John M. Regan, Jr. Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
Topics: religion and conflict, religion and peace, peacebuilding
Interviewed by Micaela Cayton Garrido — 2005
Listen to Full Interview
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Listen/Read Selected Interview Segments on the Following Topics
- The Conflict Resolution Potential of Religion
- The Opening Provided by 9/11 to Religion and Peacebuilding
- U.S. Government Response to the Potential of Religion as Peacebuilding
- Reflections on a Recent UN Conference on Religion and Tolerance
- The Controversy Surrounding Tariq Ramadan's Efforts to Enter the United States
- Reflections on How He Got Interested in the Role of Religion in Peacebuilding
- Thoughts on the Appointment of Pope Benedict XVI
Q: I would like to know what exactly your work as Director of the Kroc is and what you do as an academic here at the University?
A: My work as the Regan Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies means that I am the person who is responsible overall, for the main areas of our activity of the Institute which include: teaching our undergraduate program which includes an interdisciplinary minor and a supplementary major; our research, which includes projects on the resolution of conflicts and peace processes, on religion and ethnic violence, on sanctions, security and counterterrorism, on strategic peacebuilding, on the role of norms and international institutions and a variety of other topics; and our policy work, which is an attempt to inform public policy and public education on matters related to peace and justice; and our relationships with Notre Dame's administration and with other peace institutes and other universities. That doesn't mean I do all that stuff, my job is to support and cheer on, evaluate and appoint many of the professors and staff who do that work. And I participate myself particularly in the religion and conflict area where I've written and edited books on religion and violence, and fundamentalisms and peacebuilding.
Q: Yes, I am actually aware of your book, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, where you talk extensively about this matter, and you talk about the great potential of religious fundamentalism as a tool for peacebuilding. So what do you think of the situation as it is at the moment? Do you think that people are aware of this strong potential in the world right now, or is there a lack of awareness of this?
A: I think in the West, in the United States, Canada and Europe in particular, there is more awareness of religion and its impact in the public sphere than there has ever been in the modern era. And that is quite a statement - this is partly due to global media, but it's also due to the rise of religious resurgence and movements with political aims, some of which are violent, some of which indulge in terrorism or, that is, the targeted use of violence in an oppositional mode. As a result, there is much more discussion of and awareness about it, writing about it and media coverage about religion and violence than there has been in a long time.
But, that doesn't mean there is a greater understanding simply because there's a lot of coverage. In fact, the coverage can often lead to conflating movements and ideas, to confusing them, to loose language and to accusations, and to polarization in which you're just calling names across the gulf between you and your opponent. That's one problem.
The other problem is the work of the peacebuilders - the ones in conflict resolution, nonviolence, human rights, who are drawing on religious traditions or working from religious perspectives, is not as well known, even given the media coverage and the greater educational awareness. There is much more concern with the religious advocacy of politics that one does not agree with.
Q: So you think there should be more awareness built towards the existence of these peacebuilders?
A: Very much so. There are efforts - my writing, Marc Gopin's writing, Rashied Omar here at the Institute, foundations like the Tannenbaum Foundation which gives annual awards to religious peacebuilders, the work of John Paul Lederach. There are people who are dedicated to getting the word out. But it's not the kind of story that the secular media gives as much attention to. They prefer the man-bites-dog headline, that is, they expect religion to be working for peace and justice, and they are not particularly interested unless there is some particularly dramatic turn to the story. So one thing you have to do with the media is show the heroism, and the drama and the intensity of the people in conflict settings who are working for peace.
Q: So do you think that the 9/11 incident has greatly affected this exposure, or this extensive discussion on peacebuilding and extremism and fundamentalism?
A: There's no question that 9/11 has heightened the awareness of religion. But because that was such a terrible tragedy, it has focused attention on the negative, the destructive, the adversarial role of religious activism in the world. It has provided the occasion for more general discussion of religion, so it has provided an opening for discussion on religious peacebuilding and religion and human rights. Often that discussion takes the unfortunate turn of saying the 9/11 attacks were not really about religion, or the suicide bomber is not religious, or the Jewish settler or the Christian militant. But, in fact, they are religious; it's that they take an expression of religion which is a particular interpretation of texts and traditions that legitimates violence. So, it's equally important to look at those militants - as I describe in the book Ambivalence of the Sacred - they are militants, who are active for peace, but they reject violence as the way to attain peace or attain justice. So there is a little bit of opening after 9/11 about religion in general, and it's a moment in which one can correct misperceptions and speak about the positive.
Q: You've mentioned awhile ago that there has been great effort to expose the work of peacebuilders at the moment. But do you think it's enough to hurdle the negativity that has been created through 9/11? Or should there be more efforts geared towards something - more efforts to bring out the positive?
A: Yes I think you're right, there should be. That opening that's provided by 9/11 and the heightened attention to religion does need to be exploited more thoroughly in part by the work that many of us do with government. A number of us - David Little of Harvard for instance, he and I cross paths on the lecture circuit all the time. We've been recently at MIT, we're going to the CIA. The next thing will be FBI and a number of other initials. The State Department, USAID, government agencies are more and more interested. And USAID happily has been more interested indialogue and in religious peacebuilding. The CIA, FBI and other divisions of the government are more concerned with the prevention of religious conflict, or with studying "terrorism." But USAID has supported interfaith dialogues and studies on religious peacebuilding and that's a wonderfully heartening opportunity we need to build on. And so it's those kinds of meetings and those kinds of invitations that we have to accept and we have to be present to, because it's openings at higher levels. Governments and their agencies cannot create religious peacebuilding and it has to be very shrewd in how it supports local and regional efforts on behalf of peace. But the fact that it's bringing people together, with the US seal of approval, and with some funding and support, to talk about the issues that divide them. One dialogue in Fez, Morocco was about different ways of interpreting sacred texts across religious traditions and the political implications of those different ways. How do we think about that? Well, in some ways it is a basic topic in religion and religious peacebuilding; but to have governments to be concerned about it and society to be concerned about it and want to foster more dialogue about that is a wonderful development, I think. So we do have an opportunity now because it's on the radar; to see the glass half-full instead of half-empty, even though a lot of that glass is concerned with negative coverage ofviolence, there is still a portion of it that can be given over to constructive dialogue about religion and peace.
Q: You make it sound promising and that's great. Speaking of which, I would like to ask you to discuss your meeting with the United Nations where you gave a talk on religious tolerance and the understanding of the Islamic religion?
A: Yes, this was a day devoted by the United Nations to intolerance - to opposing intolerance and promoting tolerance in societies in general and there had been a series of meetings, and this one was on religion, in particular the role of Islam, or the attitudes toward Islam. It was day-long, Kofi Annan opened the session with some remarks and there were a number of distinguished speakers from different religious traditions, some policy experts and some scholars. And they all gave presentations on the barriers to tolerance within their religious traditions. What are the hurdles that need to be overcome and some positive recommendations and steps toward tolerance. What was striking about that and other such meetings is that the assembly hall was filled with a colorful display of religious traditions in their own distinctive religious garb and hundreds of people in the auditorium who are interested in this, and every one of them was in favor of tolerance. There was no one who was an advocate of intolerance. So the challenge is to reach out to those and somehow engage those who do not tolerate the tolerant and are themselves dedicated to intolerance. So it was a little bit preaching to the choir. That's a good thing, because the choir needs to get organized and motivated to work together to get this message out to more and more of their congregations, to fellow believers. But the UN and other agencies also have to find ways to build bridges, to moderate and to some degree, radicalize proponents of religious traditions or advocates who find tolerance to be a tactic or somehow even a betrayal of the faith. And that discussion needs to be engaged at a deeper level than it is currently being engaged. The discussion about what constitutes an authentic way forward within Islam and Judaism and Christianity that protects the distinctiveness of these faiths and protects their rights including the right not be proselytized, for example, not to be discriminated against by the government, to have their moral values respected while respecting a plural society.
These are difficult questions and the more discussion, conversation, interaction that we can have with all types of folks in the religious spectrum; the more likely we will be able to move forward. But it does require behind-the-scenes efforts. It requires the kind of very public forum as the UN event was, but it also requires diplomacy and relationship-building and friendship-building behind the scenes. And happily a lot of people are engaged in that as well now.
Q: So I'd like to talk now about the Tariq Ramadan issue which I know was exhaustively threshed out last year through the New York Times and all these other media. But in line with what you said about dialogue and harnessing this window of opportunity. And as you just discussed with the UN there was great promise in this area. What do you think was the impact of the Tariq Ramadan issue on the national level?
A: At least from my perspective, and based on my experience, the impact was significant. I received hundreds of emails from various religious organizations in the United States, mostly Islamic, some Jewish and many Christian, in support of the appointment, and various universities and individual scholars and agencies like the American Academy of Religion, the American Academy of Political Science, the Historical Academies, Anthropology, a number of them inquired and showed support through letters and emails, others issued statements of support. There were weeks and weeks of reaction because this was perceived as a threat to academic freedom, first of all, which is a cherished value in the country.
It was also perceived as a tactically foolish move on the part of the government because a lot of people, whether or not they like Tariq Ramadan, they understood our strategy, our attitude which is we have to bring people to this country and be in dialogue with them with whom we disagree. And yet people who are willing to dialogue even if some people said, "well, he's coming over here to convert you, or to have an inroad into Notre Dame and the US", I found this humorous. Not because it wasn't true, it's certainly true that anyone who comes over wants to exercise influence for his or her ideas. But the fact that we couldn't hold our own here; we couldn't have our own opinions and engage dialogue and debate was humorous.
In other words, the Islamophobia, the fear of Islam or of militant Islam is so profound after 9/11 that we seem to lose our own self-confidence in our institutions and our traditions and our own intellect to some degree. And so the Ramadan event raised all of these issues; and one of these days soon I hope I can take the time to write--to think, and reflect upon this and write about it, as many people have done in a quick way. But it needs further reflection and probing because a lot of issues were raised.
There were a lot of people on the other side who had responsible views as well, of course, people who opposed his coming to the United States who believed that it was an endorsement of terrorism in some way, even if Ramadan himself has never been convicted of terrorism or the association with terrorists. So there are all kinds of issues - do you deny due process to someone who is not a US citizen but who is petitioning for a visa? Do you fail to provide evidence to why you're withholding the visa? This is not an issue that just involves Tariq Ramadan. It's an issue that, unfortunatel,y has hurt the lives of thousands, probably tens of thousands of people seeking entry into this country who come from regions or backgrounds that are now considered suspect after 9/11.
Q: It's also worthy to note, I think, that Tariq Ramadan and his family were initially granted the visas before they were retracted. Do you think that on an international level, there has been the same kind of backlash, or repercussions for the delayed retraction of the Department of Homeland Security to retract these visas?
A: I think the intensity around Tariq Ramadan was equivalent in France and the US, and Switzerland, where he lives. Those were the countries most caught up, especially France which has been going through its own internal turmoil about national identity and the role of religion, the role of Islam in particular in national identity and citizenship. Ramadan was a lightning rod in France, and perhaps even to a lesser extent, despite the controversy here, was it known in the US, very well-known in France.
But this was such a major story last year, that in my travels around the world and among people who come to the Kroc Institute from other parts of the world, I have not met anyone last year who does not mention the Ramadan issue in some respect. They all know about it. And when they speak to me, they are usually pretty sympathetic to our side. I've heard from people who aren't so sympathetic, but most of the people are concerned and engaged and curious about it.
Q: I'd like to bring this interview on a more personal level. How did you get involved in this line of work? What sparked your interest in this? Do you think that when you were initially starting with studying this area of expertise (did you realize) that it would come to this level?
A: When I was an undergraduate student at Notre Dame I took some courses here that influenced me. One was called "Evolution of Church History" which sounds pretty quaint today. But it was really a riveting course: 5 credit hours for two semesters, taught by a professor named Bill Storey who's still in town, and it just portrayed the history of Christianity as a very exciting, vivid, story of saints, sinners, killers, and of nonviolentand champions of justice. It was better than Star Wars or Lord of the Rings combined in terms of engagement, and it was real, it was true! Just the fascination of the history of people questing after God and the silly and heroic things they've done. So on that level of having my imagination engaged, courses like that, that I took as an undergraduate reinforced the kind of lifelong interest in religion. Having been raised in a Catholic family, I've always been fascinated by it.
So when it came to decide what to do after college, I was on a track to go to law school and be a lawyer and so forth, yet my passion was really to study theology and religion. And I remember my father saying "do what your passion is." And he was one of the people I thought who most wanted me to be a lawyer - and he was - so that was kind of a liberating moment. So I went to a place called University of Chicago Divinity School - Divinity is the kind of archaic way of saying Religious Studies in the Protestant world. So it was basically graduate school of the study of religion. And from that point on, I started to study History of Christianity in detail, but when I wrote on modernism for my dissertation, my mentor Martin Marty - a wonderful person, a Lutheran scholar, a great historian and just a marvelous human being - invited me to work with him as a junior partner in this global project on fundamentalisms. That was a turning point for me intellectually. It required me to grow in my reading and scope and understanding, yet it put me into contact with people much smarter than I was, and much more learned, and that was intoxicating. I wanted to learn and read and discuss as much as I could about this global religion. And again, my original fascination now was given a new home in the comparative study of religion. Which is just as fascinating as the study of the history of any one faith.
So it just luckily has been a topic of endless fascination, the different cultures and religions and their entry into politics, the formation of their own believers, and the fact that coincidentally, during the time which I was doing my study and developing as a scholar, religion became a very prominent question in world affairs. And so I got pulled into all kinds of avenues and expressions that the Fundamentalism Project generated. So I wanted to kind of atone for the Fundamentalism Project, where we spent all these years studying people who are intolerant, who were dogmatic, some of whom were violent, some of whom were none of those things, but still were fundamental, and I wanted to look at the side of the ledger that was committed to tolerance, to openness, to peacebuilding.
So the Ambivalence book was the attempt to see the bigger picture of religion beyond the fundamentalists. So it's been preoccupying - and then I worked on projects on Catholicism, which is my original expertise, and I am very lucky that it's a topic that I love and I find very fascinating and they pay me for studying. So that's just a great gift.
Q: On the Catholicism note, we are aware there's a new Pope now, and he is considered to be much more conservative than Pope John Paul II. Could you please discuss that in line with the promise of peacebuilding and how his role would be in peacebuilding?
A: I'm not so sure I would say Pope Benedict XVI is much more conservative than Pope John Paul II. They're both conservative, the question is, how are they conservative? How do they express that? And the former Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, not Pope Benedict XVI, his job was to be the prefect of the congregation of the doctrine of the faith. The job description is: keep people in line theologically. And so it was in his job description to draw boundaries theologically and to reinforce the traditional teachings of the church. His own personal inclination and lifelong journey led him to embrace that job with a certain vigor. He's a formidable intellectual with his own nuanced profound way of thinking.
But on the question of peace and justice, on certain theological matters, some Catholics, myself included, took a deep breath when he was elected because he had been pretty restrictive and intolerant of dissent or even healthy discussion of some matters within the Church, and wants to seem to close off discussion too quickly, with the implication that this is an infallible teaching that we can't discuss. It's an authoritative teaching - that worried many people, myself included. However, on the questions of peace and justice, like John Paul II, Benedict XVI has been very courageous and open and positive in the sense that he was very much opposed to the war in Iraq. He joined with John Paul II in developing Catholic ethics for the greater openness toward nonviolence, as equally strong in the tradition, or approaching that equal strength, with the Just War ethic. And this has opened a big debate within Catholicism about teaching about war and peace in the tradition. Whereas people thirty years ago thought they knew that the Catholic tradition was pretty much a realist tradition, that is, it recognized the right of states to go to war under certain conditions, that right has been questioned. There's something of a neo-conservative side of Catholicism that wants to push that right further and say, pre-emptive war is part of what today's just war doctrine should look like. People should be able to go after the terrorists, like the US, like Bush wants to do, before they attack us. So they say.
But there are other voices that can also appeal to Pope John Paul II and to Benedict XVI in their writings, and appeal to those in opposition to the pre-emptive war, in opposition to the war in Iraq, citing a preference for nonviolence. This is not a capitulation to injustice or tyrants, but it is a greater caution on war making. So Benedict XVI in this regard is an interesting and promising intellectual figure and leader. So we have to wait and see, we have to see how he evolves and develops now that his job is not to be the doctrinal watchdog but to be the supreme leader and pastor of a billion plus Catholics around the world.
Q: So what do you hope to achieve as director of the Kroc Institute?
A: Personal survival would be my first! That's a joke... That just means it's a busy job. I guess I should say keeping my sanity, because we have so many things going on, and that's the way to answer the question seriously. The simple answer is: trying to keep us moving forward with the help of our wonderful and gifted faculty, staff, colleagues and students. We've had this great blessing of generous financial support from Mrs. Kroc, But to whom much is given, much is expected. So the challenge is to live up to those expectations, and to use those resources wisely. Keep things moving forward. It's easy to direct yourself when you don't have many choices. But money gives you choices. Now one needs wisdom, prudence and correct judgment.
So the challenge is to manage growth responsibly, and to do so in a way that applies our resources for the greatest possible good. And there are so many competing goods in research and teaching and field development, in sites of internships that you and your colleagues will be beginning very shortly. All those things are costly, both in terms of resources financially and people who will be working in these areas. So the real challenge is prudential judgment, about what's the best way to move forward given the wonderful resources we have. So that's the challenge and when I say "my survival," I mean keeping my and our heads together and energies high, to meet the challenge of responsible stewardship.
Q: And what do you hope to achieve as a scholar?
A: One of the challenges of being an administrator and director of the Institute, which means a lot of administrative work, is to keep your scholarly side alive. And I've been trying to do that by writing chapters and occasional papers and articles, and my colleagues here have been very good about including me in projects long after my original thought has dissipated, because I have been too busy doing administration. But I hope in the scholarly future when sabbaticals come and when I have the opportunity to write a great deal more about religion and peace and conflict.
The book Ambivalence of the Sacred was a kind of map: here's what's going on, here are some of the major issues, I'd like to take each of those chapters and go much deeper and say where are we today in religion and human rights. How can I contribute constructively to that debate? Or in religion and conflict resolution? Or in understanding the motivations for violence? So that book was an orientation map and I'm proud of it, it did a good job of sketching the terrain of scholarship and practice. But it's now five years old and one needs to go deeper and focus more on particular topics and cases, and I'd like certainly to do that.
I also would like to write a textbook on peace studies, believe it or not, as one who came to this area from a historian's background and have learned from my colleagues. There may be a little advantage of still being naive about peace studies in its history as a discipline, in its trajectory, in that I could hopefully ask questions in such a text that other people would be asking. And would help my colleagues find the answers.
Q: So you've discussed extensively awhile ago about religious peacebuilding. What are your other theories of change, as you've discussed in your books and you hope to discuss in further works?
A: That's a very important question that scholars have debated and continue to debate. What causes change? And I think the answer ranges from a personal conversion and change of heart, and it certainly can't go forward without that. To hard-headed work for structural reform in societies. And the most productive hard-headed work for structural reform I think comes from people who've had a conversion, or who are what William James called "already once-born" - they don't need a conversion. Most of us do. And that means that the word is disciplined passion. It's passionate. You care, you pour your heart and soul and spirituality into the work. But through your study and through your personal growth you become more and more disciplined in that passion, that is focused, it's channeled, it's coherent, you follow through, you're consistent, you are not merely on a quest, but you're on a quest where you see some of the trajectory of it.
It's not that you have to have the plan, worked out till day 500, but that your idealism, your hope and commitment for peace and your deep passion and commitment is focused, channeled, empowered by study, preparation, discipline, practice. That's what I want us to achieve, and I think we do every year with our students. Especially with our masters students who are going right into the professional world or the world of practice. We want to go into that world with passion and professionalism, with both. And that's why we give attention here to personal relationship-building, to some level of introspection, but also we want to insist that there's materials to be mastered, papers to be written, books to be read, a changing world to be understood. So I think change happens that way: through a combination of the rigorous education, discipline, study, understanding of how the world works for better or worse, that's led to a passionate commitment and a kind of spirituality that keeps one open and forgiving and tolerant and self-forgiving as well. And recognition that you're not going to change everything or much of anything, but the quest to do so and the commitment to do so is what's going to make the difference, and is eventually what is one to effect change.
Q: What would you propose to be the first step that one person can do, in order to help intolerant or extremist persons, to begin the process of change towards religious peacebuilding or towards tolerance of the other?
This answer may be a little bit unconventional but perhaps not in a peace institute. I've been influenced most by people who model what they teach. And I haven't always done that myself, though I am called to do that more and more by being around people - like John Paul Lederach - we shouldn't use his name because he's already got too big of a head, that's a joke John Paul. But truly, John Paul doesn't have a big head, he is a committed, centered person who, you know, I'm sure makes a million mistakes like the rest of us - but is centered and focused, and also someone who loves learning and always wants to be learning. I could mention many other people.
You learn from books a lot, but we really learn by imitation. We do so as children, and we do so as adults. And where I've been proud of my own life has been where I've done best in my own way with my own gifts, and being my own self, have built on the example of integration and integrity that I've seen in other people. And that's a challenge really for all of us, integrity. If you get centered that way and work on that integrity, then a lot of other things will follow from that. That fits in with what I've said before, about working passionately for peace in a disciplined way and being at peace with what you can do and can't do.