Religion and Foreign Policy: Bridging the Divide

Monday, November 25, 2019
Joanna Herr
Rebecca Linder Blachly

Director, Office of Government Relations, Episcopal Church

Shaun Casey

Director, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University

Suhail A. Khan

Senior Fellow for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Institute for Global Engagement

Brie Loskota

Executive Director, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California

Rebecca Linder Blachly, director of office of government relations for the Episcopal Church; Shaun Casey, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University; and Suhail A. Khan, senior fellow for Muslim-Christian understanding at the Institute for Global Engagement, discuss how best to provide policymakers with contextual information on issues pertaining to religion, with Brie Loskota, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, moderating. This session took place at the American Academy of Religion 2019 Annual Meeting, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

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

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon. We are going to get started now. Thank you all for coming to the Council on Foreign Relations luncheon.

I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. As you all know, we run a Religion and Foreign Policy Program trying to bring together religious scholars and policymakers. We hope that you will take advantage of the resources that CFR has to offer, including Foreign Affairs. We just launched an Election 2020 portal on our website that’s following all the candidates—hope you will visit—as well as podcasts and videos. It should be informative over the course of the next year, up to the Election Day. We are a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank, so we present nonpartisan resources, which are very hard to find these days. So come often to It’s great to have you here.

Let me introduce our distinguished panel. They’re going to join up on the stage now. And we will have about thirty-five minutes of a conversation amongst them, and then the last thirty minutes will be devoted to questions from all of you. So think about what you want to ask and join the conversation.

And I’m pleased to turn this session over to Brie Loskota, who is the executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. I will turn to her to introduce our distinguished panel.

LOSKOTA: Great. Thank you, Irina.

Welcome. Thank you for spending this lunch with us today.

So I have the great pleasure of having a conversation with three distinguished members of the religion and foreign policy community who have worked over many decades to help bridge the gap between the academy, the practitionerworld, and the policy world.

So I was going to start with introducing Rebecca Linder Blachly, who is the director of the Office of Government Relations for The Episcopal Church. She was also senior policy advisor in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs in the State Department under Obama.

Shaun Casey is the director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown. And he was formerly the special representative for religion and global affairs at State, where he also directed that office.

And Suhail Khan is the senior fellow for Muslim-Christian understanding at the Institute for Global Engagement. And he previously served in the Bush administration as the assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Transportation, as well as other roles.

So we’re just going to get started and make this as conversational as possible and then turn it over to some questions.

So much of this work the government began to institutionalize when it comes to understanding religion happened under the Clinton administration with welfare reform and charitable choice. And when Bush came into office, that became the Faith-Based Initiative. Suhail, you were there in the early part of that, when those offices were being constructed. How were scholars engaged in that? And what was happening to create the infrastructure within the federal government to engage more with religion?

KHAN: Well, thanks, Brie. And first, thanks to CFR for including me in this very interesting conversation, and grateful to all of you for spending some time with us and allowing me to share some of my thoughts.

But you’re exactly right, Brie. I was there right at the beginning, in January of 2001, when President Bush established the Faith-Based Initiative Office. I was in the Public Liaison Office next door, doing faith outreach for President Bush. It seems kind of quaint now, but at the time there was concern from the political folks in the White House that President Bush did not enjoy support from particularly the Evangelical and the churchgoing Catholic communities in the country from the 2000 elections. And so we made a very robust effort in outreach to those communities, and I was part of that effort and then also in standing up the Faith-Based Initiative Office.

As you may recall, that office was led by John DiIulio of Philadelphia. The idea was very straightforward. President Bush felt that in communities of service, community work around the country, that the faith-based offices and—sorry, organizations that were engaged in similar work to secular organizations should not be discriminated against or somehow given short shrift when it comes to government support, government funding, and government policy—access to policymakers. And so the idea for the Faith-Based Initiative, both in the White House and then eventually in each of the agencies, was to give that access, that portal as it were, for faith-based nonprofits that were doing work, whether it was in the welfare space or in healthcare, education, in dealing with homelessness and drug treatment, et cetera, to have access to government policymakers, to have access to government funding in some cases, and to have equal footing with secular organizations that were engaged in that—in those arenas.

And part of that was a policy agenda from the administration, but a lot of it came from the president himself. Of course, he was somebody who considered himself a very active Christian, that he had come to his Christian faith in a much more meaningful way after his experiences with addiction. And so he saw personally the positive good that faith can bring to one’s life in a personal capacity, and he wanted to bring that input into the public arena. And so the idea was the Faith-Based and Community Initiative Office.

LOSKOTA: So this is an evolving experiment within the federal government, and you picked up that experiment in the Obama administration. What changes were made? And this—(off mic)—especially at the State Department. What did it look like under Obama that was different from the initial years under Bush?

CASEY: Well, in February 2009, days after Obama became president, he signed an executive order which expanded the offices that were started under President Bush. And this executive order gave legal authorization for the State Department to launch a religion advisory office, and for whatever reason Secretary Clinton was never able to successfully make that launch happen. She tried on multiple occasions and there are like fifteen different stories about why it didn’t work. (Laughter.)

But if you fast forward then to February or January of 2013 when John Kerry became secretary, the first thing that happens to you when you become secretary of state is an army of legal advisors rush at you. And as the story was told to me, a legal briefer was saying, Mr. Secretary, here are ten things you cannot do in your lifetime; here are ten things you might be able to do in five years or three years or two years; and here are a handful of things you can do right away—one of them is launch this office, a religion advisory office in the State Department. Now, I had met John Kerry in 2005, not long after he’d lost the presidential race. And so in the intervening eight years we had developed a professional relationship, even though we come from two completely different symbolic universes. So as the story is told to me, he interrupted the attorney and said excuse me, and he turned to his chief of staff, David Wade, who I’d met in 2005 when he was working for Kerry in the Senate, and he said, call Shaun and see if you can twist his arm into coming in and launching this office. It took David Wade about three-and-a-half seconds to twist my arm to have me come in. (Laughter.)

So in July of 2013 we launched the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. And then we spent the next three-and-a-half years building this office of thirty to thirty-five staffers.

LOSKOTA: And what was the purpose? What were you trying to do, especially when it relates to this audience? What is the bridge that you were trying to build with academics?

CASEY: Well, John Kerry had an intuition based on his forty years of working in foreign policy. You know, at the end of the first Obama term Kerry was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He had traveled the world. He had an astonishing array of networks and connections in the greater religious communities. And it was his intuition that we had made grievous foreign policy mistakes or we had missed remarkable opportunities because as a foreign policy apparatus we neither knew how to assess religious dynamics around the world nor how to engage religious communities around the world. And he basically said, Shaun, build an institution that fills that gap.

And so I had the academic background. You know, I had been part of AAR for centuries. I was a scholar. I had studied and researched and written about religion and foreign policy. So his challenge to me was to build an office that began to fill the gaps and sort of avoid some of the historic mistakes that we had made in our diplomacy in previous years.

KHAN: Shaun brings up a good point. You know, what I described was the president and the administration’s push to bring religious voices into the public arena when it came to domestic policy. That was pre-9/11. Post-9/11, of course, our agenda completely changed. And there, of course, we first had the—after 9/11 the invasion of Afghanistan to go after bin Laden and the Taliban, and then subsequently the invasion of Iraq. And there was—it became patently obvious that we did not—we as an administration, and for that matter we as a country, did not have a proper understanding of faith when it came to foreign policy.

And the people—as a matter of fact, I remember right after 9/11, again, I was doing faith outreach, and so my colleagues and I brought several faith leaders in to meet with President Bush to—actually just to pray. And then the president was giving his first address to a Joint Session of Congress, and he really hit it off with a couple of the religious leaders, including Imam Hamza Yusuf, who’s from right here in California, a very prominent Muslim scholar; and Rabbi Haberman, who was then the rabbi emeritus from Washington, D.C., a Holocaust survivor. And in their conversations the president said, you know, look, we’re going to go after these people. That’s going to involve going into Afghanistan, and the operation will be called Infinite Justice. And Imam Hamza said with all due respect, Mr. President, infinity is a(n) attribute of God, and I think there would be some hubris in callingthis military operation Infinite Justice when that would be something that should be only attributable to God Almighty. And President Bush joked. He said, Imam, those guys at the Pentagon, they’re not theologians. (Laughter.)

But from that moment it actually became clear after we went into Afghanistan—and of course, the title was changed to Enduring Freedom, just for those who are keeping track of our military missions. But that was the beginning actually where the first foreign policy interaction with faith in a very substantive manner came with the military. And that’s because as we were engaged in Afghanistan and then subsequently in Iraq, it was the commanders in the field who began to realize that when they would secure a village or secure a township or a hamlet, only to lose it days or weeks later to either al-Qaida or the Taliban in Iraq and then later on in Afghanistan, later on in Iraq, that they were having trouble with secular political leaders—and of course, we had the huge mistake of the de-Baathification in Iraq that also removed a whole structure of civil society in Iraq that were helping initially to govern the post-Saddam era. And so it became very clear to military commanders in the field that it was faith leaders, imams particularly, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the small cities and villages that they were taking that could be the real leadership that they can engage with.

And so suddenly battlefield commanders, not out of any interest in dealing with faith or any type of foreign policy initiative, but on a very ad hoc manner found that they had to deal with faith leaders—imams in this instance in those two countries—and so they suddenly pulled their chaplains from the back who were dealing with much more personal issues with their troops and saying, hey, you guys know how to talk faith; you guys deal with these imams because we need their help in order to keep the bad guys from coming back and taking these villages. And so it came not from Washington, D.C., but in places like Baghdad and in Kandahar and other places like that where the Pentagon suddenly said we need to have a much more serious way to interact with faith and we need much more scholarship. And then subsequently you had classes at the Army War College and other places like that.

And then—I don’t want to get too long, but then Homeland Security began to realize, as well, that when it came to countering violent extremism, particularly with homegrown countering violent extremism, that it wasn’t just that there wasn’t the myth that there were somehow hate preachers and mosques that just needed to be go tackled and removed, and then the problem would be licked. It was that this was something that was happening online, that there was grooming, and again that the only way to really answer that challenge was to bring, again, authentic faith leaders who could be engaged with, who understood the religion to counter that type of violent message.

LOSKOTA: I want to go to you, Rebecca. How do you reflect on not only the religion of the religious leaders in the State Department, but the religion of the scholars and academics. When you ask an academic the question, many times the answer will be, it’s complicated, right? (Laughter.) And that’sthe work, right? The work of this is to create and understand there is this complexityof engaging in very deep questions over the life of their scholarshipand as a policymaker you have a very different set of policies and tactics. So how are you able to effectively use scholars to inform policy in a way that it didn’t just make it more complicated for you ?

BLACHLY: Right, right. No, exactly.

LOSKOTA: Even if that’s their role?

BLACHLY: That is our role, exactly. No, and I think it’s a great and really important question, and one I hope we can talk more about.

But you know, just to add, I was at AFRICOM prior to being in the State Department, and there was a concerted effort there as well to not simply engage religious leaders and faith communities, local or domestic, but also to bring in academic expertise to try to understand more variables and factors than the U.S. intelligence community had typically been looking at. I think it was a noble effort. You know, there were certainly some challenges in implementing it. I think there was misunderstanding on many sides around how to work together and how to partner  not just with academics but also with civil society and NGOs, et cetera. And I think that the State Department office was different in part because the aim wasn’t as much as to partner as with some of the other offices of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, but really it was to be able to analyze and assess religious dynamics, and then to engage religious actors. And we did that by reaching out to many scholars and asking for insights.

As you point out, I think the tendency in many instances is for academics to say, well, these categories are all wrong and they’re too simplistic, and I think that’s true. In every instance I can imagine, it was true. But when policymakers were forced to make binary decisions in some instances, even something as simple as funding a program or not funding a program, sometimes scholars were able to adjust recommendations and put forward a course of action that they recommended based on all these other variables and complexity. But there’s a tension between recognizing that categories are often insufficient from the policymaker perspective and that maybe even the whole framework is flawed with the need to move forward and the need to cover a whole range of topics that policymakers are facing.

LOSKOTA: And to do that in a timely fashion.

BLACHLY: And to do that in a timely fashion, exactly, and without necessarily the background.

But I’d also say that, you know, policymakers are eager to learn. And in particular if there’s insights that scholars have that really can make them better, help them to make better decisions, there’s definitely a willingness and eagerness to hear from academics and scholars.

LOSKOTA: To the panel ?

CASEY: On our staff of thirty-five we had more than twenty graduate degrees in religion or a cognate field, so these were not just random people we picked off the street who looked like they might want to come work at the State Department. We had more analytical power in the Islamic world than any other office in the Executive Branch outside the intelligence community, and so we built networks literally of hundreds of scholars. We had advisory groups, large, small, and medium. I went to the Center for Theological Inquiry and got a crash course in orthodox religious politics, particularly as Ukraine began to be a focal point of a lot of consternation on the part of the administration.

So we tried—the AAR and the Luce Foundation conspired together to fund fellows into our office, so we had three or four members of the AAR come and do one year, two year terms with us. So we had a lot of expertise at hand, but then we knew we didn’t have enough expertise, so we reached out to the Guild. And I would also say there are entities in the federal government who pay people to sit and to think and to analyze, even on religion, both within the State Department and other executive offices.

So by the end of the day, we were constantly reaching out. Now, some scholars said no. Some people said something stronger than that before no, but a lot of people did in fact come to us and offer their services.

LOSKOTA: What were the reasons for the no’s, or the stronger rebukes?

CASEY: Well, again, it was like, well, come and do a Ph.D. under me and maybe we can talk. There was this sort of you can’t possibly understand what I’m saying because you haven’t done as many years of graduate work. There was also some defensiveness that you’re asking me to give you in real time advice when something’s exploding somewhere and that’s not what I do. I write books. I write journal articles. I reflect deeply and longly. So there was sort of a mismatch of forms of discourse. And some people, frankly, just didn’t want to work for an administration that had a drone fleet and had a huge Pentagon. So there’s a full range of reasons why different scholars would say thank you, but no thank you.

BLACHLY: And I think concerns that—and maybe many of you share—around partnering with the U.S. government or any government and any actor who is mixed, and concerns about the knowledge being weaponized for purposes that weren’t the intention. I think those are really valid and legitimate concerns and as we engage, we recognize that folks would have different thresholds of engagement and willingness to partner, either directly or point us to resources or really say  that’s not the focus of my work.

And we also did find many scholars who really were eager to help and to say  I have this expertise and my hope is that it’s used for more and richer understanding  rather than for something that would make them feel uncomfortable. And I think certainly in the countering violent extremism space it’s quite a challenging dynamic there, but in other areas as well around humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and then initiatives we worked on relating to the environment and climate change. There are a whole range of topics that we were engaging scholars and academics on.

KHAN: I’d add two other factors. I think—and feel free, because I’ve worked with the State Department as an outsider and a partner for over twenty years, but I will say that—and as much as I love those guys, there is a cultural discomfort, if I can put it politely, with our friends at Foggy Bottom. And that’s not only folks at State; that’s also in most European capitals.

I was just in Berlin last week on a summit on anti-Semitism, the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry in Germany, and there’s a real discomfort with dealing and engaging with religious actors with just voices in Europe. And I would say that the island of that type of thinking is very much in parts of the State Department. There’s just a feeling that religion is often the source of conflict and therefore the answer is to minimize religion or to secularize challenges. And so when you have a scholar or a faith leader who comes in and takes their faith very seriously and brings up complications, people are a little reticent to hear that.

The other factor is—and this goes for Republicans and Democrats, because we live in a very political world—and that is there’s always politics, and there are certain religious groups and leaders that are in fashion with certain administrations and others that are not.

And the other factor of course is—and this is a plea to folks like yourselves who actually have real scholarship and expertise when it comes to these issues, when you don’t engage, then when I say—it’s a technical term, the fugazis, the fake people out in the world, and they’re there, because there’s money to be made in this business, as there is in anything—they engage. And again, with the politics that might play with a particular administration, whether it be Republican or Democrat, they will engage and then oftentimes do real harm by giving bad advice or politically driven advice to lawmakers, to administration officials, that can cause very significant harm, both domestically and in our foreign policy realm because people who actually know what they’re talking about don’t engage.

LOSKOTA: And I just want to add that all of the offices that you’ve worked with are all complicated places with a variety of political opinions and policy agendas that I imagine were difficult for you even personally that you wouldn’t sign on to any of them.

So did you all reconcile working within administrations where you weren’t entirely aligned? Because it does seem like that’s part of the driver of the resistance. Some of it is this is not my interest; this is not what I’m interested in. But others is I don’t want to get sullied by an alignment with imperfect partners, and yet that’s the path of making change.

CASEY: Well, I would say two things. I think we won the battle in the Obama administration. I think by the time I got to the State Department in 2013—I mean, we have a secretary of State who says we ignore religion at our peril. At my rollout event, he puts his arm around me and says this guy’s my religion guy. He’s going to play with all of you. Play nicely with him. And then he sent out a policy guidance cable to every American post. Over two hundred posts worldwide got like a twenty-page epistle saying you’ve got to work with this office. I bless this office and they can go anywhere they want to. And I never had a door slammed in my face in the State Department, saying I’m not going to play with you. I think what you’re doing is wrong. So I think we won hearts and minds of both the Civil Service and the Foreign Service apparatus there. Now our office has been ground to dust, which is another day’s story.

We adopted a radically inclusive model of engagement. In my almost four years, I met with everybody who wanted to come to see me, with one exception, and that’s a long, boring story. And so we were radically inclusive. I probably would have been fired if we had published the full list from far right to far left who came to see me. We never asked what’s your party, who’s your guy, who did you vote for, and I would talk to anybody who wanted to talk to us.

Now, we didn’t always partner with those groups because we couldn’t find a way to connect. I can’t remember any group that came to see us that didn’t have criticisms to offer, and so you develop a pretty thick hide. There were certain policies at the southern border and drones in certain parts of the world where, yeah, there was some distance in my head between what the administration did and what I would have done had I been in charge of the universe.

But we decided early on we would be inclusive. If we had to take beating to have a conversation, we played the piñata. And there were no perfect partners, I think, at the end of the day, among the various religious entities that we met with.

LOSKOTA: So you mentioned that your office has been ground to dust. We have to talk about what has changed, which seems like a lot. The entire world that has been constructed in this experiment has now been shifted. The number of people occupying those roles, especially within State, are different. When you look at the sort of trajectory of the work that you have done, I’m sure a lot of it remains. But what institutionally has changed? And a we have a few minutes for you to answer that question.

CASEY: Yeah. There is no Office of Religion and Global Affairs now. There is a team, depending on who you talk to, of three to five people, nested in the Office of International Religious Freedom, which has a different mission that allegedly is carrying our portfolio. I would just simply offer three people in another office cannot do the work of thirty-five.

But I want to believe that we—because I think we won hearts and minds in the core career folk at the State Department, the office will come back in some form. Now, bureaucratically it could be nested and configured in a thousand different ways. It doesn’t have to be a shiny bauble office in the secretary’s office. There are advantages and disadvantages to that.

When the president took his first trip to Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Rome in March of 2017, he went without any real technical knowledge of the religious dynamics of those three cities.

LOSKOTA: That seems like par for the course.

CASEY: Well, and I would argue there are potential conflicts that could erupt out of all three of those cities when a president comes and interacts with religious leaders without the full backing of the analytical power of our foreign policy apparatus. So there’s room for anxiety, but I remain hopeful that we were modestly successful enough in very different contexts that somebody will be reminded whenever there is a new administration that yeah, we ought to recover this capacity.

LOSKOTA: And at the same time, opportunity’s a little bit like energy. It doesn’t go away; it might just shift. So where are the opportunities now for people to engage? Where are people actually finding inroads into this administration, or in other arenas that are not at the federal level?

BLACHLY: I think there’s still the possibility to meet with folks at the State Department, at USAID. I think there’s been a lot of good partnerships that are happening. There’s an initiative now engaging religious leaders on anti-malaria efforts that I’m involved in in my advocacy work as well.

There is some really tremendous work that AID is doing. There’s work that CDC is doing on global health pandemics where there’s partnerships that are available. And then I’d also say that there are ongoing relationships and between religious leaders, religious communities, faith-based advocates, academics and scholars, and congressional offices. We’re working to facilitate conversations. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby just had a call with Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy last week about some issues that was reported on in the media. So there are still those connections that are facilitated and that again I think that the folks who are working in many of the areas, especially those who have been career civil or foreign servants are really able to understand and welcome those perspectives in.

LOSKOTA: And that seems though that that’s happening at the national level, but a lot of the energy has shifted subnationally, right? If the U.S. is not involved in the Paris Climate Agreement, cities have taken up the mantle and said cities are going to go ahead and fulfill the U.S.’s obligation. So where are there more local and state opportunities for this kind of engagement? Because States and cities are doing foreign policy.

KHAN: Sure. If I can just back to the national level—it’s as you were saying earlier; when it comes to faith, issues are complicated. When it comes to this administration, issues are complicated. So there are good news and there are not-so-good news stories that can be shared.

As Shaun mentioned, the State Department has stripped down many of the offices that were there in previous administrations that were built up, particularly post-9/11, and those have either been removed, eliminated or at least remain vacant. But there are other offices that are there at the State Department that were mandated by Congress to be filled, including the ambassador at large for religious freedom, the special envoy on combatting anti-Semitism, and those offices remain active.

Senator Brownback, he came to the role as the ambassador at large for religious freedom as having a very significant record as a U.S. Senator from Kansas, engaged in those areas with subject matter expertise. He has been very much active in his role at the State Department. He and Secretary Pompeo were instrumental in establishing not one but two ministerials on religious freedom, international religious freedom. Now, this came of, again, from a very politicized, semi-politicized in an interesting way, and that was the vice president, Mr. Pence, was very much interested in the freedom of Christians globally, particularly in the Middle East. And President Trump said go for it; do what you want to do in that arena, and pretty much gave him carte blanche. He and Ambassador Brownback, working with Secretary of State Pompeo, established these ministerials at first to focus on the plight of Christians, and there was a lot of chatter and criticism both behind closed doors and openly, that this was very much exclusive to the welfare of Christians around the globe.

But very quickly that ministerial, the first one that I attended and the second one that I attended, very much quickly morphed into concerns for all faith groups, and it really provided a platform. And yes, the United States has pulled back from many international institutions and treaties, or at least agreements that President Obama had entered into, but there is a leadership, I would argue, from this administration when it comes to international religious freedom. Again, nothing is perfect, but there’s real progress made on many fronts. But again, as anything with this administration, you have progress made by certain actors and then there’s always a challenge that the president doesn’t exactly give the same importance.

One example is the suffering of the Uighurs in China. The State Department has made the right statements and many senators likewise have echoed those concerns in statements, including most recently of course Senator Rubio last week with his resolution that passed one hundred to nothing in the Senate. Bipartisan is well and alive in Washington, D.C.—don’t believe everything you read in the media. But it’s not being, unfortunately, supported by the rhetoric and the action of the president, and so that’s where is need for political direction from the American people to push and to argue that this is something that the American government should take a role, an active role in. As was said, USAID, Mark Green was pulled in to this effort on religious freedom, which is not something that would be normal for an AID agency, and he has been very active, particularly when it comes to the Yazidis and the Christians in Iraq and other countries, and his staff have been very active in religious freedom issues globally, helping and supplementing the effort of the State Department and their various directorates. Again, not perfect, but there have been some very good and important work done by those actors in the administration.

CASEY: I’m not surprised. I have a different view.

KHAN: Absolutely. (Laughter.)

CASEY: You know, when Frank Gaffney is walking the hallways of the State Department during the Religious Freedom Ministerial—

KHAN: Right. Right.

CASEY: —no one should mistake what’s going on.

KHAN: Not only was he walking the halls, but pointing his finger at particular invitees and fighting with them. Yeah. (Laughter.)

CASEY: Right.

LOSKOTA: Does everybody know who Frank Gaffney is?

CASEY: Frank Gaffney, Islamophobia dot-com? I mean, you’ve had some interesting encounters in your career—

KHAN: Full disclosure, he has an entire website on me alone, which I don’t know if it’s flattery or what, but—

CASEY: So both Ambassador Brownback, Secretary Pompeo, recently defrocked National Security Adviser John Bolton, all have professional ties and political ties to Frank—

KHAN: Mike Flynn, yeah. Stephen Miller.

CASEY: So to say that this administration stands for religious freedom for all is as outrageous a political statement as—I’m not going to elaborate, but I think the religious freedom has become a politicized part of our foreign policy. The rhetoric is pretty good, but the practice is the worst religious freedom practice both domestically and internationally, I think, in the history of the International Religious Freedom Act.

If I can go backto your original question, though, where the opportunity is. The opportunity today is the city and regional level. Mayors are doing foreign policy. if you’re mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, and climate change has raised the water level two feet and it’s flooding downtown Norfolk, you cannot say, well, I’m going to go to Congress and if they don’t act, we’re in trouble. Voters want action. If you’re the mayor of New York, similarly. If you’re the mayor of Chicago.

With immigration and the resettlement of refugees, it’s the mayors and city councils who are doing that resettlement to the extent anyone is doing it today, and you can’t bracket that out and tell your voters that’s foreign policy, that’s up to the federal government. They are the ones who are doing the work of integration and resettlement today.

So there are a lot of interesting coalitions coming up. The Chicago Council of Foreign (sic; Global) Affairs—or World (sic; Global) Affairs, is doing amazing studies under Ivo Daalder’s leadership there about foreign policy at the mayoral level. That’s where scholars can actually have the easiest entree into these issues, is looking at refugees, looking at climate change, looking at other issues. Don’t just throw rocks at your congressperson or your senator or your president; find out who in your local government is interacting with new religious communities and doing the hard work. That’s your entree into—if you’re a scholar and you want to have an impact, don’t come knock on doors on Washington. That’s going to be pretty fruitless right now, I think.

But at the local level, there’s just amazing foreign policy work being done by nontraditional actors, and that’s where I think, from a scholarly perspective, that’s where your local environment is the place where you can be and to have an influence based on your research and teaching and the students you work with.

LOSKOTA: So how can people get noticed? A lot of the academics and people who are doing the work really on the ground, have both hands busy and they’re not raising their hand to say, look at me. So how is it that one can get noticed? What advice do you have as they navigate trying to do engagement or advice or partnership in any level of government?

And really, what should they avoid? Because a lot of times our advice about what to do is really based on cases of what to not do. I’m sure you have lots of those you can give us some examples.

But Rebecca, we’ll start with you.

BLACHLY: I think one of the easiest ways is to get connected to a think tank, to write op-eds on certain issues, sort of raise your public profile on policy issues so to have your writing out of just the academic sphere. I think that that can be helpful.

But then I don’t totally agree with Shaun that it’s completely fruitless to go to Washington. (Laughter.) I do think that there’s some appetite in congressional offices among professional staff in particular, or State Department, or USAID at the desk officer level, and I think go and present the insights you have.

And as we referenced earlier, simply unpacking an issue, or challenging it, or showing that the categories are wrong won’t get you all the way there, so if there is something in the direction of actionable, or if there is one critique you can make of a policymaker’s framework rather than saying, your whole model is wrong; do away with all of it, but say, you know the way that you are conceiving of this particular project or this dynamic—that can be really helpful.

So just to give one example of something that was helpful on a project that we worked on, a U.S. embassy was creating more tensions within a Muslim community. There were challenging dynamics between the Sufi community and the Salafi community, and the U.S. embassy was not very keyed in to what was going on. We were able to be in touch with some experts who helped inform us of the very long history of these relationships and the tensions between and among them, and then to help educate U.S. embassy folks to say, you are exacerbating the problem by just inviting the Sufis every year to all your events and completely excluding this other group, so it wasn’t a full analysis of all the different dynamics, or the regional dynamics, or the history, but it was something pretty concrete that the U.S. embassy actually did change that helped something a little bit.

So I think instances like that where there is something different—you know, I think U.S. embassies in a lot of instances reach out to the National Council of Churches, but maybe someone got kicked off the National Council of Churches ten years ago and so the U.S. embassy isn’t aware of it. Basic facts of who are the religious actors who should be engaged, I think, can be very helpful and fruitful, and that can be if you are doing work in a country, connecting with a U.S. embassy, and sharing some of your really key contacts that they may not know or, again, if you’re in the U.S., to be able to reach out to members of Congress, State Department and others to inform them, in bullet point form if you can, with an executive summary if you can, of what the particular takeaways you recommend to them are.

KHAN: I’ll add to that—to my panelists here that it should be all of the above. We live in a very divided society—that comes as no surprise to folks—and so it really depends on your particular capacity and interest. I would say definitely if you have an interest on a local level, and if you have those relationships on a local level with city councilmen, mayor, country supervisor, et cetera, and there’s a particular issue that animates you, no doubt engage on the most local of level. But don’t forget about the national leaders. As I said, there are opportunities. There is a need for your expertise, and it really depends on who you are talking to.

Lawmakers—no doubt about it—they and their staff— I was one of those staffers on Capitol Hill working for a California member over twenty-five years ago on the Foreign Relations Committee, and folks like yourself were very critical in bringing information. But I’ll echo— we’re drinking from a fire hose, and so if you are publishing  a thesis or a white paper that’s three hundred pages, an executive summary would be helpful.

I would also recommend that  part of it is marketing, let’s face it, and so if you are writing a substantive piece on a given issues, I would recommend, as has already been said, distilling that into an op-ed and publishing an op-ed so that more eyeballs can see that, and then perhaps if an opportunity allows for itself to do some radio or a television program on that op-ed, that would allow for a jumping off point in that way to get that viewpoint out there. And that’s how that can be noticed.

Think tanks are more important than ever, and again, depending on your political persuasion or your political philosophy, engage with specific think tanks, including CFR, the Heritage Foundation, Brookings, the Center for the National Interest, and other think tanks that work in this field—to get your scholarship in front of them because they have regular access to lawmakers, particularly on a federal level.

And I can tell you—particularly with this administration because the Trump campaign was so lean in November of 2016—I was chatting earlier that on Election Day there were barely 80 people on payroll for the Trump campaign. By contrast, Secretary Clinton had over a thousand people on payroll. So, as a consequence, much of the personnel—or as President Reagan used to say, “Personnel is policy”—much of the policy and the personnel were outsourced to various think tanks including think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. And for those folks around the country that had access and influence with those think tanks, they found themselves very much in the catbird seat when it came to influencing initial policy with this administration because of their ability to engage with those think tanks.

And the last thing I will say is that  the American experiment is one that is a work in progress, and yes, we do make a lot of mistakes, particularly when it comes to issues of faith. When I was growing up, you know, we were told the two things not to discuss in polite company were politics and religion. Well, our national security is at the intersection of those two things right now. Government is often getting it wrong but, oftentimes, with your help it can get it right.

You know, Winston Churchill used to say you can count on the Americans to do everything wrong until they’ve—you know, to try everything and do it wrong until they finally do it—you know, find the right answer, and that is something that is very much true about Washington government. We might stumble around in the dark but eventually with your help we can get it right.

LOSKOTA: Thank you. Shaun, we’ll give you the last word.

CASEY: In 2016, I was able to travel and visit six refugee resettlement centers in the United States. It’s the one issue where the State Department actually pays for the first ninety to one hundred and twenty days of a refugee’s life in the United States. Six of the nine organizations that the State Department gives money to to do the actual work are religiously affiliated. So I went on a pilgrimage, and I picked cities and states where—just to be polite or diplomatic—governors had said very dumb things, particularly about the Syrian refugees, and I wanted to see on the ground what did that look like.

I discovered two things. One was public schools are absolutely at ground zero of all of these dynamics. In a city like Des Moines, Iowa, where you have tens of thousands of first- and second-generation refugees, the public schools have to take these kids and educate them. They have to be able to speak in 30, 40 different languages to be able to educate their children, and public schools and mayors’ offices are dependent upon citizen participation. And what I saw in Des Moines was an astonishing collection and intersection of faith-based, non-profit organizations, the government, the schools, and they were all trying to say, how can we serve these new Americans faithfully and to fulfill our legal duties.

There were religion scholars in Des Moines at a couple of universities mapping the religious landscape and sharing that information with the police, with the mayor’s office, with the schools, with the non-profits that were serving the refugee community, and there was this astonishing whole-of-community effort. There is a subject to be discussed and analyzed by religion scholars, and there were religion scholars there who said, we’re not going to travel internationally; we have the world here in Des Moines. And so they saw it as part of their scholarly mission to assess the dynamics of those evolving communities and share that with anybody in the public life who was willing to intersect with them.

I saw similar efforts in New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Dallas, so to the extent you do field work, ether where you are or where you research, share your information with the embassy, with the consulate, or with the local government because they crave that kind of empirical research so that they can make better, more informed decisions on the policy side.

BLACHLY: And in particular, with the resettlement agencies—I mean, Episcopal Migration Ministries is one of the nine—and there is a receptivity certainly from our side that we want to hear from people and would help connect those dots if you don’t want to go directly to the mayor—through EMM members.

LOSKOTA: And with the staffers in particular, not just the elected, right?

CASEY: Absolutely.

LOSKOTA: We’re going to pivot now to questions. I’ll ask you to keep your questions actual questions—(laughter)—as opposed to thinly veiled questions that sort of end with an up note—(laughter)—and if you could just tell us your name and your institution andwhere you’re from.

So we’ll take here and then here. (Pause.) There you go.

GILLMAN: Thank you for your comments. John Gillman, San Diego State University.

I would like to ask you in particular about the situation in China. You know, the news reports being in regard to two religious groups, for example: the Christian Catholic Church is there; a number of them are being leveled, the crosses are being removed in many places in the effort to Sianize the religion. So that’s one group. And the other group you’ve already referred to: the situation of the Muslims there who are going through these re-education camps.

What would you advise as the best way to address some of the issues in China in regard to religious freedom?

KHAN: I think that’s a political answer. As I said, the challenges with the Uighurs and the Christians in China—and other religious groups—are very much  known and they are very much top of mind for most in Washington, D.C. But the challenge is, with the trade deal that’s pending between the United States and China, President Trump is putting those issues down on the list of priority. And so what it’s going to take is political pressure from Americans and others around the globe to push this administration to move that up as an agenda item.

I can tell you that right when President Trump was inaugurated, that the Chinese were very nervous, as many governments were—about what foreign policy of this administration was going to be, and they were very much open to normalizing and legalizing the house church in China. So that would mean seventy-plus million Christians who now could come out of the shadows. If the administration only asked, and for a host of reasons, primarily because of the economic ties that the United States has with China, we didn’t push on that. So the Chinese are open to it. They have moved completely in the wrong direction when it comes to religious freedom, as you rightly pointed out, but that’s because partially they are not getting any pushback for their policies, and the light is not being shone on them to shame them and to push them back so that they could at least keep their policies in check, if not—and right now, of course, it’s getting worse.

CASEY: I would say that there are no short-term, easy answers to this. I think any administration has to play the long game. The Obama administration tried to play a long game with China with some results—not big results. I don’t think we have a current coherent China policy. If we have it today, it may not be the policy tomorrow. So in many ways, this issue is diabolical. It’s complicated. The only way I think to make progress is on marginal, long-term viewpoints. I don’t think this administration currently has shown its ability to have a stable, long-term policy.

So I think it’s bad news as far as we can see no matter what your orientation is. There are no easy answers here. You know, the Obama administration tried the long game with marginal results. We have an incoherent or non-existent policy now. I don’t think we’re going to see any positive results if that continues to be the face of our foreign policy towards China. I wish I had a more hopeful outlook, but I—

KHAN: The same can be said about India, you know. President Bush banned then-Governor Modi from coming to the United States. President Obama kept in place that ban because of his atrocious record when it came to religious atrocities in the Gujarat, and now we find, of course, he is being welcomed to the White House.

And again, those economic ties are very much trumping—no pun intended—the concerns that Americans have when it comes to religious freedom and the challenges that both China and India have when it comes to the treatment of religious minorities.

LOSKOTA: But because of the economic ties, is this a place where scholars and activists can have a role with business rather than with government? Is leadership going to come from the private sector on any of these issues or is—

BLACHLY: I think on the corporate social responsibility side I think there’s a lot of opportunity for there to be engagement on human rights across the board—absolutely.

LOSKOTA: Yeah, great.

In front here.

EVERIST: Thank you. Burton Everist, adjunct to the Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque.

For ten years I taught at a community college. There was an abysmal ignorance of religion including one’s own religion. I would ask a question: what do you know about each religion?

I think it’s very important to acknowledge that there is an abysmal reaction against religion in the State Department. That’s because at ground level we haven’t prepared people.

I’m wondering whether this institution and the academics would focus on reaching out from elementary school on up in order to correct that ignorance. It is there, and it is that foundation upon which the current leadership builds; the fact that they can appeal to what those folks are like.

So my question is are there opportunities to do this? Is there an intention to work at that level—ground zero in another way?

CASEY: I would say two quick things. I mean the AAR has just promulgated a set of literacy standards which, frankly, I have not read yet, so the guild is actually trying to provide sort of standards of literacy for public institutions.

The State Department has its own training institution, the Foreign Service Institute. I made several runs at the leadership there trying to have them redesign some of the curriculum; I failed abjectly.

I want to go back if I can and relate—the chiefs of the chaplaincy corps summoned me to the Pentagon in 2013. They admitted to me their corps did not have the training to do the work that the sort of second mission gave them, and they came to me and said, well, can you train all our chaplains, and I said, I’ve got eighty thousand people to train in the State Department. When I get done with that—on religious literacy—I’ll come see you in thirty or forty years.

So there is oftentimes a recognition in the State Department and among the chaplains. We ought to have this capacity, but the current corps does not have that. The chaplains basically told me we will never have the pedagogical resources to give them the training because most American military chaplains have no training in lived religion in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they’ve not even had an introduction to Islam much less how do you apply that in those particular, very tough cultural conceptions. So it’s a huge issue, and there’s a gaping hole there.

BLACHLY: And I think just to note, at the State Department, I think more broadly, there is an understanding of some of the academic discourse around—religion as an analytic category, and the problems with that, and the critiques of freedom of religion and belief in general—so we were aware of those, and at the same time wanted to meaningfully engage with—as Shaun talked about—lived religion, but to broaden people’s perspectives around a whole bunch of issues.

I think that the assumptions for many folks that stayed in government and in Congress, too, is that religion is primarily about belief; that if you want to partner with religious communities, the way you do that is you tell the person giving the sermon or the khutbah what to say, and that that’s the primary mechanism that  their message delivers.

We want to stop corruption? Great, have that be a sermon. We want to stop malaria—this is a real thing—let’s have Malaria Sermon Sunday. And that’s not a bad idea, but actually religious institutions or groups have education networks, and healthcare networks, and media empires in many cases. And so they are so much more diverse and rich, so I think just again a call to educate on religious literacy and kind of the basics of world religions as appropriate, but also to challenge some of the default and baseline assumptions that some folks have about what it means to partner and what it means to work with and show that there’s many more opportunities than you might at first glance realize.

LOSKOTA: Scanning—I’m also going to scan for women in case any woman wants to ask a question. There she is—fabulous.

SIDNEY: Hi, my name is Sidney.

And you were talking broadly about some resistance to accepting religious leaders within government, and it’s that whole idea of we’ve been taught that we need to be secular so there’s a resistance to religion. And if you are trying to educate people on religion’s power—like just around the world—how do you deal with maybe some dissent within that? Recognizing that we need to respect that religion is a reality, but maybe not appreciating the depth at which it affects people’s lives and how rooted it is in their identities?

KHAN: I’ll just say that I think that it’s in the nuance, and what I found—particular post-9/11, of course—was that there was  blanket statements.

Shaun mentioned Frank Gaffney. You had people like that who were saying, look, this is a war on Islam, and the challenges of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks are inherent to the religion of Islam. And so you had this whole conversation and discussion about what is Islam, in many case without including Muslims in that conversation.

And so it’s really one of nuance. It’s bringing in scholars like yourselves who understand religion, who understand the differences between different—within a religion, the geographical, the doctrinal, the spiritual differences that  different religions have within their diverse communities.

You know the old joke, right? If you have two rabbis, you have three opinions. I mean, that goes for any religion. And that is often lost on policymakers who want to have very broad and a very surface understanding in order to make quick decisions.

And so it really is a push and pull, and it’s a situation where you learn that the hard way, again, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in the most recent years. I remember talking to John Kelly, and he said, look, when I was in Iraq, I didn’t know anything about Islam, so I took it upon myself— our chaplaincy didn’t know anything about Islam. They were there to administer to the troops, most of whom were Christian, and so they were dealing with  stress, and mental illness, and missing home, and things like that. And so he said, I just got the Quran and read the Quran. And then I would talk to religious leaders in Iraq on a very personal level over coffee.

So he took it upon himself to engage—to at least understand the local community in Iraq—the Shia community, the Sunni community and others in Iraq. But that type of institutional learning has not been put in place, and even if it is, then it often changes administration to administration, and so that’s why it’s an ongoing effort.

CASEY: Part of our technique was to go and try to ask questions, and then listen—and signal humility and signal respect.

I never had free time when I traveled. There was no shortage of people who wanted to meet with us when we traveled around the world. It was electrifying, and in fact, it was too large a burden. There were so many people we couldn’t see them all. And we would go for four days, five days a week, and it was just wall-to-wall, wall-to-wall, wall-to-wall. And the purpose of those meetings was not to promote Christianity, it was not to promote a particular view of a certain part of Islam, but it was to ask not only leaders—because if you meet with leaders, you get old men in far too many places around the world. We tried to meet with rank-and-file—for lack of a better term.

But at the end of the day, we wanted to ask, what is your community’s view of what’s going on your country? Help educate an ignorant white guy coming from D.C. who has presumptions—and then shut up.

Now I’ll make a semi-radical statement here which I hope doesn’t get discounted. Religious leaders love to talk. (Laughter.) And the hard part is finding the right question to ask them.

Now many of them in the Middle East had bones to pick with U.S. foreign policy, and nine times out of ten, I agreed with their checklist, much to the chagrin of some of my State Department handlers. But when they say, you did this, you did this, you did this, you did this, and stop, and I say, yeah, you’re right, and frankly, those were mistakes. Then you enter a zone where you can have a conversation. And so it was how do you get to that zone where a member of a religious community then can answer your question: Tell me what’s going on here—from your perspective, from your community’s perspective, and help me go back to Washington and bring that message to people who will never have a conversation like this.

Now sometimes that formula worked; sometimes you never got to that place. But ultimately, when we were there to ask questions that would educate us to have a deeper understanding of what the dynamics were from their perspective in the community or region that we were sitting in.

BLACHLY: And just to give one quick example, in one instance in West Africa, there was a big development grant that was given. There was a needs assessment of the country—it’s a very robust process—and a big, expensive port was built. So the U.S. government called it a win. But the dynamics of the country were such that there were more Christians in the south and more Muslims in the north, and so the perception was that this was a U.S. pro-Christian project.

So as in many of these instances, the policy may or may not change. I mean, I think that the port was probably the right policy decision in terms of what foreign assistance was, but there needed to be a different and better messaging effort, more outreach to Muslim communities, a better understanding of their needs and priorities so that the project wasn’t seen as reinforcing this narrative of the U.S. is here to promote Christian interests because that was a baseline narrative. And so that was new information to the embassy. That was new information that I think then helped them to adjust as they went forward with other development projects to be cognizant of the fact that regional dynamics—which they were aware of—would also be overlaid by some religious dynamics and that could then be overlaid onto these transnational religious dynamics and assumptions about U.S. foreign policy—so just one example of what that listening does and then what it informed in terms of U.S. policy.

CASEY: And I would say—let me brag on you for a second—on that same trip we were up—not very far to the north, but we met with an imam who pulled me aside. And Shaun, I want you to know—you’ll never hear this—our country is—he said something like 40 percent Christian, 40 percent Muslim, and 80 percent voodoo. (Laughter.)

And I think that—

LOSKOTA: It’s fuzzy math.

CASEY: Yeah, some synapses at the embassy got stretched when we came back and reported—and this is an imam telling me this, and it wasn’t in a critical fashion; it was sort of like these are the facts on the ground.

But we were not on a regular State Department, Washington-D.C.-based-office stop in that ZIP code.


KHAN: But we did  learn many kinds of things when we talked, and I think ultimately made our embassy smarter and more adept in navigating the country, as you suggested.

LOSKOTA: We’ve got time for one more short one, and it’s right here—woman in the glasses.

FLANNERY:   Frances Flannery, James Madison University.

My question is actually about Frank Gaffney, who has come up a few times, who has been going around D.C. trying to identify the people he believes are the top terrorists, who are secret terrorists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood such as Imam Masjid, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, General David Petraeus, and other, you know, obvious Muslims like that. (Laughter.) Yes.

And so my question has broader implications, though. To what extent in this administration are erratic individuals with aberrant religious views shaping foreign and domestic policy, and what are the structural, systemic remedies that you can see getting us back on track.

KHAN: So we talked a little bit about that. There’s a whole cottage industry when it comes to the vilification of Islam and Muslims. Gaffney is one of them, David Horowitz right here in Los Angeles is another guy. There’s a guy named John Guandalo who makes a lot of money going and training FBI and local law enforcement about the evils of Islam and Muslims, and how every Muslim in your neighborhood is a threat, et cetera. And, yes, those folks—Pam Geller, of course, is also well-known from her work when it came to the Ground Zero mosque and that challenge, that whole brouhaha.

First of all, there is money to be made so that part can’t be ignored. And those folks do have their influences. You know, Mike Flynn was very much associated with Frank Gaffney; Mr. Pompeo, the secretary of State currently went on his radio show countless time and counts him as a friend; our friend Stephen Miller, who is now dictating immigration policy, is a student of David Horowitz and his teachings. And so there are individuals who have that influence, of course—of Steve Bannon, who is no longer in the administration—is very much influenced in that regard.

There are other folks that are less known that are Homeland Security and other agencies within this administration who have influence, and have done—and continue to do, I would argue—great harm to our country and to our national security by pointing us in the wrong direction and thereby taking our attention away from real bad guys and real challenges.

I think the answer to your question is, one, to expose them—sunlight is the best disinfectant; two, to provide an alternative narrative, one based on scholarship and on real knowledge, and that again—I’ll come back to that—takes folks like yourselves getting engaged, being engaged, not taking no for answer. And if one door is closed, knocking on another.

LOSKOTA: Shaun, I’ll let you have the last word.

CASEY: So I would say I agree with all of that. I think, too, the international religious freedom ecosystem is rife with dirty money, dark money, international money—just as we’ve seen in Ukraine where the normal, official channels of diplomacy have been subverted. That’s not a one-off; that’s going on all across the world where I think illegal transactions are going on. They are off-the-books representatives of this administration brokering deals. I think the religious freedom sector is rife with this kind of money. I think the National Prayer Breakfast is like the money laundering central and has been for decades. And I think the White House Evangelical Advisory Board is also populated by people who are going around the globe representing that they can provide access to international actors, to the White House, and to the State Department. That has to stop.

And to the extent you have scholarly interest in this, you need to document it, you need to call out local actors. You need to ask your congresspeople to try and restore a modicum of regular order in our diplomacy because right now it’s the wild, wild West, and it’s for sale.

LOSKOTA: Well, it’s a grim note to end on—(laughter)—but actually a good call to action for all of us in this room to think about the ways in which we engage, especially in the next year going forward.

Suhail, do you want to—

KHAN: I butchered the Churchill quote earlier, and because I don’t want to end on a negative note—(laughter)—give me one more shot on it.

LOSKOTA: All right.

KHAN: He said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities.” So—(laughter)—

LOSKOTA: After we’ve tried everything else—(laughs).

So thank you—(applause)—and thank you to the Council. Thank you for coming. Thank you all.


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