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Interview: Shaun Casey, U.S. Special Rep for Religion and Global Affairs

Shaun Casey, U.S. Special Representative on Religion and Global Affairs

Dr Shaun Casey. photo/U.S. State Department

On 28 April 2015 CIRIS hosted a lecture at the University of Cambridge with Shaun Casey, U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs. Prior his current appointment, which began in 2013, Casey was a professor of ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government and has written widely on religion and politics.

Here CIRIS research associates Chris Moses and Margot Dazey get Casey’s thoughts on a range of topics, including Islam, interfaith engagement, the mission of his office, and how he responds to critics.

CIRIS: Could you explain the reasons why the Office of Religion and Global Affairs was established and how it is structured? 

Shaun Casey: Secretary Kerry has believed for a long time that US foreign policy has not sufficiently engaged foreign actors nor has it sufficiently understood religion dynamics globally. And he established our office as a way to begin to address those deficits. Before I was hired he spent a fair amount of time assessing the bureaucratic structure with respect to religion that existed in the State Department and he consolidated a number of offices and then wrapped them into my new office, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Then there’s the intellectual problem of how do you structure an office that begins to think about religion globally, but also contextually. How do we move from just the crisis of the day with respect to religion, to really understanding the power of lived religion around the globe. When fully staffed, we’ll have an office that will be around thirty people, which is quite large by State Department standards. In terms of structure, I have six regional advisors that align with the six regional bureaus where the state department arbitrarily carves the world into these six sectors. And I’m looking for people who have some degree of Religious Studies training, who have on the ground experience in the region, but also have a deep knowledge of US foreign policy. If you comb the world, there are not a lot of people who have all three areas of expertise!

CIRIS: What will success look like?

SC: Well first of all I want to build an office that does leverage the best capacities, that has the smartest people with respect to religion. We have an internal mission, and we have an external mission. The internal mission is to promote the notion that engaging religious actors and doing very good assessment of religion dynamics in countries will be of added value to our diplomatic efforts. In fact, absent of that knowledge, we’re prone to make mistakes. The converse of that is if we have the knowledge, we may be actually in the position to make better diplomatic achievements happen. Now the second task really is to go into the world and demonstrate that these capacities can pay diplomatic dividends.

CIRIS: Can you give some examples of current foreign policy issues where you think that the religious dimensions have been under-reported? 

SC: Sure. One of the areas we’re working on now very fruitfully is climate change. In the United States there’s a widespread interreligious spectrum that’s deeply invested in mitigating and adapting to climate change. We’re on the cusp of Pope Francis issuing his first encyclical, which will be on climate change this summer. There’s a United Nations framework convention on climate change, which is an ongoing process that will culminate in Paris in December of this year. We have discovered an amazing array of both domestic and international faith groups that are tracking this very carefully, and are promoting whatever the final product may be out of Paris. So we’ve done a number of convenings in the State department where we’ve brought in faith groups to meet with our climate policy people.

CIRIS: How would you reflect on prevailing images of Islam in international relations?  

SC: There’s no doubt that at least in the West, and perhaps other places, that there are stereotypes of Islam, that’s it’s inherently violent, and so forth, which is just empirically not true. And then, you filter that through American partisan politics, and those lines get even more magnified in a problematic way. Now having said that, and as I think you know, President Obama made a speech which parsed this pretty carefully. To say: of course, there are members of ISIS who style themselves as in fact being some form of normatively better Islam. So we can’t ignore that. But to caricature all 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, that your faith is inherently violent, it’s just simply nonsense, it’s not true. But we do have the phenomenon of Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and ISIS, where there is a religious element. We’re not in the business of making grand pronouncements about Islam, we don’t endorse that caricature. What we try to do is provide some analytical lenses that produce clarity and light, rather than heat and confusion.

CIRIS: How do you evaluate the value of interreligious work? 

SC: I have met a sociologist of religion who made a distinction which I think is very interesting. He talked about interreligious work as theatre versus interreligious work as praxis. I could travel the great cities of Europe and the West on a regular basis, attending interreligious functions and I would meet the same set of people in London, in Paris, in Vienna. And there is a place for that. But that is not where I spend my time. I am very much interested in understanding how religious work actually leads to changes and leads to production of some value on the ground. I think this is an underscrutinised area: how do you evaluate interreligious work as praxis? I am not in the position to create that analysis, but the more that kind of analysis we can gather about evaluating why this interreligious project led to safer neighbourhoods or better drinking facilities or better housing. We are very much interested in the pragmatic product. The premises, well you are Muslim, I am Buddhist, you are Christian, just by virtue of sitting down together and having a meal is a positive outcome, and at one level I understand that. But you put a diplomatic lens on that and it may not be, that is not the outcome that diplomats are looking for. What we are looking for is how interreligious work brings social and political gains and improvement.

CIRIS: You have received good feedback on your work so far. Could outline some of the criticisms you’ve received as well? 

SC: Sure. I think that before I was announced as being hired and the office being launched, there were some scholars who voiced some anxieties as a form of criticism. And I think what underlay those anxieties is actually quite apt. People thought: Oh we’re going to instrumentalise religion, it is all about getting faith group A to embrace policy X, and if you could find other faith groups to endorse this same policy they would move to this more favoured status and then groups that did not support our policy overtly, they would never get inside the door. And there is some political evidence in the past in the United States that is what the government has in fact been drawn in giving some insider status to some groups versus others. And it is not appropriate, So, our stance is to be radically inclusive, so if a group wants to meet with us, we will find a time and meet. So nobody gets barred at the door. And we look for relationships, we look for overlap, no matter where they are on the theological spectrum of where they are on the political spectrum.

There was also some anxiety that we might violate the establishment clause of the first amendment. It might look like we are trying to promote a particular theological view and if, again, you are politically aligned with us, we may make you more resource-rich. And again we have an army of lawyers who scrutinise our work and make sure that we don’t do that. So we are not in the business of promoting one theological position over another theological position.

And I think the third criticism was that we would build the office with people who are not competent in understanding religion. We have some very sophisticated educated folk, well trained on various aspects of interpreting religion. And I think another criticism related to that was that was, ‘Your office is going to be too tiny to make a difference’. I think we are bigger than anybody thought we were going to be, so I think on both sides of this criticism, we proved our critics wrong. We do have smart people on religion, well trained from a scholarly perspective, and also we have been given a nice menu of personnel and resources.

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At CIRIS, we aim to equip students and scholars in Cambridge and beyond with a robust and nuanced appreciation for the role of religion in international politics that they will take with them into their future research and/or practice around the world. To this end, we host public lectures, academic seminars, and other events. We are also pursuing research projects that draw on the contributions of Cambridge-based academics.

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