The Father of Faith-Based Diplomacy
In Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, on the border with Afghanistan where many believe Osama bin Laden is hiding with local support, Douglas Johnston walked into one of the most infamous of the region's madrassahs. In the West, media had identified the religious school as being linked to the 7/7 London bombing.
"The situation was tense," Johnston recalls. Israel was fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon. Because of U.S. support for the war and its invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans were not considered friends. Leaders of the madrassah warned Johnston to say nothing provocative. But as the youngest ever to qualify for the command of a nuclear submarine, Johnston is accustomed to tense situations.
Johnston introduced himself and two other Americans as followers of Jesus, saying they were committed to his reconciling work. But Johnston didn't proceed with feel-good statements about different faiths getting along—though he believes Christian and Muslim scriptures enjoin mutual respect. Instead, he challenged his hostile audience. Johnston said Muslims are to respect other faiths because, as Muhammad had taught, God himself created people separately to compete in good works. In order to be good Muslims, Johnston said in effect, they must hear him out.
The audience, which likely included members of the Taliban, listened as Johnston then quoted Jesus' command to turn the other cheek. As followers of Allah, Johnston said, they must also be followers of Jesus, considered to be a prophet. And because Jesus said to turn the other cheek, these Muslims should follow Jesus' example and not launch unprovoked attacks on those they consider enemies.
Despite the school's links to terrorism, the audience warmed to Johnston's rebuke. Soon someone asked, "Are there other parallels between Muhammad's teaching and Jesus'?" Later, another participant greeted Johnston with a hand over his heart. "You have made me very, very happy," he said. "We thought all Americans hated us."
This is one example of how Johnston's long, tedious work in the North West Frontier Province has borne unexpected fruit. When the Taliban kidnapped 18 Korean missionaries in Afghanistan last year, Johnston used his contacts in the region to help secure their release.
A Foreign Service Void
Johnston's work goes against the traditional diplomatic grain. "The main purpose of foreign policy," says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, "is to persuade other countries to do what we want." In her book The Mighty and the Almighty, Albright says that diplomats use everything from reason and logic to the threat of military force to achieve their ends. She also says that typically, religion is never a consideration. As the Clinton administration negotiated in the Balkans and the Middle East, she says, expressing the standard foreign-policy approach, "we hoped, nevertheless, to devise a legal formula clever enough to quiet the emotions generated by the past."
It took 9/11 to awaken Albright to religion's role in international relations, but five years after 9/11, the topic at a high-level strategic initiatives discussion at the Pentagon was still, "Is religion significant?" Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), participated in the event. He was flabbergasted that military leaders, particularly given the religiously motivated violence in Iraq, needed to ask the question.
Johnston, a globetrotting 69-year-old, founded the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) eight years ago because he saw religious faith as a catalyst for peacemaking, instead of a basis for conflict. Johnston, an evangelical who attends the prominent Falls Church in Virginia, has learned that Muslims will listen more closely to a Christian than to the typical secular Westerner. Johnston doesn't evangelize, but his center's Christian motivation and framework are clear. "If you can operate on a faith-based basis, you find that, particularly with Muslims, they really open up," says Johnston. "This is what they like to think they're about. They get very uncomfortable dealing with just secular constructs."