Here at State of Formation, my colleague Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon argues against participation in the Council of Foreign Relations. I wish I could say I disagree with his premises, but the reality is that I do not. However, I have come to a different conclusion than he has. I am not only submitting a piece for the “Religion and Foreign Policy Bulletin,” but I am in the third year of my five-year term member cycle with CFR. I have chosen to do this because, as Joseph points out, there is not much informed discussion about the role of religion in policy. It is reactive, and often reifies religion in such a way as to separate it from all realms of human activity.
I am a scholar of religion. I am also a religious and community leader. In the last year I have been blessed to be able to travel to Pakistan and Kenya. After my trip to Pakistan, I spoke out about my experience, and told the stories of Pakistanis, affected by drone strikes. I am working on a short piece on the ways the Muslims of Nairobi feel the security apparatus as it affects them, based on their religion and America’s global war on terror. These discussions are not abstract, nor do I support America’s foreign policy unconditionally. The imperium exists, and the rise of the security state should be of concern to us all, not just because it weakens us abroad, but because it affects us at home. There is a reason that I also speak out strongly against the abuses of the NYPD, and now the NSA.
However, I take my cue from something Rep. Keith Ellison once said, which was you are either at the table or on the menu. Part of my rationale in joining the CFR was to be able to engage in trying to create better conversations around religion. I also encourage other scholars of religion to join as well, because this is a structural issue that one person cannot change, and perhaps a cadre of people cannot change. In the small amount of time I have been with CFR, I do believe I have had a modest impact. Perhaps not on the CFR directly, but with people who actually craft policy. There are those who are willing to listen, and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, do not know what they do not know.
Joseph’s vision of alternative agencies that bring together new sets of actors and thinkers is ideal. I firmly believe in it, and think that we need NGOs and think tanks firmly grounded in communities who think more broadly about our policy outside of the constraints of the security state. We should be thinking of development, and education, and domestic building, amongst many other things. However, those institutions take time, vision, and money. As we wait to build the perfect, our current structures go down the path that we are so concerned about. Here, I think, it is useful to disentangle the various voices we have. The call that Joseph puts out is a prophetic one, that needs religious voices to bring the moral conviction that he espouses. In the meantime, scholars of religion can critique, but I believe we also have an obligation to engage.
I am grateful to Joseph for bringing up the moral and political questions around our engagement with the CFR, and I hope that we wall continue to push for more intelligent discussions around religion and informed policy making.