A Conversation with Senator Claiborne Pell: Our Perception of Islam’s Peoples and Cultures is America’s 21st Century Challenge

Read in Japanese (日本語).


By Chris Cote

“I always try to let the other man have my way.” -Senator Claiborne Pell (RI).

Senator Pell, Maki, Akio, and Mrs. Pell at the Pell’s home, Newport, RI

Senator Pell accomplished a great deal in a long life of service to his country. After attending Princeton, Pell departed for World War II and then joined the Foreign Service.  He was elected to the Senate in 1960. He was largely responsible for the Pell Grant (first called the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant), which has helped thousands of low-income Americans attend college, and wrote the laws that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War. In 1987 he became Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he led until the Senate switched parties in 1995. He had developed Parkinson’s disease and retired from the Senate in 1997, after nearly four decades in office. (To read a charming account of the senator’s life, see his obituary in the New York Times.)

Pell’s deep devotion to service was not confined to the US: his vision, as a statesmen and as an individual, transcended borders. Senator Pell sat on the Steering Committee of the Global Forum conferences in Moscow and in Rio while chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Akio has consistently mentioned him as one of the few US politicians he has known who thought beyond stale, politically dogmatic issues and focused on transcending traditional barriers in the name of greater national and international security.

Senator Pell and Akio met extensively at the end of the last decade, discussing and outlining the issues for the next century.  In 1999, Pell invited Akio and his wife Maki to stay at his home in Newport, Rhode Island. Pell sat Akio down and asked him what the biggest issue America’s political leaders must be concerned with in the 21st century. Akio unequivocally replied that the task for US leaders was to reorient Americans’ perception of Islam’s many people and many cultures—that there would be no use in becoming tangled in issues of religious dogma, but that commonalities of culture could and must be found. September 2001 made it painstakingly clear: America’s great challenge in the 21st century is to tell the story of Islam’s followers in a positive light. The “Arab spring” is a welcome first step in which we played no part, and should remain playing no part.

Senator Pell’s question and Akio’s response capture this blog’s motto: “Finding the Missing Link for Our Common Future.” What is the essence of the shared human experience? Countries, cultures, and institutions erect barriers to consolidate power and separate those inside from those outside. These walls, although they instigate violence, are falsely constructed and thus paper thin, able to be broken by those willing to think in a larger, more positive sense.

Giandomenico Picco, a former leading UN negotiator and friend of this blog, recently wrote of the need for weak leaders to create “the other” in an Oxford Research Group op-ed on negotiations in Afghanistan.

The concept of the “enemy” has been a primordial tool of government management. For a large part of human history, the “enemy” has helped to define the identity “of the other side.” This was exploited by “poor” leaders; extremist narratives need an “existential enemy”. A poor leader uses negative narratives rather than positive values. He looks for an “enemy” – so he can stay on top. He repeats the old adages: “we are better than others,” or “God is with us,” which implies the need for a existential dichotomy between “us and them;” this requires the demonization of the “other.” Our history is full of such cases – as it still is – though perhaps slightly less than before.

Are there leaders who can lead without recourse to an “enemy” – real or imagined? Great leaders certainly do not copy the pages of the past. They write new chapters of human history, both morally and institutionally. They built national projects around positive values and they have the courage to look into the unknown. Statesmen are defined by institutional and cultural innovation while the furthering of negative images of the “other” is the trademark of lesser rulers.

Senator Claiborne Pell was surely a bold leader and took on the unknown with courage while remaining a fierce defender and servant of his country. How many current leaders would ask what the great challenge of the next 100 years is for the US? And how many of those would ask it of a non-American like Akio?  Lack of vision in our current American leadership is driving us further from finding the missing link. Where will our generation of leaders take us?

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