WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. diplomats are only lately learning how to incorporate faith issues in their assessment of politics in the nations and regions to which they’re assigned, according to Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, during a July 25 forum sponsored by the institute.
Farr cited repeated cases in which diplomats ignored or overlooked the importance of faith and religion in dealing with sensitive matters, leading to decades of stumbles in diplomacy.
He cited the case of Gen. Jay Garner, who directed the early transitional efforts in Iraq after the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” routed Iraqi forces in the 2003 Iraq War.
Garner prepared in Washington for six weeks before he arrived in Iraq, scads of briefing books under his arms, Farr said. U.S. advisers on the ground in Iraq recommended to Garner that the first thing he do was to meet with an ayatollah considered the most important cleric in Iraq. Garner’s response, according to Farr: “Who? I’ve never heard of him.”
“America thought that after Saddam Hussein was overthrown the people of Iraq would want to be governed under a democratic republic,” Farr said. A decade and a half after the war, the Iraqi government has achieved some success in eradicating most insurgents — including Islamic State — but little else.
Nor is this strictly a 21st-century phenomenon. In 1979, when the shah of Iran was facing increasing pressure to abdicate power, a U.S.-based diplomat wrote material on a then-obscure figure operating out of France, selling videotapes of his sermons. He was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. According to Farr, a higher-level State Department employee crossed out the Khomeini-related material, scribbling in the page’s margins, “Sociology.”
Khomeini led what Farr called a “religious revolution” that included the taking of Americans in the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage for 444 days, with enmity between the two nations that continues to this day.
One of the leading figures of contemporary statecraft, Henry Kissinger, wrote “his magnum opus, Diplomacy,” with no reference to religion, Farr said. “It was a thousand-page book, with a 150-page index, and the word ‘religion’ is not in the index.”
“The United States has had, for a long time, religion avoidance syndrome,” Farr said. He cited another former U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who is reported to have said, “We were trained to stay away from religion, because it is nothing but trouble.”
“Well, it is trouble,” Farr said. “But if it is trouble, all the more reason!”
Father Andrew Bennet, a Ukrainian-rite clergyman from Canada who was his country’s ambassador for religious freedom for three years this decade, said a small number of Canada’s politicians and diplomats were hostile to the creation of the ambassadorship in 2013. A small number “got it,” he said, while the rest took “the go-along to get-along” approach. The position was abolished in 2016 with a change in government.
Bennet cited a “lack of training” of his colleagues in the Canadian diplomatic corps for their seeming indifference toward religion matters on the world stage. “I didn’t fault my colleagues for not having a particular formation,” he said, “I faulted them for not doing something about it.”
When there was religious repression in world hot spots, “they didn’t know how to respond,” Bennet said. “But when it came to a humanitarian crisis, they focused on it.”
In secular societies like Canada and the United States, he said, “it’s not hostility toward religion, it’s not even apathy, it’s amnesia about religion.”
The institute is trying to counter these attitudes by developing a curriculum for those in the diplomatic corps who need to know how religion and culture intersect in the regions where they may be posted. Jeremy Barker, the institute’s senior program officer, said the pilot curriculum should be ready in about six months.
There is, though, no guarantee such an effort will last. Farr, who worked in the State Department under the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations, said, “The State Department is storied for its ability to take congressional mandates and pretend like they’re doing it.”
The Religious Freedom Institute forum was one of a number of side events taking place in Washington July 24-26 during an invitation-only Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom organized by the U.S. State Department.