Extremism and the Decline of Religious Freedom in Northern Nigeria

Thursday, October 22, 2020
RETUERS/Temilade Adelaja
Sam Brownback

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, US Department of State

John Campbell

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Samuel Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, discusses extremism and the decline of religious freedom in Northern Nigeria. John Campbell, Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at CFR, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy series. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today's session is part of CFR's roundtable series on U.S. strategic African partners and is co-sponsored with CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program. Our discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website at CFR.org. So I'm delighted to have my good colleague and friend, Ambassador John Campbell, moderate today's conversation. Ambassador Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at CFR. He's the author of the upcoming book, Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World and it’s for publication in December. And he writes the blog, Africa in Transition. He has a distinguished career as a foreign service officer, served twice in Nigeria, first time as political counselor and as ambassador from 2004 to 2007. So I'm going to turn it over now to Ambassador Campbell to introduce our distinguished speaker. Thank you, John. Over to you.


CAMPBELL: Thank you, Irina. And on behalf of the Council's Africa Program, I would also like to welcome all of the participants in this roundtable. A reminder, today's session is on the record. Today we are welcoming back to the Council, President Trump's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback. In 2019, he was the keynote speaker at the Council's Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop. A former congressman, senator and governor, the ambassador has had a long career in public service and a deep interest in religious issues. He has also been particularly engaged with West Africa and its challenges to the free exercise of religion.


Our conversation today is particularly timely. The rioting in Nigeria initially focused on police brutality. But now protests are also focusing on the country's long history of poor governance and weak accountability. In northern Nigeria, and the adjacent parts of the Sahel, radical Islamic factions appear to be going from strength to strength, destabilizing the region. In Nigeria's oil patch, a low-level insurrection persists. In the middle of the country there is fighting over land and water that often acquires an ethnic and religious dimension. Indeed, the Nigerian Army is now deployed in most of the country's thirty-six states. The institutional and bureaucratic weaknesses of the Nigerian state is well known. Nigerian national identity is weak, and most people have little confidence in the state.


So, Ambassador Brownback, to start us off, let me pose two questions. First, what evidence is there that the Nigerian state has the capacity to protect religious freedom, when too often it cannot guarantee the security of its citizens? And a second and related question is, if we recognize that religion is also being used to stoke violence across the Sahel and the risk of violence in coastal West Africa, places like Cote d'Ivoire, for example, if that risk is growing, what can Washington do to address this threat?


BROWNBACK: Well, thanks, John—Ambassador Campbell. Thanks, Irina. And thanks, Council on Foreign Relations. I want to start off really with those things if I could. As a young man, a White House fellow in the George H.W. Bush administration in the trade field, the Council on Foreign Relations sent me to a place called Yugoslavia, that the week before, Slovenia had voted to secede from the union and I met with Serbs, and Croats, and all sorts of people as a young man. They all looked alike to me, but they knew who each other was, and it wasn't long thereafter there was bloody, bloody conflict. And CFR was trying to be in there and be peaceful and help the transitions taking place without bloodshed, and in some cases, it happened, in some cases it didn't. But anyway, I wanted to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for investing in me some thirty years ago and letting me be on this program today in what I think is a critically important topic. And also, before I answer that question, I want to say that the United States calls on Nigeria to use maximum restraint in these protests and not just be brutal in putting and dealing with the protesters. They need to show restraint. They need to show respect for their people in the protests that are taking place today.


Your question is a good one, John, but in a sort, it's irrelevant. You're saying, well, they don't have the capacity, so then we just give them a pass? And we say, okay, you don't have the capacity, you aren't showing the will, so therefore you don't have to do it. But what we're talking about is the very basics of having a state—it's providing security for your own people. And that's just the basics. And so we really need to, I think, ask the question and put it to the Nigerian government that they need to exercise the ability to be able to provide security to their own people and not in brutal fashions that exacerbate the problem, as has happened in some cases in the past, but they need to be able to protect their religious community, and they need to be able to protect their broad civil society. And they need to be willing to invest and do it right and to have their police forces properly trained. They need to call on the international community to work with them in these training exercises and activities to be able to provide the security that their people need.


The second question about the use of religion in the region, and I want to go at a slight bit of a tangent on this and if you want to bring me back to it, then do it. Yes, religion is not a neutral force. It's going to be used for good or for ill. And what we've seen around the world, way too often, is the use of religion for ill. We've seen it used to divide people; we've seen it used to motivate people to attack somebody else. We're seeing it used today in places like Burma, where the Rohingya get kicked out primarily because they're Muslims, not exclusively, but that's a big part of it. And we're seeing across much of Africa, this real rub and divide moving from, you know, ethnic division to a religious division often between Christians and Muslims.


And I think we have to look at that and be honest and say these are complex situations, they have many factors that are involved in it, but religion is a factor. And what we need to do, I think, is to work with the better angels in religion and helping religious leaders that want to bring peace and want to bring people together, to be elevated and to be ones that are in the leadership roles and not the decisive of religious voices that say, we have to attack them, they are bad people, and that want to divide and use religion in a decisive way.


And one final point on this, we just started this year a thing called the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative. And this is a gathering of top theologians from Judaism, Islam, and Christianity around the single point that our faith does not support the use of violence in promoting or trying to evangelize the faith. Now, people have just war doctrines. I'm not talking about a just war doctrine. What I'm talking about is the evangelizing and spreading the faith. And these theologians have come together and said, our faith does not support the theological view that you can use violence to expand the faith. And we need to get more religious leaders out there like that talking about no violence. We want to have a good discussion and we should have a hearty discussion. And by the way, the Abrahamic faiths all claim the same starter of Abraham and have that brotherly connection, and we want to really emphasize that. And so I think we ought to engage religious leaders at the global level and at the local level. I think we ought to engage those that are willing to look at religion as an instrument of peace and of unity. And that we ought to push back and hold back those religious voices that seek to use it for ill. That's a little different for us as State Department, because we generally don't want to engage in religion. But the fact of the matter is most of the world is religious. It's not a neutral force, as I mentioned. And we should involve the better angels of this to help move forward and have a positive outcome or at least less negative outcome in a number of situations, particularly in West Africa.


CAMPBELL: A couple of thoughts. With respect to Nigeria—a state—and wrapped up in the concept of state sovereignty is the ability to protect your own people, I would suggest that Nigeria's inability to do that means that it's not really a state in the conventional sense of the word. That it's something else, it's a different entity. And that makes relating it to the Nigerian government difficult. Let's take, for example, the Abrahamic Initiative, which I think has all kinds of really very positive possibilities in Nigeria. Could or should the U.S. government, either alone or ideally in conjunction with the Buhari administration, actively work to bring together Nigerian religious leaders straight across the Christian-Muslim traditional religion divides?


BROWNBACK: Absolutely. Absolutely. Look at the recently announced Abrahamic Accords between the UAE and Israel—a fabulous thing moving forward. And often in the Middle East, in the past, we've tried to avoid religion and say that, you know, that's just something that's going to divide us and get in the way of good diplomacy. But how do you take religion out of the Middle East? And the same to me in Africa? How do you take religion out of Africa? This is a very religious population that's there, and in Nigeria, even more so.


CAMPBELL: It's intensely religious. Absolutely.


BROWNBACK: So why not build?


CAMPBELL: But how practically do we do it? Do we, for example, do we set up an office within the embassy in Abuja that has responsibility for enhanced dialogue with Nigerian religious leaders?


BROWNBACK: I certainly would be supportive of that. I think that's one that the secretary and others would have to decide. But I think what you do is, to me, on multiple levels here, I would get these global Abrahamic leaders and bring them into Nigeria. These ones that have recognized positions on a global basis and have them call together a meeting in Nigeria of national and local religious leaders—Muslim, Christian—and say, we want to talk about the theology here, of the use of violence, and how much our theology actually pushes back against the use of violence. Our theology does not support the use of violence. And here and let's go through it and have this be a public presentation and discussion and then have them go around the country to really talk with the country and the people about, now wait a minute, we're seeing these divides and we know we've got resource conflicts, we know we have farmer-herder conflicts, and we've got tracks going to deal with those. But we shouldn't have religious division. And yet that's one of the fuels that most of these terrorists, these Islamic terrorist elements, use the most of to try to drive things. And they kill people on the eve of Eid or they are killing people the day after Christmas, really to drive that point even further and to get more blood boiling in the country.


CAMPBELL: Bringing in outside or religious leaders from other parts of the world, there is some precedents for that in Nigeria. There was a time, when I was ambassador, when there was widespread opposition to polio vaccination, particularly in the north. And religious leaders, particularly from South Asia, from Malaysia, Sri Lanka—who are all Muslim—were invited into the country and seem to have some impact. And the actual vaccine was then manufactured in, I think, it was manufactured in Malaysia. So it was not American, was not European, and it seems to have worked. So there may be some ground for building on that. My own experience has been that the various Christian denominations are more resistant to bringing in outside religious leaders than on the Islamic side of the equation.


BROWNBACK: Yes, I couldn't speak to that piece of it. I know I spent a good period of time, now it’s been nearly been two years ago, traveling the country meeting with various religious leaders. And my lament was that so much of what we do as a U.S. government, we want to really kind of ignore—that's not the right term—we don't want to engage religious leaders because of our separation of church and state. We look at and say, you know, wait these two stay apart. But you're not going to get anywhere unless you do engage these religious leaders, a number of who, in Nigeria, some of the southern Christian ministers, they may be speaking to a million to two million people a weekend. They're speaking to that many people. You may not agree with them, you may not like some of the things that are going on, but we need to be talking and engaging them as an instrument of peace.


CAMPBELL: Well, religious leaders in Nigeria very often command much broader respect than political leaders do. And in a book I have coming out in early December, I argue that we diplomats need to, to a much greater extent than we now do, engage religious leaders but also traditional rulers. And of course the line between traditional rulers and religious leaders is often very, very thin. The question comes back to how you actually do it. I mean, ambassadors can do a lot simply because of their position, but there has to be a way to institutionalize broader outreach to powerful elements in a country that are not directly related to the government. In other words, pay more attention to religious leaders, traditional rulers, and less attention to the sort of diplomatic minutia that ties up so much of diplomatic time.


BROWNBACK: That's a seasoned observation by a seasoned observer. I couldn't agree more. A mechanism I think is a valuable one that I've seen in use is a religious freedom roundtable. There are about thirty of these started up around the world. I co-chair one here in Washington, now it's gone all virtual, every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon, and its religious adherence and the atheist community, all coming together to promote and protect each other's religious freedom. And to push on various places around the world where somebody is being persecuted—be they Muslim, or Christian, or Hindu, or atheist or whatever it is. And we don't talk about a common theology because that would erupt into a complete discord. We talked about a common human right that all are interested in and having protected. If the Nigerian government had several of these going in several of the key hotspot areas in the country inviting all participants, the government themselves participating, but mostly having it be civil society led, I think you would start to surface these topics on a localized level. And when a horrific event happens, somebody is intentionally beheaded, or ten people are killed by one of these Islamic terrorist groups, then you've got a group to go to and to say, okay, now here are the facts of what's happened and we want you to put out a statement and help there be peace because the terrorist who wants this to blow up, they want to destroy the state. They want a caliphate. And we don't want to play into that, but you can't ignore religion and say that just will keep us from playing into it, because the bad guys are going to use the more difficult aspects of division in religion to their advantage. And they've been doing that very successfully in the last several decades and we shouldn't let them. I mean shame on us that we can't figure out how to confront their use of religion in a more positive way.


CAMPBELL: There are civil organizations in Nigeria fairly small scale that, in fact, tried to do that. They will send out teams that are equally divided between Christians and Muslims into particular hotspots and try to talk to local people. The last time there was major rioting in Nigeria was 2012, when the government tried to do away with the fuel subsidy, and during those riots, particularly in Lagos, you had Christians protecting Muslims during the Muslim time of prayer and Muslims protecting Christians during Sunday church services. So there's something that can probably be built on there. Let me take our conversations in a slightly different direction. We've been talking about basically about Nigeria. How should we approach this kind of problem on a regional basis? I'm thinking particularly countries that are newly vulnerable—places like Burkina Faso, possibly even Cote d'Ivoire, certainly Mali.


BROWNBACK: Yes, we've got to take it into the broader region into the Sahel of the Lake Chad region. And we've been working, as well as others, but we've been working on a religious leader engagement project in that broader region, and I think we have to. The terrorist elements are obviously targeting this region for disruption, and they want to create havoc so that they can rule in this region. I think we've got to engage. I think one of the key ways of doing this on a long-term basis is with these religious leaders and maybe, Ambassador, may even be that we start to distribute some of our aid program through the religious leaders that are seeking peace. Or that we start to deliver some of our educational materials so that you're enhancing their position in the community, and you're also building the international support. I think too often we've relied on military force by some country, either the local country or outside military forces. And they have a place and I don't dispute that, but they don't solve a problem long term. To solve a problem long term, you have to change hearts. And that's where I think we really need to engage these religious leaders on a broader basis. Even engaging our chaplain corps in the military in a religious leader engagement at a localized level is another potential asset, along with the development aid, along with these religious leader roundtables, that I think can be successful.


This is a kind of a crude example. But in my background, one time, years ago, I was agriculture secretary for the state of Kansas, which is a significant spot. And I loved the job. We had this program where we were dealing with noxious weeds in Kansas. And we'd go out and spray the noxious weeds and knock them down every year and you'd go out and spray one day and next day those weeds are dead. But they came back the next year because the seeds are still in the ground. And I had a director there that said, you know, we've got another way we can do this. It's a biological containment, we can move in a series of weevils that attack this noxious weed, and they'll take it down. But it'll take five years for the weevil to get started and to build up in the colonies and to really eat all the weeds down. But once they get the weed taken down, the weed is gone. It's dealt with. And that's a little bit of what I'm talking about here. These are longer term engagements. They are more natural engagements in dealing with the natural contours of the people. The African people, many are very religious, very tolerant, and respectful historically and traditionally in this region, and you've had these radical elements come in to radicalize. I think we need to play into the more natural elements of the people and work with them.


CAMPBELL: That does lead us to the role that outside elements are playing. It's interesting how in Nigeria, Muslims will often say that outside Christian agitators set off violence. Christians will say it's outside agitators, particularly coming from the Persian Gulf, that that set off violence. Do we have a diplomatic role with respect to outside or to countries that are seeking to build influence in West Africa?


BROWNBACK: I think so, particularly if those are influences seeking to be used for ill. I think we should be confronting those countries where those sources come from. I think we should be aggressively pushing back on those if they're not trying to be constructive and peace building in the region. And I think we should be calling them out publicly as well if people won't desist what they're doing. Unfortunately, you have several major countries in the world today that seek to use religion as a divisive and attacking tool. I just had a briefing on one today. And I think we need to push back on those privately, and if it doesn't work there, I think we need to push back more publicly.


CAMPBELL: Of course, it's difficult to do because very often the agencies, be they Christian or Muslim, that are based outside and receiving outside funding, are separate and apart from governments. And even though they may be tolerated by governments or even supported by governments, as a diplomatic exercise, it's difficult to do.


BROWNBACK: It is, but it's not impossible because those agencies, those entities that are outside of government, operate within a country and by a government. And so that government is not incapable of addressing this topic and we shouldn't let them get by with that answer, either, by the way. We should be, I think, pushing them hard about this. And as I mentioned too, privately I think at first, to say, look, we know what you're doing. We know what's happening from your country. We don't like it, and we're going to push hard against you on this. And if you don't get the message privately, we're going to go publicly and we're willing to look at sanctions, too.


CAMPBELL: Which in a sense brings us back to where we started. And that is in countries that are bureaucratically weak, institutionally weak, capacity to actually move from point A to point B is limited. Therefore, I wonder if there should not be greater emphasis on assisting those countries in institution building?


BROWNBACK: Yes, but I also, I wonder, Ambassador, we've tried that for a number of years in a number of ways and in various places. It seems like we've had limited success in doing that. I really wonder if we'd be better off working through some of these more traditional leadership places or religious community that is going to be there when a government may come and go. And they're going to continue to be there just because of—


CAMPBELL: Oh, absolutely.


BROWNBACK: —our limited success.


CAMPBELL: Yes, absolutely. It's not either/or. For example, in Nigeria it often takes years for a criminal case to proceed through the courts. Part of that is because everything is done by hand. There are no computers. Well, we have lots of computers. I mean there's lots of practical assistance that—it's not really much money—that can be supplied. The Department of Justice when I was ambassador, seconded some federal prosecutors to Abuja to sort of basically teach how you do prosecution. Those kinds of programs are a great success. They don't cost much money, but they're not very many of them.


BROWNBACK: Yes. And I'm fine with those. I'm just, I'm thinking of my recent experience in northern Iraq where you had ISIS go in, radicalize an area, go after the Yazidis and Christians— just horrific, a genocide that took place. And then when you go to rebuild the area you go through the Iraqi government. And you go, well, we haven't had much success doing that. So we started going through local faith-based institutions and groups that were there before the attacks and will be there afterwards. And they're harder to manage. They don't have the accounting systems that we like to have in all of our accounting things, so they've got to associate with some bigger entity. They're harder to watch because they're smaller. But they were there yesterday, they will be there tomorrow. The government will come and go. The Christian Association of Nigeria was there yesterday is going to be there tomorrow. The imam of Sokoto—he's going to be there today and tomorrow. And I just, I'm looking at those and thinking those are just longer term, they're harder to work with. But they also, I think, will get you more goodwill with the people on a long-term basis.


CAMPBELL: Well, on that note, I think we should bring our audience into the into the conversation. Irina, can we have some questions?


FASKIANOS: Absolutely. Thank you both. So for all of you, please click on the "participants" icon at the bottom of your screen to raise your hand. If you're on an e-tablet, you could click on the "more" button and raise your hand there and I will call on you. And please accept the unmute prompt or unmute yourself and say your name and affiliation please to give the ambassador context. So the first question will go to George Ward.


WARD: Good afternoon. I'm George Ward, longtime foreign service officer but currently at the Institute for Defense Analyses. There's no question that inter-religious conflict in Nigeria is a reality. But it's also reality that some of those conflicts are intertwined with ethnic and economic interests. I'm thinking of the herder-farmer conflicts in that country and elsewhere in that subregion. And we've seen this in the past, you mentioned the former Yugoslavia. My experience in the former Yugoslavia was that oftentimes religious conflicts were fueled by people who had political and economic interests. So my question is really, how do you separate out these strands of conflict? And, in effect, how do you motivate religious leaders not to become pawns of other interests, which strikes me is sometimes happening in Africa as well as elsewhere?


BROWNBACK: Thanks, George, for mentioning that and absolutely in the Balkans, we've got this Abrahamic Faiths Initiative going there because there religion has been used for millennia to divide and kill people and it's part of the division. Separating out, I think we propose solutions in the various categories and recognize that they're all part of kind of what creates this cauldron of division and willingness for violence. So the farmer-herder, they've got a national agriculture strategy, a livestock strategy. In my background in Kansas, you look, one of my first writings that I ever did was on Kansas fence law that was part of our herder-farmer conflict in our history. There are ways to deal with this. It's not a religious issue, but it's a part of the puzzle. And it needs to be dealt with. But you also need to deal with this religion issue.


The issue about the pawns is a really good one, and that's my point about religion is not a neutral force. It will be used for good or for ill. We've just so often allowed the bad guys to get there first and to sow it as a tool of division and hatred, and even more than us going in and working with religious leaders and say, now wait a minute, you can be one of the forces for good to stop this—this is what it says, you honor love in your tradition, you honor God in your tradition, he's a just God, he's a loving God—and work with the religious leaders that will work with us, and then amplify their voices, because we know the bad guys are going to go in and find some religious leaders that will lead in a negative way. We know they're going to do this. They've done it in many places around the world. And I just think surely we can be smart enough to start engaging as a pushback against the use of religion as a tool of war.


FASKIANOS: Great, let's go next to Tom McDonald.


MCDONALD: Mr. Ambassador Campbell, good to see you, John. And, you know, our other ambassador, Mr. Brownback with all your titles, senator, governor, nice to see you, Sam. Perhaps you recall me visiting with you while you're in the Senate because of several of my Kansas clients. But in any event, real quick here, Jerry Moran sends his regards. I talked to Jerry this morning on some things. And he knows all the good things you are doing and, you know, we're sort of handicapping the election. But to you, Mr. Ambassador Brownback, you previously and some of our listeners, and I've been a CFR member for twenty-some years may not know of all your good work in the Horn of Africa and helping Christianity when you were in the Senate. There's a lot of Christians in Ethiopia, and I've traveled extensively and in other parts. So you come very well equipped. And I've always admired John Campbell's work in Nigeria. He's a much broader expert than that and was kind when I've had visited his embassy before. I might say my first Nigeria trip was in 1974, as a student, and we will all remember the Biafran War, and John coming into the old airport in Ikeja, you know, under the military. I didn't notice them beating up Christians in the Lagos airport, the old airport in Ikeja, but they, you know, Ambassador Brownback, they were certainly opening luggage, military people in the terminal and I'm nineteen years old, throwing their personal belongings around. Nigeria is a great country that I've visited several times, and I've had a chance to visit with John, but you know, Ambassador Campbell can tell you how complicated all of that is. The question and recommendation I wanted to put forward and posit is having traveled extensively for U.S. multinationals, especially in places like Senegal, right. One of my clients has a major hub there in Dakar, which is a great city, but that is a Muslim society but some Christians. You know, Mr. Ambassador, Ambassador Brownback, why not try to bring on Senegal for one? It seems so out of the line of fire of, you know, the terrorists plaguing Ouagadougou in Burkina and Mali and Bamako. But perhaps, as John was suggesting, broaden this out to West Africa, almost an ECOWAS-type effort, where there are Christian and Muslim leaders who could come together, and as a delegation, perhaps visit in Nigeria. I would also posit the National Council of Churches. During my time as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, of course, [inaudible] is very different. We only had at the time only two mosques in Zimbabwe, it was very either Episcopal, Anglican, or Catholic. But picking up on John's point, you know, we got to get past COVID, but I think religious leaders talking to religious leaders from West Africa and maybe finding some countries where there is not so much instability to try to bring some stability to others. And let me just finish by, you know, Sam, you're doing some great work. You're doing God's work, and congratulations and please, please keep doing that.


BROWNBACK: Thanks, I appreciate that. I hear your suggestion about getting some religious leaders in the region that have had some success in bringing them in and that could well be a piece of the puzzle to engage them on. I think that's a good thought.


CAMPBELL: And Senegal is particularly interesting from this perspective, overwhelmingly Muslim, but its first president was a Christian.


FASKIANOS: Great. Let's go next to John Temin.


TEMIN: Thank you. Good afternoon. Thanks for your comments. I'm John Temin, I'm the director of the Africa program at Freedom House. I'm going to ask a question that is slightly off the Nigeria topic, but I think is quite an important one. There is some reporting out today and yesterday that talks about the State Department considering labeling several of the most respected human rights organizations as anti-Semitic. And in my personal view, that would be an awful thing to do. Now, I recognize that this may be coming from a different part of the State Department from where you sit, but also that given your role and responsibility in history, that it's probably a topic on which you have some thoughts. So I just wanted to ask if that's a topic that you have engaged in or if you have any general thoughts on the reporting around this potential move?


BROWNBACK: Yes, and I don't at this time, I just saw the reporting myself recently on it. I want to look into it. It's not in my area that I'm in at the present time. And I know it's being discussed in State Department and other places, but I don't have any comment that I'm authorized to put forward on that right now.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go next to Sylvain Romain. Sorry.


SYLVAIN: Yes, I hope you can hear me. Yes, I'm Sylvain from France, living in Austria. And it’s very late up there. I've heard the word goodwill and also the example of mutual support from Christian side toward Muslims and vice versa. On the other hand, we have heard about radical elements, Islamic terrorist groups. So my question is, are we talking about a conflict between Islam and Christianity? Or between some Islamic terrorist groups and maybe some Christian radical groups, I don't know? And if yes, are we doing the same mistake, like President Macron did a couple of weeks ago, when in France, he condemned Islam in general instead of condemning Islamic terrorism. By the way, I'm working very closely with the Al-Azhar University in the Center of Observation for Terrorism. And we published a very significant document, I think, with Sheik Ahmad al-Tayyeb to express our sorrow for this confusion between Islamism and Islam. Of course, I don't know to which extent the regular Muslim always put it, the Muslim politicians would support, back, or tolerate or condemned Islamic terrorism. So my question is, do you separate both in Nigeria? Or do you think the problem is really between the Muslim/Christian and not just between terrorist groups? Thank you.


BROWNBACK: I think it's well said and well asked. Most of the victims of radical Islamic terrorists are Muslims. The biggest number of victims and that was in my comments and I had an example even of a—well the grand imam of Djibo. He was a man known for bringing Muslims and Christians together in Burkina Faso. He was abducted and later found dead. That was in August. So I mean, your point is absolutely well taken and well made. I work with a number of Muslim leaders who seek peace and are putting forward proposals for peace. That's in part of the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative. We're working with Muslim and Christian and Jewish leaders. You can find activists in various religions that are seeking to divide and sow hate, that's not hard to find. My whole point of it is that for too long, we've kind of ignored or we wanted to kind of isolate religion in a box off to the side, and we just want to deal with diplomacy or defense or trade. You know, we want to deal with the normal tools of statecraft as we see them. When I'm saying we've got to engage these religious leaders that are willing to work and work on the topic of peace—be they Muslim, be they Christian, be they Jewish, be they atheistic, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever you want to have. We need to engage them because if we don't the radicalized elements will find radical elements that will listen to them for violence. And so I think your distinction is a valid one. I just think we've got to get more engaged with the religious leaders that will engage with us, and we to lift up those peaceful voices that are a true representative in their faith.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. We'll go next to Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon.


IDOWU-FEARON: Thank you for recognizing me and good evening, John. Nice to see you. Thank you for both presentations. I'm a Nigerian and I come from the northern part of the country. John, you did say Nigeria cannot protect its own people and therefore Nigeria is not a state. I'll be very interested in what you think or how you would describe Nigeria as a nation of nations. And Ambassador, I'm interested in your commitment to engaging at the local and global levels. Nigeria is very complex, as both of you know, and a majority of us participating here. How do we separate religion from tribalism? Secondly, religion from politics because ignorance is a big problem in Nigeria, particularly in the north, as John knows. How will you assist us by delivering us from the hands of our politicians who exploit our ignorance of what true religion is, and as a true religion, I mean Christianity and Islam. These are my concerns. And John knows that I spent all my life in this field. Thank you.


CAMPBELL: I would point out that when I was ambassador to Nigeria, the archbishop was working very closely with the Sultan of Sokoto on precisely these issues.


BROWNBACK: You raise a good point on how you separate out religion from politics or from tribalism. And I don't know if I've got a good answer on that. I just know that I've seen religion used by politics, and I've seen it used deadly by politics in too many places around the world. I've seen tribalism used deadly in politics and for division purposes. And I think what we should do is recognize that this happens. And that religion can often be the one of the primary propellants to get people to hate one another and divide. But we shouldn't give up at that. Or we just shouldn't say religion’s hopeless. We should say, we recognize that that can and does happen and has happened in many places around the world and we're going to push back the other way. We're going to call the Christians and Muslim leaders together and quote their sacred text. What's your primary calling? Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and flesh and your neighbor as yourself. Who's my neighbor? It's everybody. And we want to use the text of Islam and Judaism and find those religious leaders that would stand up and stand together, stand together. And one final point on this, I think we've set way too low of a bar. When we say we want to teach tolerance, okay, I tolerate you today but what about tomorrow? And I've seen way too many situations in the world where people would tell me, well, we used to live side by side and then one day our neighbors just came over and started killing people. We need to be teaching respect or love for each other, not tolerance. It's too low of a bar that can be here one day and gone the next. But if you teach respect and love for each other as most of the sacred texts teach, now we've got something that you can build a long-term durable diverse society around.


FASKIANOS: We just got one from Stephen Hilbert.



HILBERT: Great. Thank you very much. John, good to see you again. Ambassador Brownback, good to see you again. As you know, I work for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Africa policy advisor in the Office of International Justice and Peace. And in this region of West Africa, CRS [Catholic Relief Services], with participation of the Conference, is working on a Sahel peace initiative. And one of the pillars of that initiative is to work interfaith to bring Christian religious leaders and Muslim religious leaders—and this is focusing on Mali, Burkina, and Niger—to bring them together to start trying to change the narrative. And during our discussions, we were doing this almost a year ago back in October and early November, is, you know, this idea of you know, we can no longer just allow the extremists, as you talked about Ambassador Brownback, to just occupy the field without any kind of, say pushback. I mean, not violent pushback, but that there is a competing narrative here. And this narrative is one of not just naivete kind of let's-all-live-together, but is no, this is a tradition we've respected for hundreds of years, and we're going to try to rebuild this. But this is a long-term kind of an effort. And the same thing exists in Nigeria. I mean, it's probably even more, it seems just as severe in Nigeria, in particular in the Middle Belt with the herder-farmer conflict. So I guess what the idea here is, and John, you spoke about this is they, we've got governments that are at best, negligent, at worst, predatory, how our goal is to try to build up the aspect of civil society that is religious, to try to build their influence over these governments to take on their responsibilities. And it's really sort of civil society, but it's "we the people" kind of civil society. So in the next months, starting next year, probably we're hoping to roll this out. What would be your reactions to this? How can we work with your office, Ambassador Brownback, and others in State Department, USAID, to try to build this up and in particular advocacy and peacebuilding efforts? We're already working in humanitarian efforts. So thank you very much, and I welcome your comments.


BROWNBACK: Well, thank you, Steve, and appreciate the Conference of Catholic Bishops and all that you've done for building peace around the world. I have this dream of having Pope Francis, the head of al-Azhar, and a major Protestant leader, maybe the head of the Baptist Convention, show up in Abuja, or Lagos, or other places in Nigeria and West Africa talking piece, talking human fraternity, bringing people together around these notions and discussing theology of what the theology is to support this and bring in local leaders in together to talk about this in that region before it blows up and fights and the terrorists are there claiming territory and some sort of caliphate. We will work with you and your office. Our religious affairs engagement group would be happy to work with you. We've been putting together plans to do things along this line and work with both local and international actors in that region and would welcome the chance to work with you. If you want to contact our office, we would love to have a chance to see how we also might involve the development aid people in this project as well. I think they would be interested too.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. So John, you have the last question. We are three minutes of the hour. So I will leave it to you two.


CAMPBELL: Thank you very much. Ambassador, with respect to the conflict in the Middle Belt, overwater, overland, often, particularly the media, put an ethnic and religious gloss on conflicts which have multiple causations. And in my experience, the media often do not understand what the real causes of the conflict are. But by falling back into a paradigm of the conflicts are caused by religion and ethnicity, oddly, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems to me that there might be a greater role for us, both the U.S. government but also American civil society, to work for a more responsible media, particularly in its reportage on violence. What do you think?


BROWNBACK: I've had a lot of experience with the media and God bless you if you can get there. The old saying in the media is "if it bleeds, it leads." And I've found that to generally be true, and I think the terrorists understand that. And the more graphic and horrific the more it leads. Beheadings—can you imagine we're in 2020 and people are being beheaded. And that's happening.


But, I think, people understand how to use the media that way. I'd be all for it if you could get there. I just, I'd be really doubtful that you can get there. I do think you can get there on working with religious leader engagement. And I think we've been woefully inadequate on doing that. I think that's one where the bad guys have gotten there first, and we have conceded the field. You know, just a final thought on this, in politics there's a saying that "half the battle is just showing up." I mean, you got to show up somewhere. And I think here in the field of faith and religion, for the most part, many of the Western countries are just too nervous about showing up so they don't even show up. And so then you concede the field. And I think that's one we've got to get over and we've got to figure out legitimately, constitutionally, with separation of church and state what we can and can't do, we can do that. But get engaged here or else we're going to continue to lose this battle and it will be bloody. It will be very bloody of what will take place in the future. History will judge us poorly.


CAMPBELL: Well, thank you very much for that. Really.


BROWNBACK: Thank you. Thank you for your service. Thanks, everybody for listening in. Happy to work with any of you in any way we can. God bless you all.


FASKIANOS: Wonderful and just as a closing you can follow Ambassador Brownback on Twitter @IRF_Ambassador, and of course our very own Ambassador Campbell, you can follow him @JohnCampbellcfr. So also please follow CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter @CFR_Religion. And please send us any feedback or ideas for speakers and topics that you would like us to cover in the coming weeks at [email protected]. So thank you all again and thank you, Ambassador Brownback, for being with us today. We really appreciate it.


BROWNBACK: Happy to join you, Irina. Best to the Council and Foreign Relations—a great group.

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