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Wednesday December 30, 2009

Putting the faith back

Politics should not ignore the power of religion — with craft, religious values can be powerful tools to do good.

FOR decades, the United States administration has separated the church and state. As a result, the power of religion as a partner in shaping domestic and foreign policies was somewhat lost.

Yet, religious organisations and the government can cooperate to come up with domestic and foreign policies without impinging on America’s fundamental belief that the state should not endorse any one religion.

President Barack Obama has built on President George W. Bush’s faith-based objectives.

He gathered 25 religious leaders of all faiths in a revamped Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships.

He has gone one step further than Bush in expanding the diversity of his religious advisers. For the first time, Muslim-Americans are included.

The council’s goal is to find common ground in motivating religious organisations to stand together with the federal government to solve problems.

It is putting together recommendations to present to Obama in February to help fulfil the president’s belief in the power of involving religious communities in shaping both domestic and foreign policies.

When Obama travelled first to Ankara and then to Cairo to speak directly to the Muslim world, he made a powerful statement that he understood the value of Islam and its potential to help build peace from Palestine to Pakistan.

More than any other American president, Obama has made clear that the United States saw Islam as a force that could overcome the destructive influence of extremism. He called on Muslims to join him in seeking peace and justice.

Obama’s critics say his out-reach achieved nothing; that peace is no closer present in the Middle East, that Iran has rejected Obama’s overtures and that a surging Taliban in Afghanistan requires more US troops.

But all these miss the point. The seeds have been sown for a new American engagement with Muslims. It will take time and effort to nurture these seeds.

One of the results of Obama’s outreach to Muslims has been the quick reaction of Muslim leaders in condemning incidents such as the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, by a Muslim army officer and young Muslim-Americans charged with travelling to Pakistan to join terrorist organisations.

Not only does Islam not condone these actions, Muslim leaders said, they violated basic Islamic principles.

These leaders asserted that Muslim organisations worldwide have a responsibility to combat extremist groups which were trying to recruit Muslims to their cause.

They acknowledged that religious arguments and religious organisations must be used to stop extremists.

All these developments recognise that sound politics and policies cannot ignore the ethics of religious values or the importance of these values to billions of people around the world.

If these values can be crafted, engineered and deployed to solve problems, they will become powerful tools to do good work.

This is an important chapter because it does so much in laying the groundwork for the future.

> This article first appeared in the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith Web site.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org)

He is the author of “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right With America.”

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