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Review by Peter Kovach

  Religion and Public Diplomacy by Philip Seib, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN-13: 978-1-137-29111-0, 2013, 236pp., $90.00 (Hardcover List)


This volume adds depth to the U.S. Department of State’s earnest, if naïve, attempts to more intelligently and effectively integrate religious variables into the overall American diplomatic effort. All ten essays amplify various aspects of engaging religious players and sentiments to further diplomatic goals. Readers interested in the intersection of religious values, leaders, and communities in the general endeavor of communicating or implementing public policy should read this collection. The implications of these essays apply in many cross-cultural settings, both national and transnational, with international communications or public diplomacy.

Editor Seib’s Introduction and Brie Loskota and Richard Flory in their essay ” Why Religion Still Matters in the World” lay out a strong case for public diplomats (and this reviewer would argue more generally, public officials) to overcome the rational biases of their bureaucracies in order to understand the potential inherent in engaging religious communities as partners in forwarding secular policy goals; and to understand when they are the best partners and when not.

The idea of creating “religion attaches” that Seib attributes to Secretary Madeline Albright, however, would be a serious error except in perhaps a few places like Pakistan, Indonesia, Honduras or Chad, to take examples where religious players, identities and issues are key fulcrums of analysis and action. Every diplomat needs to be trained to seek a personal comfort level in dealing with religious actors by first understanding their own biases and then understanding what an unusually clear and enabling body of federal regulation in this regard allows. All area studies courses at the Foreign Service Institute should include some background in the history and anthropology of religion in an officer’s country of assignment as some have for decades.

Two of the most readable essays in the book focus on case studies of successful international strategic communication schemes.

Juyan Zhang’s essay “China’s Faith Diplomacy” describes the faith-based components of China’s “soft power” projection. In a brilliant and nuanced manner, the PRC uses China’s diverse and syncretic religious heritage to positively brand China and exert favorable influence abroad. What is remarkable is that the Chinese achieve this despite at-times oppressive structures designed to exert state control over all domestic religious activity. One size does not fit all the four indigenous traditions China has employed in her public diplomacy. Confucianism represents the Chinese brand. With the Confucian-Taoist emphasis on social harmony, it’s a perfect name for Confucius Institutes around the world.

China’s Buddhist diplomacy, directed at Buddhists throughout Asia and students in the West continues centuries old practice of using translation in a host of vernaculars to create bonds of identity and currently, to push back on the threat China feels from the Tibetan diaspora.

China has in recent times upped Hajj permits and supported calligraphic exchanges on Muslim themes, the latter in partnership with wealthy foreign Muslim charities. They used a domestic Islamic association to take the public lead in calling out the United States for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Finally, while attempting to keep the genii in the bottle by maintaining control of churches amidst the proliferation of Protestantism in unofficial “house” churches, PRC authorities have allowed exchanges with external Protestant churches to promote an image of tolerance and freedom.

The second such essay “The Minaret Referendum & Switzerland’s Proactive Public Diplomacy” by Matyassy and Flury only tangentially touches on religion but documents Switzerland’s brilliant strategic communications planning that greatly mitigated international damage, especially among Muslim nations from the 2009 Referendum banning the erection of further minarets. It traces the evolution, structures and strategies the Swiss put forward after their benign national brand was besmirched by a controversy over “dormant (Nazi era) assets” a decade earlier.

The book includes two essays on Vatican public diplomacy. Daniel Hall’s “Pope John Paul II, Radio Free Europe and Faith Diplomacy’” documents the tactic of the Church as far back as Vatican Two to conflate Catholicism with “Polishness” in Vatican Radio broadcasts. The article suggests that Radio Free Europe may in fact have been doing the same for an even longer period of time. From a public diplomacy standpoint, the ultimate result of this decades long broadcast emphasis seems obvious. Culminating in the Polish Pope John Paul II’s triumphant return to Poland and the overthrow of communism, there is no doubt that this conflation through the vehicle of surrogate radio broadcasts powerfully coupled an indigenous religious identity with national identity in the face of an atheist state. No metrics unfortunately are presented to document the exact vectors and extent of this influence.

Vatican diplomacy directed at gaining autonomy and freedom of worship for the Church in communist Vietnam and China is described as kind of a minuet of public pressures to back quiet diplomacy by author Lan T. Chu in “Vatican Diplomacy in China and Vietnam”. Both countries sought to harness the power of the Church (and other faiths) as a positive civil society agent of development on the one hand but with attendant insecurities regarding regime control over religion based civil society organizations on the other. Thus granting the Church power over clerical appointments was a tall order. The Vatican was able to get what it wanted from Vietnam–the author’s analysis is that the salutary influence of Vatican Two’s doctrine of despite the old school and staunchly anti-communist Church isolated in the North during the civil war era. China, despite public Vatican gestures such as canonizing Boxer Rebellion Chinese Catholics, to this day insists on control of ecclesiastical appointments. A reader is left wondering whether the old South Vietnamese Church’s exposure to Vatican Two was truly the deciding factor or whether there may also be some underlying cultural divergences between Vietnam and China that help to explain the difference.

Two essays look at a public diplomat’s challenge in supporting the American ideal of religious freedom. Liora Danan’s essay “Shaping the Narrative of Religious Freedom” rehearses well the developmental as well as the moral arguments for religious freedom. It is premised on Pew Forum on Religion and Society and other polling that demonstrate some rather dramatic deficits in international religious freedom based on a combination of government or social restrictions on free practice of faith, the right to change faith or to have no faith. Troubling, however, is Ms. Danan’s assertion ‘that PD…is inseparable from the issue of religious freedom”. This statement is especially bothersome in the American case where as a superpower; we have such a wide variety of interests and relationships that can benefit from a higher diplomatic/public diplomacy engagement with religious actors overseas

Danan’s inventory of ideas for a public diplomacy advocating pluralism and religious freedom are worth consideration but as she recognizes, the combination of communication approaches to advocate religious freedom (as with advocacy of any other policy or value) rests in analyzing the influence channels in each situation a public diplomat encounters. She along with Najeeba Miller in her essay ‘PD and Transnational Cases of Blasphemy’ acknowledges that America’s reputation as a bastion of religious freedom is far from unblemished and that our absolute freedom of even the most hateful expression undermines our case.

Danan also acknowledges an international perception of Christian bias in American advocacy. Danan cites UNHRC Resolution 16/18 of 2010 on “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief.” as a good example of finding such common ground with the OIC countries despite the paramount value we place on freedom of expression and the acute sensitivity to blasphemous expression among most Muslims. Many dedicated to the support of religious freedom, however, critique 16/18 as a measure that has allowed the OIC to bury rather than advance the blasphemy issue. The inclusion of a chapter such as Danan’s in this volume brings an element of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” to bear. Ms. Danan’s contribution and Dr. Seib’s decision to include it are praiseworthy.

For public diplomacy practitioners concerned with influencing faith based dialectics on line, “Muslim’s Online Faith Diplomacy” by Mohammed El Nawawy clearly analyzes the altered dynamics of religious discourse thanks to the Internet that has in turn created the space for an Internet based public diplomacy to counter violent extremism. The current work of the State Department based, interagency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) through non-face to face Internet based images and discourse is an important public diplomacy exploitation of this phenomena. Nawawy articulately documents how on line discourse flips the dominant role of traditional ecclesiastic or juridical hierarchies both creating space for violent extremists and their moderate opponents. It invites in instances the participation of heterodox, even non-Muslim voices in previously restricted debate and makes interpretation far more democratic. He sees violent jihadi groups and Islamophobes on two fringes of this on line dialogue and advocates the increase of web based conversations on issues both within the Muslim world and across faith and cultural lines.

A last study, by Diane Winston “Buddhist Media Diplomacy in Myanmar” is both limited in its import for public diplomacy practitioners and factually flawed. It describes the resonance that the Buddhist sangha (referring to Burma’s large monastic community in this case) got in the international media when in 2007, after decades of quiescence in the face of oppressive military rule, monks and nuns joined ongoing anti-regime protests and arguably were a major factor in swinging the pendulum towards the current dismantling of military dominated government. Winston attributes that success to the resonance of the monk’s action with the benign and humanistic stereotype of Buddhism in international eyes that generated much positive coverage in the international press. The article measures nothing and misses the main point–the resonance with national Buddhist identity that the monks’ sudden lead in the protests had on the internal situation. In the ensuing years after 2007, Burmese national identity narrowed down amidst the political, social and economic insecurities in the face of impending change. Buddhism became a badge of identity rather than a set of values. This brooked no place for other faith communities, and especially not for Muslims. In 2012 Buddhist monks and nuns led a virulently Islam phobic set of protests and physical attacks against not only the Rohinga Muslim minority and also against ethnic Burmese Muslim populations in four regions of the country—the latter omitted in this piece. In this instance, the international media ignored the politics and actions of Buddhist clergy, Winston argues, because the image of Buddhist monks supporting a hateful campaign against Muslims created an off-putting dissonance. Journalists could not reconcile such violence with their stereotype of Buddhists and thus failed to report on a newsworthy and alarming situation.

Religion and Public Diplomacy highlights key issues in conducting public diplomacy about religion and, more importantly through religious actors and institutions on more general strategic communication goals. The book easily fulfills the goal editor Seib lays out—helping readers conceptualize a public diplomacy, fully comfortable working with religious actors, organizations and values, regardless of the specific national or institutional interest at play. We live in a world where religious involvement in the worlds of politics, economics and social organization is on the rise and where religious or spiritual influence is amplified in dialectics reshaped by mass media.End.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Peter Kovach is a ‘recovering’ religion major and a recently retired senior foreign service public diplomacy officer. He wrote an undergraduate thesis on the Phenomenology of Ganges Worship after a year at Banaras University in India studying Hindu philosophy, interviewing pilgrims and priests along the river and studying meditation under the late Swami Abhishiktananda. His graduate thesis work at the Fletcher School was on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. He has taught world religions at UMass Boston and courses on public diplomacy at UCLA and George Mason University. In his career, he headed the Office of International Religious Freedom, the Foreign Press Centers and three times ‘whole of government’ strategic communications coordination bodies also serving abroad in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Japan, and Pakistan. He is an interfaith activist and advises or serves on the boards of: the Rumi Forum, the 9/11 Unity Walk, Al Bashir Islamic Seminary, and George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. He also serves on the board of Smiles on Wings, a medical/humanitarian charity working in remote areas of Thailand.

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