For those unfamiliar with these speakers, Dirk Ficca is the executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, Eboo Patel is the executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Afeefa Syeed is a
senior advisor at the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) Middle East and Asia sectors. The panel marked the anniversary of U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo one year ago, wherein he made it an agenda of U.S. foreign policy to understand and promote religious diversity in its interactions with other nations. This would turn out to be an historic moment in U.S. foreign relations, as it admitted to its failure to adequately address the dynamics associated with an increasingly pluralistic world, as well as raising awareness of an inherent respect owed to religious and spiritual beliefs that had hitherto been, for the most part, ignored by the U.S. government.
The discussion was insightful and enlightening for those in attendance. It highlighted the great need for an appreciation of religious and spiritual life in foreign policy as well as society in general. Considering that each speaker is affiliated with different social and government agencies that do very different work, they were able to offer perspectives that allowed for a more comprehensive vision of what it means to promote public engagement of religious beliefs within a broad social context. Dirk Ficca noted the salience of religious and spiritual values in the human condition, its great contributions to political and social changes for present and past cultures, as well as the crisis it sometimes presents when a religion becomes embedded in political norms. Eboo Patel added to these comments by stressing the realities of a world becoming ever-more populated by youth who possess a power and presence in the global marketplace of ideas. Not only that, he appreciated the sensitivity of late adolescents and young adults who are searching for a sense of identity and a means for affecting a change in the world, all the while being influenced "by the winds of religion", as he put it. Lastly, Afeefa Syeed added
to these thoughts by offering her experience within a U.S. agency that is in the midst of a transition. This transition is intended to acknowledge religion as a major influencing factor in the areas U.S. representatives are working, and the ways in which the USAID is functioning more as a partner or mediator in communities, rather than as an authoritarian entity. One poignant description she had of this was working with a economically deprived community in Karachi, where her function was to ask the community leaders what was RIGHT or GOOD about their community, and working from that point forward in developing a plan to help.
Overall, each speaker agreed on the main points of their separate discussions. These points included the innate ability of religion to effect great good in the world, the increased need, now more than ever, for recognition among national and social entities regarding the value of religion and spirituality as a human quality that is neither diminishing nor able to be quenched, and the U.S.'s responsibility to respect and acknowledge this character in the myriad of ways it is manifested in the world.
As with any discussion that is limited to only a few hours, however, there were several probing questions asked by both the moderators and members of the audience. One of these asked what the roles of non-profit organizations are for interfaith experiences. The moderator of the event, Rachel Bronson, asked a popular question, at least within the U.S., whether it might not be better to ignore or suppress religious identities, considering its tendency to influence violence in the world along with peace. Lastly, one question I was left with as an audience member was whether U.S. foreign policy is truly intent on becoming an active participant of religious dialogue for its fundamental worth, or whether this has simply been deemed an appropriate means for securing its own interests in a world it now recognizes as essentially religious. I leave these questions for you, users of PeaceNext, to ponder, as well as to comment on your perceptions of the panel discussion in general.