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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Madeleine Albright
HarperCollins, 339 pages, $25.95
Madeleine Albright on the pinnacles of power


Madeleine Albright is a moderate on religion and statecraft -- two areas where passions tend to dominate public discourse. The former U.N. ambassador and secretary of state believes in absolute truth but cautions that human beings cannot ever expect to know all of it. “Although good and evil both exist, they tend to be mixed together, not separately packaged,” she writes in her second book, The Mighty & the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, written with the assistance of her speechwriter, Bill Woodward.

Ms. Albright finds much to both praise and criticize in examining President Bush’s record on foreign policy. She credits him with promoting democracy and political freedom as a potential source of global unity while scoring what she calls his “narrow vision and heedless unilateralism” that have damaged the nation’s standing in the world. Such a balanced position will be scorned by ideologues on both sides of the spectrum, but her voice is one to which attention should be paid.

In examining the importance of religion as a factor in world affairs, Ms. Albright finds examples of hateful rhetoric on many sides, but also words of tolerance and understanding. She notes that language sanctifying violence and war can be found in texts sacred to Christians, Muslims or Jews, but so can passages urging love and respect for one’s opponents and even enemies.

Although Ms. Albright believes that movements such as al-Qaeda are beyond attempts at reason and negotiation, she finds examples of moderation in some countries thought to be hotbeds of extremism, such as Saudi Arabia. She reports that after several terrorist attacks there in 2003 and 2004, authorities required more than 5,500 imams to attend programs of reeducation designed to promote tolerance within Islam, encouraged clerics to preach about the danger of exaggeration in religion, and had passages promoting violence against non-Muslims removed from school textbooks. At the same time, however, she writes, “While some Saudis are eager to explore the boundaries of what Islam permits, others are determined to enforce as many limits as possible. Not surprisingly, many Saudis find themselves unable to line up unambiguously on one side or the other.”

Although Ms. Albright believes governments can and should use such methods as military force and economic aid to fight against the perpetrators of atrocities, she acknowledges the limits on such actions. She relates how in 1999 she was asked by a Sudanese Catholic bishop to help prevent attacks on schoolchildren during his country’s civil war. “I was sitting there with all the power of the United States behind me, but had to say I was unsure what more we could do,” she writes, noting that the United States had already imposed military and economic sanctions, provided humanitarian relief and appointed a special envoy to assist in peace talks.

Even the law of the land can’t help if it isn’t enforced, Ms. Albright says. She notes that when a dozen states in northern Nigeria adopted Shariah law in recent years, Christians “pointed in vain to the Nigerian constitution, which prohibits any state or local government from adopting an official religion.”

Describing herself as “an optimist who worries a lot,” Ms. Albright says she has seen enough examples of altruism and sacrifice to conclude that “the contradictions within human nature are inescapable.” Although her book doesn’t have a happy ending, neither does she conclude in despair. She cites examples of groups promoting interfaith cooperation and understanding throughout the world and finds it appropriate for governments to encourage such efforts. “We may not be able to convert the extremes, but we can make the middle more active, cohesive and confident,” she says. Hers is truly a voice of reason in a world that sorely needs it.

Darrell Turner writes the annual religion section for the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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