This interview was originally published in Forbes.
I recently sat down with Zeenat Rahman who leads the Inclusive America Project at The Aspen Institute. Zeenat is an expert on religious pluralism, interfaith and diversity practices, and international affairs—incredibly important issues being lived out in every community. She’s a former diplomat who comes to this work through her experiences as special advisor to former Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry on global youth issues and as the Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Dan: How did you get into the evolving field of religious pluralism?
Zeenat: I got into this field through a process of self-reflection and trying to discover my own identity as a child of immigrants, a Muslim American, and an Indian American, living in Chicago. When I looked out into the world, there was a disconnect in what I was learning at home about my faith, culture, and history and a reflection of those experiences in the real world as I encountered it. I often felt myself acting as a bridge, translating the immigrant and religious minority experience to the outside world and vice versa.
I wanted to explore how my faith and identity applied to the real world. When I was thinking about graduate school, I asked myself, “How do I interrogate these questions more deeply?” It led me to focus my research on the lived experience of young Muslims living out their faith in America. This was pre 9/11.
What I came to see was that, through an ethnographic study, young Muslims shared similarities with their peers of other faith backgrounds in how they thought about their faith and how it applied to their life. This experience led me on a journey to really be compelled to understand the role of young people, faith, and non-traditional actors in civil society.
Dan: What is the mission of the Inclusive America Project, which you lead, and how are you thinking about making a difference right now?
Zeenat: My friend, Michael Wear, has a great saying: “Nothing can do what faith does in the way that faith does it.” That’s not meant to instrumentalize faith, but to recognize its power. If we intend to build a true pluralistic, democratic America, faith must be on the agenda.
We at the Inclusive America Project ask how it is on the agenda. We cannot have full equity without understanding the many ways that faith intersects with people’s lives and that they must be able to bring their whole selves to the table. In a multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation, how do we envision a common life while maintaining our differences?
Dan: It sounds like one the theories of change for promoting a more genuinely pluralistic America is to find leaders from different communities and help them see and learn from one another. You operate in a way that promotes equity and opportunity equally across religions and brings people together for common experience and problem solving.
Zeenat: That’s right. Religious pluralism is an aspirational goal, and we are not there yet. We get there through a normative shift in the way we address religion in the public square. Currently, the conversation is politicized and toxic. It is not representative of what is happening in communities across the country where faith leaders continue to serve the most vulnerable and communities are coming together in response to this challenging moment. Polarization is not about disliking policy; it is an issue of humanity. What are the best ways to bridge differences and humanize one another so that we can have conversations that are not scorched earth? If we can have civil discourse and understand how faith communities confer so many pro-social benefits to civil society, we will be in a far better place.
Dan: The Inclusive America Project recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. How did this come about and what are you going to do with these resources?
Zeenat: First, I think they recognized the Aspen Institute as a critical and important place to do the work of building religious pluralism. They did not go to a far right or far left type of institution; they came to us. They are very interested in exploring the ways that religions can engage one another across their deepest differences. Together with them, over the next three years, we are exploring the conditions that need to exist in order for this exchange to happen productively.
Second, I think they recognize the role that faith communities play in what my friend Brie Loskota calls “critical social infrastructure.” When you look at nonprofits and programs across the country, they are all trying to advance social goals. There is no way to advance social goals without engaging faith communities. There are 350,000 congregations alone in the United States and 227,000 faith-based nonprofits promoting secular work. This is an untapped resource, and we all need to better understand the role that faith communities play in building the social infrastructure that helps our country thrive.
Dan: Are there barriers that we need to be lowering for people around understanding these ideas of religious identity and religious pluralism?
Zeenat: “Pluralism” at its core means an appreciation of difference. We need to help create the spaces and places where conversations about difference happen respectfully. Something that is troubling to me is that those born between the late 90s and the 2010s are the loneliest and most isolated generation on record. 31 percent have fewer than two trusted adults in their lives, and 40 percent feel like no one really knows them. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, 46 percent of young people during the time of COVID-19 have started a new spiritual practice. What does that tell you?
It tells me that young people are longing for community and connection. Many are disengaged from traditional institutions and forms of practice. While a lot of work focuses on diversity, that cannot be the end goal. Pluralism asks us to actively engage with the diversity around us. And to have pluralism as the end goal, we need to have basic religious literacy—the knowledge base, dispositions, and capacities one needs to engage the other. When you have a country that is profoundly religious like ours and when you can sense young people yearning for a place to fit in, deepening our understanding is essential to achieving pluralism.
Dan: What do you think are some of the actual practices that people can do to build religious pluralism?
Zeenat: The base is religious literacy. It involves the facts you need to know about somebody else to engage. Our citizenry is incredibly religious and diverse, and you should know something about the Sikh faith, the Hindu faith, the Muslim faith, and others to engage and create an equitable playing field for all other people.
I have a friend who is a Sikh American who just wrote a children’s book. He is using that book as a tool to raise the necessary knowledge base and capacities you need to learn with humility, empathetic understanding, and deep listening skills, which are all parts of religious literacy.
A member of our Powering Pluralism Network Rev. Dr. Zina Jacque offers some practical and concrete suggestions that start with interrogating the bookshelves you have at home. Who are the voices you are reading? Who are the individuals you are hearing and learning from? A great first step we can all take is to diversify the stories we engage with to include the diverse religious voices that are emblematic of our country.
Dan: Earlier in my career, I lived on the campus of Georgetown University and one thing I saw and loved about that experience was seeing students committed to building the knowledge base for religious pluralism. They did things together like going to a museum, or a concert, or working on a project. Through that, they learned from each other. What I came to see was that, sometimes, people from diverse religious backgrounds were acting pluralistically when they were doing something together that wasn’t about religion, but in the context of doing it together, they were learning about religion. Does that make sense?
Zeenat: Yes. People don’t get to know one another by sitting around and throwing facts at each another. It is in the doing that the relationships are built. Religion is profoundly important to so many people in this country. It is oftentimes what informs the values that guide our actions. We must understand the dimensions of people’s lives that are often interior, hidden, and lack a public language. That is where relationship-building happens.
Dan: How does your work relate to the current movement around dismantling systemic racism?
Zeenat: After the killing of George Floyd, we realized that our work at the Inclusive America Project cannot and should not be decoupled from how we address structural racism. As a community of scholars, clergy, educators, funders, and others who believe that faith leaders can be powerful witnesses for justice and that faith communities play a critical role in a strong and enduring democracy, this moment calls on us as a program and community to critically examine the ways religion and race intersect and to learn the ways in which we can be advocates for anti-racism in all our work.
Additionally, if you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a rich spiritual tradition that comes from it because it’s not just a movement seeking political reform; it’s also a spiritual movement looking to heal and empower and inspire diverse religious groups to seek inclusivity. This is a reminder that the work of racial justice cannot happen without a spiritual foundation, and we believe religion can play a strong and supportive role in the work to dismantle systemic racism in this country.
Dan: How do you think about public officials whose life and work is shaped and informed by their faith tradition, but who then work in a secular government and draw upon the teachings of their faith traditions. This is a fairly complex topic. Does it ever come up in your work?
Zeenat: I don’t see any tension in using your faith values to motivate and animate how and why you may choose public service. But I also think that the social compact between the state and the citizen must be one that is inclusive of people of different faiths and those of no faiths. Our First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which was intended to offer freedom from a state sanctioned religion. Public officials working with diverse religious constituencies have an obligation to have a basic level of understanding of those religions to know how to effectively engage them. This is also an equity issue because often minority faith traditions get marginalized due to a lack of understanding.
Dan: How does your work play out in different contexts—especially global versus domestic? Is it different or very much the same?
Zeenat: There are similarities as well as differences. In my career, even my work with global youth around the world was very anchored in the local. So, if I was in Indonesia, which is a huge democracy, but a majority Muslim democracy, everything that informs that country is different than what happens here in the United States. The work of building multi-stakeholder partnerships and looking at the role of government and philanthropy and citizens and faith leaders and then moving everybody in the same direction, on the other hand, is actually very similar.
All of this is about making sure that we’re bringing people with us on this journey towards achieving equity and making sure that it’s pragmatic and that it’s relevant and useful. We are trying to help people understand, in every context, what religious pluralism means if you’re an individual, if you’re an organization, if you’re a private sector leader, if you’re the head of a foundation. We are trying to help people understand that they can’t ignore religion—that doing so is irresponsible. When you look at the landscape of our country, you see how important religion and religious pluralism is to our infrastructure and to people’s lives. The capacity of multiple cultures and faiths to live side by side within the context of a larger, shared society—pluralism—is a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy. Our country is a work in progress, and we hope that our work at the Inclusive America Project takes us one step closer to achieving the aspiration conveyed in e pluribus unum—out of many, one.