Religion, Foreign Policy & Common Narrative

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Posted on July 3rd, 2014 | Filed under Challenges, Leadership, Social Issues
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Typing Our Narrative

Last week, the Council on Foreign Relations held their 8th annual workshop on Religion and Foreign Policy in New York City. I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation and attend the event.  This year, the summer workshop included several panelists examining topics such as online religious extremism, the responsibility to protect ("R2P"), and religious tensions within failing nation-states. The panelists continually impressed me with their global knowledge, experiences, and expertise.

Equally impressive were the attendees to the workshop.  They included leaders from multiple religious traditions with representatives from Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, and interfaith traditions, as well as academics and policy makers.  I truly felt fortunate to be in the company of so many practitioners and theoreticians attempting to make the world more just through their religious traditions and work.

Of particular importance at this CFR summer workshop was the topic of online religious extremism.  Specifically, many of the panelists described the sophisticated, online presence of extreme Islamic groups like ISIS who are utilizing social media like Twitter and YouTube to recruit volunteers from around the globe. It was duly noted that Islam is not the only tradition promoting religious extremism online, but that each tradition includes extremist elements. However, the foci did tend to narrow in on Islamic groups.  The conversation prompted questions like: Is the Internet the problem? How do we counter online religious fundamentalism? How do we measure our attempts to counter online religious fundamentalism?  Is censorship a viable option? If so, who has censorship authority?

One recommendation in ameliorating online, religious extremism was the creation of an attractive, online counter-narrative.  For, as this suggestion posits, if a person is looking for identity and meaning online, why not provide an alternative to the radical narratives? One such online counter-narrative highlighted was the popular Abdullah-X on YouTube.  The idea of a counter-narrative, on the surface, appears to be a viable solution in my opinion.  By calling attention to the positive values in religious traditions like peace-building, I would hope that some might be convinced to, not leave their religious tradition, but find new solace within their religious tradition.  Indeed an important objective of this solution would be not to de-convert a devotee, but rather to change their view of their faith values.  (There is an entire ethical discussion to be had regarding this last sentence; but alas it is not the focus of this blog post).

I applaud those who are in this difficult field of combating online, religious extremism.  Yet, the entire discussion prompted me to think about narratives and counter narratives.  And here's the weighty questions that I have been wrestling with since the workshop: Are counter-narratives reactionary? If they are, what does this suggest about the weakness of our common narrative? Or is there even a common meta-narrative in the United States at all? If so, what is that agreed upon narrative? What is the role of religion in an agreed upon, common narrative? Does the contemporary political polarization reflect a lack of common national narrative; and maybe even the current battle of what national narrative will prevail? Are we in the the initial stages of the formation of a shared global narrative? How does American exceptionalism or even American exemplarism fit into this conversation?

I do not pretend to suggest that I have any answers to the above questions.  I probably have my own opinions regarding many of the questions, but where do we even discuss such meta-questions? Who is curating a space for these discussions at the local, state, national, and online arenas? Are faith groups wrestling with these issues? If so, who?

I would love to have some discussion here at State of Formation regarding this topic.  I'll leave the conversation open while also offering a few resources available to think through some of these topics:

Next Blog Post Teaser: Interstate Love Songs & Documenting Religious Diversity.

Photo courtesy of author.

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Terry Shoemaker received his Masters degree in Religious Studies from Western Kentucky University. He has served as a minister, Religious Program Specialist in the U.S. Navy, a ecumenical nonprofit Director, and, most recently, initiated an interfaith movement on the WKU campus. In the fall, he will start his PhD studies at Arizona State University where he will also work as a Research Assistant at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.


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