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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Neither Liberal nor Conservative but American

After more than two decades at the forefront of U.S. international religious freedom efforts, a former State Department special advisor for religious minorities makes the case for leaving partisan politics at the water’s edge.

Religious freedom matters. Consequently, it is a hotly contested issue within the United States. But if the stakes are high domestically, they pale compared with the life-and-death circumstances confronting people of all faiths and none around the world.

Studies show that the global environment for religious freedom remains dire, marked by a widespread and persistent pandemic of persecution. The Pew Research Center has found that almost two thirds of the global community live in countries with high restrictions on the free practice of faith, either from governments, societal actors, or both.1 These limitations do not always equal persecution, but many individuals must practice their beliefs between narrowly construed lanes of permissible religious activity. The reality is that persecution knows no boundaries, respects no international borders, and impacts every faith community somewhere in the world. Meeting this pervasive challenge will be a defining issue of the twenty-first century.

For this reason it is imperative that supporters of international religious freedom (IRF) commit to working both wholistically and with a nonpartisan spirit. In practice this means two things: a commitment to supporting religious freedom rights for all faiths and none, and a willingness to put aside domestic disagreements when working abroad.

Religious Freedom and Foreign Policy

Changing priorities between different presidential administrations are natural and to be expected. The Trump administration elevated international religious freedom to previously unseen levels by hosting two summits of foreign ministers and creating an alliance of nations committed to the topic. Perhaps surprisingly in this contentious period of American history, the summits involved elected officials from both sides of the aisle. These IRF efforts advocated for all faiths and none, even as some other Trump administration policies, such as the “Muslim ban” and the virtual ending of refugee resettlement, worked at cross purposes.2

The Biden administration has placed particular emphasis on climate change and democracy promotion, which will likely be the president’s signature international issues. While the Biden administration will not match the Trump administration in its elevation of IRF promotion, religious freedom has not been forgotten. Encouraging areas of commonality between the two administrations exist. Biden’s State Department has continued engagement with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and, notably, affirmed the Trump administration’s view that China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims amounts to genocide.3 The nomination of Rashad Hussain to be the next Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom was another good sign, as he is an experienced diplomat and would be the first Muslim American in the job.

Some differences, however, are emerging, especially around the positioning of religious freedom relative to other human rights. Biden administration officials have emphasized that religious freedom is just one component of an integrated human rights agenda, drawing a contrast to Trump administration officials, who characterized religious freedom as uniquely important and deserving of singular attention.4

In a certain sense, both views are correct. To fully enjoy freedom of religion or belief, a host of other rights are incorporated into its practice: freedom of speech to give a sermon, freedom of assembly to gather for worship, freedom of expression to wear distinctive religious dress, as well as freedom of conscience to believe, or not, as one decides.

At the same time, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief is the bedrock of the human rights system. Freedom to pursue truth—religious, political, historical, scientific, philosophical, and so on—is at the root of the human experience. Without freedom of conscience, democratic societies would not exist. Without freedom of thought, scientific discovery would not happen. Without freedom of belief, advances in philosophy and rights would not occur. And without freedom of religion, soul freedom would be constrained.

Time to Step Back?

Time will tell whether references to “right-sizing” international religious freedom in President Biden’s foreign policy agenda will translate into down-grading in practice. Early indications, I believe, point towards continuity, with differences mainly in tone and tenor. Yet some critics’ disdain for the entire IRF agenda is so strong they want complete disengagement. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd from Northwestern University argued in a recent opinion piece for a national political news site that “imposing American versions of religious freedom abroad is not guaranteed to secure respect for religious diversity” but in fact “threatens it.”5 While parts of her argument are sound, I generally disagree with her conclusions.

In Shakman Hurd’s article she advances various arguments for why U.S. IRF policy is off base or counterproductive. She states, “Religious freedom is often mobilized in ways that deepen social divisions and increase the risk of conflict,” citing the Syrian conflict and the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma.

As someone working in government for 20 years on these matters, I can say with certainty that U.S. foreign policy does not overplay the role of religion. If anything, faith is ignored in ways that hamper U.S. objectives. So instead of policymakers giving too much consideration to religion, as Shakman Hurd fears, the reality is that they discount it to a troubling degree.

Regarding Syria, it is a fact that the Assad regime comes from the Alawite religious minority, and the history of the regime dates to the French colonial period. During this time the French purposefully installed a religious minority to rule over the majority Sunni community. Faith is certainly a factor in Assad’s approach, perhaps not driving every decision, but coloring how he and the Alawite community see the conflict. I would posit that American foreign policy has underappreciated this dynamic.

Regarding Burma, Shakman Hurd states that advocating for Rohingya religious freedoms “reinforces the hard lines dividing Muslims from Buddhists.” Again, from my experience, the opposite is the reality. State Department colleagues in the Asia bureau have generally refused to consider the religious elements of the conflict, swinging too far in the other direction. No amount of evidence can convince them otherwise, despite observers documenting how the Burmese military junta has committed genocidal acts against the Rohingya because they are Muslim.

Religion is rarely everything in a conflict, but it is usually something. Rightsizing the role of faith is difficult. Yes, there can be a temptation to force religion into every situation, but in foreign policy it is generally the countervailing force that is stronger, where religion is reflexively discounted. Yet ignoring religious persecution does not make that reality go away and certainly leaves persecuted groups more exposed to harm.

Shakman Hurd also criticizes the U.S. for an approach, she says, that results in “less space for religious diversity” and that “privileges the right to believe at the expense of other ways of being religious,” such as other non-belief-based approaches. I know, for a fact, it is the policy of the United States to promote freedom of religion or belief, thus encompassing the right of individuals to believe in traditional faiths, new beliefs, or to hold no faith at all. State Department religious freedom reports reinforce this, as they cover violations of countless theistic, deistic and atheistic groups. Similarly, Shakman Hurd implies the United States defines “religion,” but no such definition exists. Instead, the United States is committed to advancing religious freedom as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Shakman Hurd recommends that “the U.S. should refrain from naming religion or religious difference as the natural or presumed cause of conflict.” Agreed. The United States should indeed “take a comprehensive approach that accounts for economic, social, caste, public health, geographic, gender, educational and environmental concerns, in addition to religious ones.” Absolutely. But I believe we should also be ready to identify situations in which religious animus is the prime motivator of persecution. For example, ISIS was transparent in its motivations for murdering and enslaving Yazidis in Iraq. Shakman Hurd provides no space for those realities when the situation arises.

Shakman Hurd next recommends that policymakers, “Consider privileging justice, equality and respect for diversity, rather than religion and religious freedom in U.S. policy.” This means, she says, directing American resources toward “securing equality, economic justice, a free media, an independent judiciary, environmental security, and the rights of marginalized communities whether defined on religious, racial, ethnic, gender or other grounds.” From my perspective, this is already happening. The United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on human rights, including but not limited to democracy promotion, combating human trafficking, conducting media training, as well as promoting religious freedom.

Reality Over Theory

Practically speaking, I believe these debates are a luxury of the free world. The approach of “first freedom” versus “human rights” is fiercely argued in ivory towers or comfortable Western capitals, far from actual human suffering. Shakman Hurd’s concerns about “religiousizing” situations flies in the face of an increasingly religious world. Instead, the objective metric should be whether the policies of an administration successfully push back against persecution, assist victims of violence and oppression, and encourage the creation of civic space in societies for diversity of belief.

There are several promising areas of focus that would help the Biden administration meet these objectives. First, it should continue the multilateral approach that was turbocharged during the Trump administration. Secretary Blinken’s positivity toward the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is an encouraging sign. Resources should be poured into this effort, as working with nations from different regions and with a variety of religious and political backgrounds can be a force multiplier. America is indispensable, but America cannot win the fight against global persecution alone.

The Biden administration should use the “country of particular concern” (CPC) tool and the “special watch list” (SWL) designation robustly to create political energy for reform.6 These tools were critical in moving Sudan and Uzbekistan to undertake unprecedented reforms. While the State Department bureaucracy will reflexively rebel against these mechanisms, “naming and shaming” can still work. And when it fails, the CPC tool allows for the implementation of targeted sanctions to change the calculations of oppressive governments. And when the result of these actions is that some countries reform and are delisted, this positive outcome can spur other countries to act. I remember that when Uzbekistan was removed from the CPC list, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—both CPC countries—suddenly became more interested in reforms. Perhaps Sudan’s removal could spark reforms in Nigeria or motivate Saudi Arabia to finally open a church?

There are major challenges looming ahead for international religious freedom—challenges that will require American leadership and resources. There is China’s ceaseless oppression at home against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and others, as well as their nefarious influences abroad. The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan portends darkly for religious minorities and women’s rights. Pakistan continues its race to the bottom by applying the blasphemy law, which impacts Christians, other minorities, and such Muslims as Ahmadis and Shia. The forced marriage and conversion of Christian and Hindu girls continues apace as well. Indian government policies promote “anti-conversion” laws, and contribute to a climate of impunity, with violent mobs targeting Muslims and Christians. The situation of Rohingya Muslims remains dire, with a long-overdue need to label military atrocities against this minority as genocide. Iranian persecution of Bahai’s and converts is unrelenting. Sri Lanka is trending in a worrisome direction. In Algeria, a once-positive story, the government has shuttered evangelical Christian churches and is arresting Ahmadis. And globally, persecuted believers running for their lives have few options, as the refugee resettlement system is overwhelmed and broken.

For the United States to successfully engage, a united front at home is required. Certainly our domestic debates will continue. But to ensure the longevity and impact of American leadership abroad, we need elected leaders, government officials, civil society actors, and religious leaders, both clergy and laity, to model a wholistic and nonpartisan approach. It can’t be freedom just for my own, but freedom for all.

Wholistic advocacy means steadfastly fighting for freedom of religion or belief for all people, regardless of whether they are from our own community or not. It does not replace specific advocacy, and in fact highlighting the repression of individuals or specific communities should continue. It is not wrong to advocate for one’s spiritual brothers and sisters—in fact, it is incredibly positive. But wholistic advocacy looks beyond our own tribe, understanding how an environment providing freedom of conscience for all is in the long-term interests of my group.

And a nonpartisan approach places American domestic debates in a global context. The United States, while imperfect and grappling with racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other ills, is a place of expansive religious liberties. A nonpartisan IRF approach means acrimonious debates and arguments here at home stop at the water’s edge. Our domestic sparring partners at home can still be our allies in confronting repression and persecution abroad. In the end, international religious freedom work is neither liberal nor conservative, but American.

1 Pew Research Center, “A Closer Look at How Religious Restrictions Have Risen Around the World,” July 15, 2019.

2 Adelle M. Banks, “As Religious Freedom Summit Ends, State Department Announces New Alliance, Sanctions,” Religion News Service, July 18, 2019.

3 John Hudson, “As Tensions With China Grow, Biden Administration Formalizes Genocide Declaration Against Beijing,” Washington Post, March 30, 2021.

4 Release of the 2020 International Religious Freedom report, video remarks to the press of Antony J. Blinken, secretary of state, May 12, 2021.

5 Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “It’s Time to De-emphasize Religion in US Foreign Policy,” The Hill, July 17, 2021. All subsequent Shakman Hurd quotes are from this article.

6 A Country of Particular Concern (CPC) designation is made by the U.S. secretary of state under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. A CPC designation means the U.S. believes a country is guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom. A country is added to the “special watch list” (SWL) under the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 when the U.S. government believes it tolerates or engages in severe violations of religious freedom, which do not meet CPC criteria.

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