Outlining his organization’s mission to incorporate religion as part of “displacing the ideas behind the guns,” Dr. Douglas Johnston held a crowd of about 800 people engrossed at the 26th annual Community Prayer Breakfast.
It was held at the Marco Island Marriott Resort.
Johnston, who is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy based in Washington, D.C., said the non government-funded organization is making inroads, at the moment particularly in Pakistan.
There, he said, the objective is what he described as a “new form of engagement called faith-based diplomacy” aimed at Pakistani madrassas, which are essentially religious schools numbering in the thousands in that country.
The problem is that these schools for young, poor children, are susceptible to the “looming specter of religious extremism married to weapons of mass destruction,” Johnston said.
The irony is that the largely Urdu-speaking Muslim youngsters learn the Qu’ran pat off in Arabic, and can be vulnerable to misinterpretation.
“Local militants misappropriate a little scripture, as all religions are guilty of from time to time — and these kids are easy prey with no ability to question or challenge,” Johnston said.
Thus, he said, the organization — with its hands-on approach — strives to “transform pedagoguery to create critical thinking skills among their youth.”
He said since the Pakistani initiative began about five years ago, he feels there has been some success in this regard.
Madrassas leaders feel some of the ideas come from them, and are thus not imposed; while suggested changes (by the organization) are grounded in Islamic principles “in a context in which religious legitimacy trumps all else.”
Johnston said other goals are to encourage the madrassas to emphasize the physical and social sciences as well as human rights (notably women’s rights).
After the prayer breakfast, part-time Marco resident Peggie Williams said she’d had no idea of the organization, and that going into hostile environments was laudable.
Clare Baker said Johnston had shown that Americans are not the aggressors all the time, and are trying to help other nations.
Dan Honahan said it was interesting to hear what Johnston’s organization is doing behind the scenes.
Johnston, a Naval Academy graduate with a Ph.D in political science from Harvard University, has held governmental positions — including Navy Deputy Secretary, Director of Planning and Management in the defense department, and Planning Officer in the President’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.