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Moral certainty is important in public life, but even more important is respect for the beliefs of others, Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a wide-ranging talk on the Middle East, religion and diplomacy Wednesday at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.
The talk, “America and the Greater Middle East,” was co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Harvard Divinity School.
Albright, who served as the first female secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, is the author most recently of “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs.”
“I come from a generation of political science students and practitioners that thought: X problem is so complicated, let’s not bring God into it,” Albright told the audience.
But with religion playing an important role in crises ranging from Northern Ireland to the Balkans to the Middle East, “it became more and more evident to me that we had to do that.”
It was important, however, to balance religion with pluralism.
“Moral certainty has its place,” she said, “but in public life absolute certainty is not often a virtue. Virtue comes with the ability to believe in ideas while maintaining respect for the rights and ideas and doubts of others.”
Albright criticized the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, and in particular its failure to use diplomacy to help resolve the situation. She said recent talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria showed a belated appreciation for the importance of non-military approaches.
“It underlined the principle that when we’re trying to solve difficult international issues it’s sometimes necessary to talk to adversaries as well as friends,” Albright said facetiously. “Historians even have a name for this – it’s called diplomacy.”
Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Albright criticized those who looked to scriptural prophecies in forming policy.
“There are elements within Islam, Christianity and Judaism alike who believe that wars in the Middle East have been foretold by scripture and a decisive battle between good and evil will take place in that region,” Albright said. “Now I’m not a theologian so this isn’t a point that I’m qualified to argue, but I do know this: Armageddon is not foreign policy.”
Albright also said it was within the disputing parties’ power to chance the situation.
“To seize the sword instead than the olive branch, that’s a choice. To teach children to hate is a choice. To glorify murderers as martyrs is a choice. To dehumanize and disrespect the dignity of others is a choice,” she said. “These are all choices, and what people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”
Watch a video of the event at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum archive.
Photo: Martha Stewart