Let's Get Back to the Promise of Inter-faith Diplomacy
Here I am, Barack: Send me back to continue the Inter-faith work which you inspire and for which Chris Stevens laid down his life.
The assassination of Chris Stevens who it was my Embassy's pleasure to assist and support in Malta on his way to and during his envoy duties in Benghazi in the spring of 2011 prompted me to think about inter-faith diplomacy and the President's initiative in that region. As President Obama related, in taking up these and related ambassadorial duty, Chris was a wonderful human being: smart, open, and courageous.
Before Chris reported for his important work in Benghazi during the "Arab spring" uprising, he and I visited in my home and his team camped out in my embassy. Being especially careful to honor the military neutrality of Malta (a neutrality which is valuable in a divided world that needs some common ground for negotiation); we spoke of the inter-faith diplomatic effort of President Obama. I am certain from his heartfelt remarks that the President appreciates how in many ways Chris gave his life practicing this inclusionary brand of diplomacy. President Obama was right in his well-received Cairo speech in June 2009 - we must achieve mutual understanding in order to secure mutual respect. Without mutual respect, we cannot expect a rule of law or democratic institutions to flourish.
It is obvious in the mindlessly destructive melees of the present day that those rioting against the U.S. and the West have little conception of our scope of freedom, and thus, wrongly attribute to us speech - like that dealing with the insulting portrayal of the Prophet - to be the official view of the United States or even the perspective of all Americans. So too, it is obvious that the makers of the video either lack appreciation for how insulting it is to mock the central figure of faith, or irresponsibly, do not care.
Of course, it is easy enough to say that the leaders of al Qaeda or like terrorist counterparts are beyond understanding. Their message of hate must be rejected by all people of every faith, and none at all. Theirs is a message that leads nowhere but to death, destruction, and the disappointment of legitimate hope for a good and decent life at peace with the neighbors they know and the strangers unknown to them across the globe.
But how committed have we been to this inter-faith diplomatic effort? How much do we really understand about Islam or any faith other than our own? My experience in the Obama administration suggests that our knowledge is incomplete and our actions prone toward mixed or inconsistent signal. In this, our diplomatic initiative has yet to match the clarion voice and great discernment of President Obama as exhibited at the Al-Azhar or center of Islamic learning that for centuries has compatibly informed and guided the progress inspired by Cairo University. President Obama's Cairo sentiments both honored America's longstanding commitment to religious liberty while at the same time outlining the difficult challenge observance of that liberty can sometimes pose for competing freedoms, like that of speech, or that can be understood to undermine necessary principles of equality, especially toward women.
The President in Cairo spoke at length and with words chosen with great care. His message, like that of Embassy-Cairo last week, contrary to Governor Romney, did not disserve our values or apologize for the freedoms secured by our Constitutional system. No, Governor Romney, President Obama - unlike your recent unfortunate criticisms that as best as rational minds can tell were based on a wholesale failure to grasp the Embassy's point (i.e., America condemns hate speech, especially hate aimed at another's faith to which we may largely ignorant; but American's condemnation of the propagation of such hatred can never be mistaken for authorization to retaliate with that which is far uglier - namely, inexcusable violence). You have the right, Governor, to pretend that our diplomats said something else, but then, you would be lying. Now, of course, the Supreme Court just this past term affirmed that even a lie has some shelter under the Constitution, but, Sir, our Court did not mean to inspire deceptive behavior and one anticipates that the voters of America will not reward prevarication in November. So here is some advice from your former legal advisor: Knock it off!
Now, perhaps I am especially sensitive to this topic when in appointing me Ambassador to the Republic of Malta (a democratic nation, but a neutral, non-aligned one that has demonstrated a special gift for interacting with all nations, including its nearest neighbor to its South, Libya), the President and his delegates in The White House gave me a special portfolio to pursue inter-faith or faith-based diplomacy through writing, speaking and international conference devoted to de-fusing the hatreds spiked by our ignorance of another's faith; an ignorance that multiplies harm when it misuses a constitutional commitment to free speech to spew out a video that by any objective measure is ugly and denigrating about the Prophet whose life is seen as exemplary and sacred within the Muslim faith.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton attracted a number of us specially committed to advancing faith-based diplomacy. Unfortunately, it was hard for the State Department bureaucracy to, as the kids say, "get it." Because my guidance on the inter-faith initiative was shaped outside the "Foggy Bottom," and because some parts of the bureaucracy, aided by a few lawyers in something of a fog themselves - or the type of lawyer that can spot only problem when the point of law practice is the resolution of problem without abandoning the essential objective -- much of my faith-based writing was censored or impeded in ways that, ironically, these same lawyers would understand such obstruction could not constitutionally be extended to the expression of hate-filled Koran-burners or Mohammed-defilers could not be.
As an academic, I first learned of our President when he shared the lot of a fellow con law professor. Still conceiving of him in those terms, I was certain that he would (or could) easily see the importance of not just having political, cultural, and economic officers in embassies, but diplomatic specialists in opening and maintaining inter-faith channels of communication and inter-action as well. Alas, the cooperation of the bureaucracy was frustratingly resistant to the President's objective and my implementation. Tendering my resignation after several years of such obstruction, I naively thought my principal friend in the Obama administration: i.e., Obama, would just say, "nonsense, Doug, you're doing exactly what we announced at your swearing in as the "special presidential logic" for your appointment, and I - that is, the President, sort of like a big brother ready to kick the ass of school yard bullies picking on his brother, would straighten out the matter, and I would get back to work implementing his Cairo message in earnest.
Okay, I admit I have watched "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" one too many times, and I vastly underestimated the difficulty of borrowing a presidential moment in the midst of budget limit crises and other seemingly larger issues. When the opponents of exploring the utility of faith-based means of conflict resolution managed to mix in the inspector general, they cleverly outmaneuvered this old professor, but as I write, I am haunted by the question: at what cost? No one can say had the initiative gone full-throttle that Chris Stevens and other embassies would not be victimized, but this much is certain: there would have been established faith-sensitive channels of communication as sane alternatives to the Molotov cocktail and AK-47.
The learning and outreach for these alternative channels do not exist today. Chris Stevens would not be discouraged, nor am I. The President and the Secretary of State know and discern the essence of religious freedom and with that discernment have striven in a genuine fashion to support in North Africa and the Middle East governmental structures and territorial allocations that are at long last accountable to the people. Democracy? Yes, but not necessarily the template, democratic form of the United States, but a governmental structure that is compatible with the people of each nation determining for itself how faith is permitted to influence public decision. There is only one key premise or precondition to this variegated freedom: that no single faith may use coercion to compel a prescribed religion or proscribe the religious practices to which a Muslim, Christian or Jew or anyone else has voluntarily given consent.
Notwithstanding the orchestrations of the present unrest, the President and Secretary of State have masterfully conducted our foreign policy. Anyone unfamiliar with the President's Cairo message would find in the splendor of its peace-filled message more than ample justification for President Obama's and Secretary Clinton's continuation into a second term. There is much to be done, and much that will depend upon the courageous efforts of a person like Christopher Stevens to accomplish. Secretary Clinton captured the spirit of Chris in her remarks honoring the return of his remains when she referenced his ever-present California smile, which she endearingly called a "goofy, irreverent California smile." Yes, it was that because Chris never took himself too seriously, except when through those welcoming, still youthful dentures he was articulating in Arabic and English a message that said to persons of every faith - "we know the things that really matter in this life" and by means both conventional and unconventional, we will help you re-make this world into a peaceful place where you and those you love may enjoy them.
It is on this basis - with my own "goofy" California smile -- that I am reporting for duty, Mr. President and Madame Secretary.
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