model of how a society can and should be organized when we’re at our best. That’s true in the economic sphere, it’s true in the political sphere, it’s true in the social sphere. If we can be tolerant, respectful—essentially, we’re a rare heterogeneous society. What’s so unique about—one of the things I’ve done in the course of writing this book I just finished, as I went back and either reread stuff I hadn’t read or read it for the first time. It’s so interesting to go back to a lot of the founding materials and the rest, and you do realize how much this is a country unlike almost any other in that we were based upon and founded on an idea. And we have been varied in many ways from the get-go, and because of immigration and so forth we’ve become even more varied over—but you look at even other democracies. You look at the Japans of the world or many democracies in Latin America, or in Europe, they are—short of recent immigration—much more homogenous societies.
This has not been a homogenous society in terms of race, in terms of religion, in terms of ethnic or national backgrounds, so it has only worked when the fabric was inherently one of, if you will, classic liberalism: tolerance, diversity, whatever words you—and I think when we get it right it sends a great message to the rest of the world. And when we get it wrong it sends just the opposite. Well, actually, I mean, it’s hard for me to know what’s cause and effect, but the fact that there has been backsliding in the world in terms of freedoms and democracy, I can’t decide at times that we’re a reflection of that and just kind of one of many examples, or to some extent, we’re one of the causes of that. Because we’ve had a deterioration here, we’re no longer in a position, shall we say, to be the shining city on a hill. It’s going to take a long time before we can get back to the top of that hill. Hopefully we’ll get there, but we’ve got a ways to—we’ve got a ways to climb.
SINGH: No, it’s a humbling perspective, I think, and it keeps things in perspective for us, too, that we are the most religiously diverse society in human history in this country, most racially diverse. Some of these challenges—I mean, if we step back from where we are today, which can be hard to do, they seem unavoidable, that these tensions will be there. And perhaps you have a reaction to that.
HAASS: I think differences, to some extent, provoke tensions, but with one great exception in the middle of the nineteenth century at the time of the Civil War, we’ve been able pretty well to deal with some of our fundamental tensions. And that’s been—for two—nearly two-and-a-half centuries now. The question is, though, going forward will we be as successful. Churchill’s old line—Americans can be trusted to do the right thing but only after they’ve tried everything else—it’s a kind of sanguine take. And my view is, well, maybe. But we’re older, and as we’ve seen in ourselves, as you get older, the arteries get harder. Social systems can become sclerotic, as well as physical systems.
And there are some fundamental different phenomena that are affecting democracy—as I mentioned, social media—where there’s much less a sense of community in the United States now, much less—much less common experience. We are much more divided geographically. There’s not just less social mobility. There’s less physical mobility. There’s a sorting—S-O-R-T-I-N-G—in America where people are increasingly living with like-minded, including like-minded religiously.
So this is much—so for—we are a country that’s founded on an idea. But one, increasingly we don’t—we’ve lost sight of what those ideas were. We certainly don’t teach them in our schools. You’re hard pressed often to find serious civics education. Indeed, just to give a ten-second digression here, there’s various bills before Congress to promote the teaching of civics, which is great, except there’s a sentence in the bill that says there cannot be—nothing in this bill shall be construed as advocating a single national civics curriculum.
And I’m sitting there going, man, is that my definition of preposterous, the idea that a kid in a classroom in Arkansas in the United States of America should learn a different national civics education than a kid in Iowa or California or New York. Last I checked, we only had one Constitution. I can see why you might want to learn a little about state history. So, yeah, I worry about some of this.
But now I’ve forgotten what you asked me, I’ve gone on so long. (Laughter.) So I’ve gotten lost in my own words. I apologize.
SINGH: No, that’s great. I appreciate it. And I appreciate the anecdote and the insight. One last question before we turn it over to the group for their questions, and that is, what do you—sitting from where you are and seeing the world in the way that you do, what do you anticipate in the next five to ten years as being some of the greatest religion-related challenges in the world?
HAASS: You would be so much better able to answer your own question than I would. I haven’t thought of—I’ll be—I haven’t thought about—to me the biggest challenges are not directly religious so much as what religious leaders—like, for example, if you said climate change was one of the greatest challenges the world’s going to face, to me the question is what are religious—since God created the heavens and the earth, what are religious leaders going to do in order to galvanize action in order to protect the heavens and the earth?
Or where they see the kind of intolerance we’ve been discussing within societies, what are religious leaders going to do? Are they going to, if you will, go with the flow, or are they going to resist the flow when they believe it’s inconsistent with the tenets of what their religion teaches? Are they going to put nationalism before classic liberalism?
So—but I think the challenges in the world are going to be enormous. I mean, you’ve got the rise of geopolitics all over, which is going to create pressures on religious leaders to toe certain lines. We’ve had the reintroduction of conflict. There’s this enormous literature in the field about how conflict between countries had become obsolete; we didn’t need to worry about it anymore. Not so much.
Nuclear weapons have kind of received a new boost in importance. We’re going to have to deal with the consequences of that. And then we’ve got all the global challenges. OK, so it was COVID-19. So who’s to say there won’t be COVID-23 or COVID-24 or COVID-25 or some other infectious disease?
And the only thing we know is the world failed to deal adequately with COVID-19. I don’t see the machinery or the policies in place to deal successfully. Indeed, what makes it really frustrating is we had the technological breakthrough of the mRNA vaccines, and despite that we didn’t deal successfully with it. Big chunks of the world remain without the sort of vaccination or therapeutic—access to therapeutic drugs that they deserve.
So you’ve got geopolitics. You’ve got the global. You’ve got the internal challenges in a lot of the countries. You could have major political transitions in this country. We’ll see what happens in ’24. In Russia, we’ll see what happens there over coming days, weeks, months, and years.
And China; Mr. Xi will almost certainly get his third term. But there’s now increasing signs of pushback in China because, in part, of the mishandling of COVID, because of the economic slowdown, his siding with Russia during this crisis. So we’ll see what happens there. And at some point, whether it’s in five years, whatever, ten, at some point there’ll be successions. The one thing we know about authoritarian systems is they ain’t good on successions, transitions, because there’s no legitimate transfer of power. We didn’t used to have to worry about it in this country, but now we have to worry about that too.
So all I’m saying is there’s tremendous—so I don’t think of it in narrow religious terms. But all of these things will potentially either pose difficult decisions for religious and spiritual leaders or will create difficult conditions for them. Now, I could be too negative and there could be wonderful things and all that. If that happens, great. I’d love to—but my sense is it’s going to be a difficult period of international relations, just given the trends that are afoot.
SINGH: Thank you.
At this time I’d invite members of the audience. If you have questions, please raise your hand. Members who are zooming in from home or their offices, you’re invited as well.
We have a question over here. If you’d remind us, your name and your affiliation please.
GILCHRIST: Jim Gilchrist. I teach religion courses at Carnegie Mellon.
First of all, I’ve been here every year since 2007. I want to thank you for this. This is the best thing of its kind going on in the country.
HAASS: Thank you.
GILCHRIST: So thanks so much for this opportunity.
I teach religion courses at a university that’s very techie. Carnegie Mellon is one of the leading universities in the world with regard to science and technology and artificial intelligence and so forth. Every year we have about sixty students sign up for this Intro to Religion course, and 70 percent of them are not religious at all. But they have not much idea about religion, most of them, and what ideas they do have are not very positive.
So we talk about religious people behaving badly and acknowledge all that. But then we point out how many world-class scientists have, in fact, been religious over the centuries. We talk about civil rights. And we read Laudato Si’ and all of this. And the reaction is often, really? I had no idea. And in their techie world, if the best they could hope for is Elon Musk colonizing Mars or Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, they seem to want to know, isn’t there more than this?
So my question for you is, do you think it’s possible that if young people, particularly who don’t know much about religion, and what little they think they know about it is bad, if they saw religious bodies acting conspicuously around the kinds of things that we’ve been talking about here for fifteen years—racial issues, gender issues, stewardship of the environment, overcoming poverty and injustice in various ways—do you think it’s possible that these kinds of initiatives might actually lead to a bit of a religion revival? Because if people started to see religion identified with the kinds of things that I saw it identified when I was a kid, they might actually find it appealing in ways that they don’t know because they just don’t know.
HAASS: I’m not sure what I think. I can see why you might think yes, because it would check the relevant box. Oh, yeah, religion is relevant. And if you agreed with the political agenda you would say, wow, not only is it relevant, but it’s out there doing what I consider to be the right thing. So that would be tempting.
The problem would be is that there isn’t agreement on what the right thing is. So rather than religion being a kind of safe space, where those of us who disagree on politics could nevertheless gather, then religion becomes another set of boxes where we then gravitate towards that preacher or that church or that synagogue or that mosque or that whatever, where we’ve kind of siloed with other like minds, which is, by the way, what’s happening in big parts of the country. You’re seeing it in the evangelical church, by the way, as those of you who come from that world know. And the last thing we need are more things that divide us.
So I kind of like the idea—I haven’t thought it through. It’s a really interesting question, so now I’m going to mull it; giving a long-winded answer because I’m thinking about it as I speak to your question; always a dangerous thing to do. But I kind of like the idea of sanctuaries being a sanctuary. And it seems to me what I would emphasize—I’ve thought about it in the course of writing this book I’ve just written—is thinking less about what the policy is and more about the practice.
It’s how we go about the pursuit of our political agendas, whatever they may be. So whether you think climate change is this or that, or you think this on abortion, whatever your public-policy stance is on this or that issue, where I think religious and congregational leaders can do the best work is not on saying this is, quote-unquote, the right answer, but rather this is the right way to go about both figuring out what you believe in and then pursuing it.
And that, I think, you get into tolerance, civility, nonviolence and so forth. That to me is where religious leaders can make a difference. Once they start choosing up sides and say this is—viability is at twenty-two weeks rather than twenty-three weeks, well, then religious leaders are like political leaders. We’ve already got a lot of those. We don’t have a lot of respect for them.
So I’d be wary—OK, now I got my answer. I knew if I talked long enough I’d have my answer. I would be wary about a policy-centered defined approach for making religion relevant. I’d be much more focused on the behaviors and what are the teachings about how we go about, if you will, our secular life.
SINGH: Thank you.
Back here. Guthrie.
GRAVES-FITZSIMMONS: Hi. Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
And I’m wondering, do you think the U.S. government foreign-policy agencies have the tools they need to engage religious communities and understand the role of religion around the world?
HAASS: I think you should answer that, seriously. I mean, the answer is I don’t really know. And when I was in government, I worked at the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House. This was not what I did 99 percent of the time. And the people who were off doing things were kind of separate. And that might be a problem, the fact that it wasn’t mainstreamed.
The danger, whenever you create special offices, is you think you’re promoting the importance of an issue, and often you’re sidelining it. And my guess is when you have all these ambassadors for special purposes, one of which is this or that on religious-related freedoms, rights, pursuits, I would much rather have it be mainstreamed so the average assistant secretary or undersecretary or whatever promoted it in his or her job, integrating it with other things, rather than having it be sidelined.
But what do you think about that? You’ve thought about it much more systematically than I have.
SINGH: Oh, I mean, it’s exactly the same. I don’t think much seems to have changed since the time you spent there. It is absolutely the case that religion—and I think those of you in this room would probably have experienced this in various ways—religion, for many reasons, including the fact that people don’t understand it, the fact that we don’t know how to talk about it in a public way, that we’re fearful of, and I think rightfully so, but we haven’t quite figured out how to walk this line of church and state. Religion is consistently out of the picture. And its engagement in a foreign-policy context requires these special offices or these advocacy organizations or these U.N. bodies to come in and assist or support. But it’s never central. It’s never integrated.
And I think the other sort of element of that experience is too often in these contexts our political leaders—it’s not that they need to be experts on religion. As you were saying, you don’t need to specialize in religion in order to lead in a country like ours, but you should know how to deal with it and you should know how to talk to communities, just like you know how to talk to every other community. I think that’s the real danger that I’m seeing in our context right now. Thank you.
We’ll take another question over here please.
ABRAHAM COOPER: Thank you.
Honestly, I think kind of overthinking all of this. And Professor, I would just change around two words. You said religious bodies. I think the answer—the better approach might be bodies that happen to be religious, meaning the bottom line is that if people of faith want to influence the general society or even their own flock, lead by example. OK, if people are hungry, we can all give the same speech. I think this is less about finding new experts to teach us about how to communicate. I think you probably see that at the beginning of every semester with those sixty or so students. At the end of the day, I found as a rabbi, also born in Brooklyn and who also loves Friday night—I know we have—I have many enemies who can’t wait for Friday night, because they know we can’t say anything about them for twenty-five hours. And if it’s in Asia, it’s thirty-plus hours.
But I think the people of faith who feel in their gut that they can and should be making a difference in society should do so by leading by example. When they show that kind of difference, they’re going to inspire curiosity. And you go from there. But the notion—and I know it’s kind of maybe blasphemous at this kind of a setting— we talk about groups and councils and analysis. If you do good, you’re going to attract people. If you stay irrelevant in our kind of world—and I think we can’t—we haven’t really come fully to grips with the power of social media to deconstruct everything. The whole sense of community is just fractionating across the board.
HAASS: Could I just—
COOPER: Anyway, do good.
HAASS: I actually want to now amend my answer, because here I am thinking. It’s amazing what you learn when you listen, which is so one thinks about religious leaders who took an active role in the civil-rights movement, and at various times against war, because they felt essentially the precepts of their religion.
I guess what I’d say—and I have to think—I don’t know what the criteria would be, but there clearly is a place of what you ask about the role of religion, if you will, in the political space. I think—and if things are important enough, it’s hard to say why to what I said, I think the emphasis should be on behaviors, which I think is probably still true, because religion then can be a moderating force.
On certain issues you’re never going to reach agreement. But there might be—there are those times where you’d say this is such a powerful issue—it could be climate change for some; I suppose it could be one side or other side of the abortion debate for others; it could be matters of war and peace for others—those are where religious values are so in play that it would be a sin of omission not to be involved.
Indeed, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, after you basically ask forgiveness for all the sins of commission, the last one is you ask forgiveness of the sin of inaction and omission, where you stand beside and mobilize when you should get involved. And I’ve often thought about that. And I just think—but involvement then places a special—because it’s got added implications. And again, it could be the sort of thing that potentially splits congregations or whatever. But there are times when to stand aloof is just as much of a moral choice and a political choice as to get involved.
So I amend my earlier answer. But I think one has to go about it with great care and caution. But there are times when I think there is—things are either stark enough or important enough when the option of, if you will, standing aside is just as much of a political decision and may not be the right one.
SINGH: Let’s take a moment—
SINGH: —to take a question from our online audience.
OPERATOR: Our next online question will be from Azza Karam.
KARAM: First of all, thank you very much indeed. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed today’s presentations. And thank you so much for this particular panel that brings so much together.
A couple of points. As somebody who’s been working in the area of intersection between religions and public policy in governmental, nongovernmental, and intergovernmental settings, I think we should just take into account a few things; just keep in the back of our mind.
Number one, there is no such thing as religion. There are multiple religions. There’s no one religion. So when we keep talking about religion, we tend to simplify. And that’s an erroneous problem and can create some rather egregious violations.
Number two, I think we are way beyond the civil rights movement where we learned from it. But I think what we’ve heard today points to the fact that we need to be considering not just religion or religions, but perhaps the multi-religious intersectionality with various public-policy and certainly with foreign-policy decisions.
The multi-religious—and I ask you here to understand what I’m trying to say by just imagining for a moment what the debate on abortion in the United States of America would look like if it was not just listening to the various Christian articulations thereof and positions on it, but listening to what different religions working together might actually have to say about the whole issue.
Just having that knowledge in the back of our mind, I think, would strategically transform much of how this kind of articulation in the foreign space—sorry—in the public space in the U.S. might look like. So the multi-religious is something that I don’t think we are very literate about, and we should start talking about multi-religious literacy rather than just literacy of a religious space.
The third and my last point is completely to concur with what has been said by Richard and the moderator—thank you—so far is that what we need to do is not make a big fuss about religions and not to assume at the same time that it is not part of what’s going on. I think if we look at the interaction between the Kirill, patriarch Kirill, and Mr.—and President Putin, we would realize that, far from religion not really being part of the foreign policy, it is very much a determinant thereof. And I would remind us that we spoke, and we still do, about just war before the invasion of Iraq, and that was a concept developed by certain religious actors and elements.
So the notion that religions aren’t involved enough, are not really impacting—with all due respect, if we look at the rest of the world, including this country, that notion is erroneous at best and it leads to a lot of ignorance in the way that we look at religion. So maybe we should start to be a bit more pragmatic about how religions are already influencing the public space in foreign policy in particular, because that understanding might help us evolve a much more nuanced approach to what we mean.
HAASS: The only thing I’d say is—thank you for that—is that there’s a difference between a religious leader using religion to justify a foreign-policy choice as opposed to taking religious values and ethics and shaping a foreign-policy choice and helping secular leaders think through. And what we’re seeing in Russia is the former. We’re seeing religion being used to justify a deeply flawed and misguided foreign-policy choice. Indeed, if religious precepts had ever been applied by Mr. Putin, this war never would have been launched. And I think that’s sort of the basic point here.
SINGH: Thank you.
And a question up front.
HAASS: There’s one in the back, I think.
SINGH: Then one back there next. Thank you.
GREENHAW: Thank you. I’m David Greenhaw. As of a week ago, I started as the senior minister of a church in Naples, Florida. So who knows?
I wanted to—it seems to me that one of the major roles that religion plays is the ability to imagine—imagine that things might be really other than they are. One of the problems I have with Ukraine right now is I can’t imagine how the heck this will stop and where it’ll go. Because you, if I’m remembering correctly, spent time in Northern Ireland and were involved in that—and that’s sufficiently long ago that things have changed—did you ever imagine then that it would look like it does today? And, if so, how? And, if not, are you more encouraged or less? And can you wax on the role of imagination?
HAASS: Just twenty seconds before I get to Northern Ireland. One of the reasons you may find it difficult to imagine how the war ends is it may not. And the war—people forget that Mr. Putin pursued a war in the Donbas for eight years, from 2014 until this February, before he expanded the war.
My own view—I hope I’m wrong; good news is I’m wrong a lot—I think it might be less difficult for him politically to simply continue this war than it would be to try to stop it, because if he stops it and he tried to formally stop it, he would have to agree to Ukraine’s separate status. He would have to accept certain limits on Russia’s position. I don’t see him doing that. So I think the most likely scenario is an open-ended, frozen, whatever you want to call it, conflict.
Northern Ireland, I got involved roughly twenty years ago when I was the U.S. envoy from 2001 to ’03. And then I got involved again about six, seven—no, almost ten years ago now, when I was brought in by the leadership of Northern Ireland itself to help them deal with some of their challenges, the most interesting one of which was one that is common to many societies, including this one, but virtually every society around the world, which is how to deal with its own past. And the struggle of societies to come to terms with their own legacies is a really, really difficult one. And Northern Ireland still hasn’t done it.
So we gave them a roadmap for doing it. The British government just announced about a week ago a revival of it, using many of the things we proposed. But it still has to happen. So in that it’s still very divided.
Interestingly enough, here, when we talk about integrated schools in this country, we obviously talk about it usually in terms of color. In Northern Ireland, integrated education is religious. It’s denominational. So when you speak about the integrated education movement, you’re talking basically about where Protestant and Catholic young kids go to school. The society, though, is so divided that it’s still less than 10 percent. It’s a relatively small.
So, no, I mean, you had slight demographic changes. Brexit was the big surprise, and that changed the dynamic. You had the—to me the most interesting thing, which I didn’t quite see but actually see as potentially heartening, is the growth of the center. What happened in the elections the other day—and for those of you who don’t pay—is that Sinn Fein’s so-called republican party—their version of the word, not ours—got the most seats, got a plurality. The unionist parties got more, but they were divided. But what was interesting was the strength of the center, the Alliance, that’s what it’s called.
And so you’ve got some changing dynamics, in part for demographic changes, experiential changes, and then because of Brexit. I don’t think Irish unification or anything like it is going to happen any time soon. I’m not sure you’re going to have the standing up of local institutions any time soon. What I hope we don’t have is a revival of violence.
And it’s interesting. One of the things that worries me a little about Northern Ireland, since you don’t teach the past very well, I worry that a whole generation is coming of age who doesn’t know about the Troubles. One of the things I try to do, one of my many unsuccessful things, is I tried to get established a museum of the history of the Troubles. I wanted there to be a place where young people in Northern Ireland of all denominations, traditions, could go to learn about their own past—not to teach one narrative but to teach here’s the basic facts and here’s the varying interpretations, the competing narratives. Like I said, it was one of the many, many areas I failed and not getting to where I wanted.
So I think at the moment it’s—the biggest problem is probably drift, which discourages certain types of economic investment, and the rest—I don’t think—but what’ll be interesting is if we ever get to the point where large-scale or wholesale political change is possible, which would mean unification with Ireland, whether that—how that’s accepted by the population, and would that become an occasion of violence, in this case from the Unionist side. Well, it’s called the Loyalist side when it uses violence. And that’s—I don’t know the answer to that question. I hope not, but I fear there’s some possibility. And even small numbers of people, as we’ve learned, very small numbers of groups in a democratic society can cause outsized problems. But we’ll see.
SINGH: Great. Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Haass, for your time today. I see we’re coming to the end. So apologies that we didn’t get to everyone’s questions. We hear from Dr. Haass often. So if you’re involved next year, you’ll get to hear from him again, hopefully in between, joining the programs.
HAASS: Hopefully, I’ll be—hopefully, next year this guy Haass will be much more positive and optimistic—(laughter)—because this is—this is a downer to end your day with us.
But again, thank you. Thank you all for giving us your time and your interest. And thank you for what you do. When I look around and I look at this society, I think you’re all individuals of extraordinary influence and importance. So thank you for what you do.
And if we can be a resource in any way, Irina and her team are here—quite literally, in her case—if not 24/7, maybe 22/7. (Laughter.) We allow her two hours a day for a cat nap. So if we can be helpful—if you have ideas about things we can be doing the rest of the year, let us know. If you have ideas about ways we can make these types of meetings better, let us know. But in the meantime, Irina, thank you and your gang for all that you do. And thank you all for coming. (Applause.)