Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explored the integral role of religion in foreign affairs — both as a positive force for peace and as a contributor to violence around the world — in her keynote address at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in Gaston Hall on Thursday.
Albright’s speech kicked off the celebration, a two-day affair entitled “Rethinking Religion and World Affairs,” comprised of panel discussions around the intersection of religious understanding and international affairs.
The symposium reflects the work of the center, which was founded in 2006 by a donation from William R. Berkley partly in response to the 9/11 attacks. According to Vice President for Global Engagement and Berkley Center Director Thomas Banchoff, who introduced Thursday’s event, the center believes that a greater emphasis on religion can help academics, policymakers and civil society better understand the violence and hope that arise in response to religion.
“We’ve sought to address religion’s complex role in the world and, over the long term, to advance peace in practice,” Banchoff said. “This critical work thrives here at Georgetown … in our mission as a global university committed to the global common good.”
University President John J. DeGioia echoed Banchoff after his introduction, lauding the Berkley Center’s work as critical to the spirit that animates the university.
“This ethos come[s] alive in our community with our identity as a Catholic and Jesuit institution and in our commitment to genuine dialogue, to the exchange of ideas especially with those different than our own and to the idea that we arrive closer to the truth when we presume the best in one another,” DeGioia said.
Through this frame, DeGioia said there was “no one better” to discuss the role of religion in global affairs than Albright, who has been a part of the Georgetown community since 1982 in various professorships and who, in 2006, published “The Mighty and the Almighty,” a book that directly confronts the intersection of religion and international affairs.
Albright began her speech by tracing the history of religion in international relations theory, noting that secularism was dominant throughout the Cold War. An emphasis on realism and rational decision making shunned religious warfare as a remnant of the past.
“It’s not that religion was forgotten as much as it was compartmentalized,” Albright said. “It was personal, not public, and local, not global.”
Yet, beginning in the 1970s with the Iranian Revolution, followed by Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Balkans in the 1990s, religion became a resurgent feature of international affairs. This required policymakers to understand religion to comprehend the nuances of foreign policy, according to Albright.
“In today’s world, presidents simply must take religion into account when they speak or act in global affairs. The question is how to do this without creating new problems,” Albright said. “It’s a challenge that a friend of mine has compared to brain surgery: necessary to do but disastrous if you slip up.”
To counter the prevailing notion that religion was solely a divisive force, however, Albright emphasized the unifying nature of religion, referencing the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II in Poland.
“Religion has always been a globalizing force,” Albright said. “The borderless nature of religious faith often makes it easier for leaders to talk to one another, easier for nations to agree on common values and easier for people of vastly different backgrounds to reach a consensus about moral standards. We know from our modern experience that faith can serve as a source of inspiration and healing.”
At the crux of Albright’s argument was a recognition that religion, like democracy, respected each human being as valuable. She thus condemned terrorism as a perversion of religion for tokenizing the individual.
“Terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Da’esh see history as a twilight struggle between cultures in which the individual as a disposable pawn. They value not ideas but obedience, leaving no room for any vision but their own,” Albright said. “We must do more to defeat those who pour poison into the ears of young people, turning humans into robots.”
Part of the fight against these extremist organizations, according to Albright, is promoting unity among religions in place of creating divides. She recognized this as difficult to do in a virulent campaign season, condemning — without explicitly referencing the candidates by name — Donald Trump’s proposal to keep Muslims out of the country and Ted Cruz’s proposal to patrol Muslim neighborhoods.
“The first rule of public life is to frame a choice,” Albright said. “We will win if people believe that the great divide in the world is between those who believe it is okay to murder innocent people and those who think it’s wrong. We will be in for a very long struggle if people believe the choice is between the supporters and defenders of Islam. This is exactly the fight Da’esh wants to have.”
Albright concluded by stating that the Berkley Center and other nongovernmental institutions were critical to affirming the importance of religion in civil society and opening the space for dialogue.
“We have no greater task than to build bridges of understanding and tolerance before mutual ignorance and insecurity harden into an unbridgeable chasm of hate,” Albright said.
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