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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Reflections on Twenty Years of Religion and Diplomacy: An Interview with Knox Thames

Knox Thames recently stepped down from his position as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State. In this interview with Religion & Diplomacy, Thames reflects on 20 years of service in government working on issues related to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). He grapples with challenges in the field and how FoRB advocacy intersects with other forms of diplomatic engagement with religious communities.

Thames is now a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement and a Visiting Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, contributing to its Middle East and Religion & Inclusive Societies teams. Both positions are possible thanks to the support of the Templeton Religion Trust.

This interview was conducted by Religion & Diplomacy editor Judd Birdsall. (Full disclosure: Birdsall and Thames served together at the State Department during the Obama Administration.)

Religion & Diplomacy: Looking back on your 20 years in government service, what are your main reflections on how governments can effectively advance freedom of religion or belief internationally?

Knox Thames: Governments that value freedom of belief and conscience need to take the issue seriously and fight inclusively.

The global situation is dire, with the Pew Forum reporting that over 3/4ths of the global community live in countries with high or very high restrictions on the free practice of faith. That does not mean everyone is persecuted, and not all restrictions are violations of religious freedom per se, but there are very narrow lanes of permissible religious activity in many places with steep penalties when individuals step outside those parameters. These grim numbers demonstrate how religious persecution knows no boundaries and impacts every community somewhere, including people who hold no faith.

Our response to this challenge must be holistic in approach (freedom of religion or belief for all) while specific in advocacy (calling out by name instances of repression). The former UK FoRB envoy Rehman Chishti and I recently spoke about this approach in Newsweek. We were critical of Hungarian and Organization of Islamic Cooperation methods focusing on specific communities, arguing that the most durable path to guaranteeing that right over the long haul is a broad one, grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We said, “An environment where every individual is free to seek truth as his or her conscience leads is one in which every community can thrive. And by understanding the broader challenges to religious freedom, we can see the problem more clearly and find effective solutions.” Fidelity to an inclusive approach is the best chance to reverse these troubling trendlines.

Another lesson from my career is the power of working in coalitions to advocate for human rights. While the United States has unparalleled capabilities and a history of human rights diplomacy, interventions are more potent when like-minded countries stand together to defend shared values. Coalition building among civil society organizations is equally essential, and NGOs and religious communities are increasingly working across religious lines to advocate for the right for all. This, combined with increased joint activity by governments and parliamentarians from different political, religious, and regional backgrounds, is profoundly positive.

R&D: What initiative, project, or event are you most proud of?

Thames: I’m very proud of the coalitions built with like-minded countries and parliamentarians to advance freedom of religion or belief. I enjoyed a great partnership with our Canadian neighbors, first with Ambassador Andrew Bennett and then with Giuliana Natale in co-chairing the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The ICG was the first international governmental network focused solely on FoRB. It was an excellent laboratory for experimenting with how to translate shared values into joint action. Through the ICG network, we spoke with one voice on FoRB challenges, such as Baha’is in Yemen or Asia Bibi in Pakistan. In addition, through the ICG and the U.S.-Canada partnership, we recruited new countries from the Western Hemisphere to become involved in FoRB work. The International Panel of Parliamentarians for FoRB has also been a tremendous success.

I am proud of how the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom convened the world around freedom of religion or belief, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The events were highly successful, thanks in large part to the tireless work of my State Department colleagues. A “big tent” event, the Ministerial brought together countries fully committed to FoRB and those more aspirational, challenging everyone to do more.

Building the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance was perhaps my biggest challenge. What we learned through the ICG network directly informed how we structured the Alliance. As we recruited members, Amb. Jos Douma, the Dutch Special Envoy for Religion and Belief, correctly observed our toolkit of possible governmental actions were mainly examples from the ICG. The DNA of the ICG is throughout the Alliance, and our goal was not to replace the ICG but elevate the effort. The ICG traditionally draws subject matter experts, the Alliance created a higher engagement at a political level. Amb. Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, was right to challenge us to take it up to the leadership level to ensure robust governmental action. Thanks to the excellent relationship with Canada, I hope the Alliance and the ICG will be mutually reinforcing endeavors, as well as officially link or combine their efforts at some point in the future.

R&D: What issue, case, or country proved most challenging or frustrating?

Thames: Pakistan. Incredibly complicated. Massive in size. Poster child for religious persecution. Despite its historic religious pluralism and birth as a haven for Muslim minorities on the sub-continent, Pakistani society increasingly accepts violence towards the religious “other” as normative.

Pakistanis relish being viewed as a multicultural society that protect minorities, while at the same time, the political environment drives groups apart and abets human rights violations. Since it’s a democracy, traditional “name and shame” tools are less impactful. In an authoritarian context, convincing leadership to change policies can move the needle. In a democratic environment like South Asia, when leaders are elected on a platform of division or are beholden to a core constituency with nationalistic or religiously revanchist views, it’s much more difficult to convince leaders to change. Their bad policies are fulfilling their campaign promises.

Pakistan (and increasingly India) exemplify how democracy without minority protections allows the unchecked will of the majority to use the ballot box to transform their beliefs into law. Once that happens, they can activate the mechanics of the state to police religious views. Pakistan’s blasphemy law and anti-Ahmadi provisions are case in point, as are cow slaughter laws in India. Add to that a culture of violence. While targeted killings are down in Pakistan, they still happen with little consequence for the killer. In India, key provinces turn a blind eye to lynchings (even in  Delhi).  The lack of rule of law creates a climate of impunity that fosters violent extremism, which threatens stability, with severe implications for the region.

R&D: On both sides of the Atlantic, religious freedom advocacy often seems increasingly fraught with partisan and sectarian overtones. Why is that, and what can be done about it?

Thames: The increased attention brings positives and negatives. On the one hand, the horrors of ISIS elevated religious freedom to the global stage. Voters in democratic societies are increasingly concerned about international religious persecution they see in the news. Politicians are pressed to respond, and they task diplomats with “doing something.” In my experience, diplomats are often skeptical of the FoRB agenda, and they also feel ill-prepared to engage the religious landscape. The skepticism is unfortunate, as the interest reflects widespread concerns from their societies. This demonstrates the utility of networks like the TPNRD and increased training.

To ensure the work remains nonpartisan, the holistic approach I mentioned earlier must be the foundation for any engagement. Focusing on a particular community can turn them into political special interest groups. This is the downside to the increased attention. In the U.S. domestic context, I try to distinguish between domestic and international. Religious liberty battles in the United States are increasingly partisan and about higher-level issues (equal access, school choice, etc.). In contrast, international religious freedom concerns have remained nonpartisan when focused on life and death situations we see so often.

Now that I’m out of government, I wrote an article sharing with my fellow American Christians how the closure of churches for COVID is not “persecution,” and I provided examples of the much more acute situations I’ve grappled with internationally.

R&D: In recent years, there has been a significant expansion of diplomatic attention to religious freedom and to what is often called “religious engagement”—government interaction and partnership with religious groups and faith-based organizations across a wide range of issues. While closely related, these two fields are often viewed as competing or even in conflict. How do you see the relationship between these two aspects of diplomacy?

Thames: More work is needed to find the right balance between religious freedom advocacy and diplomatic outreach with religious actors. There are certainly great opportunities for synergies, with each group helping the other. Three words come to mind describing the relationship: intersectional, complementary, distinct.

These fields are intersectional for the obvious reason that both engage religious actors. However, religious actors don’t align their concerns with our bureaucratic divisions, as they may be simultaneously worried about human rights violations, poor drinking water, and the lack of girls’ education. Religious freedom and religious engagement shouldn’t compete, but instead partner to jointly engage religious interlocutors wherever possible.

The fields are complementary as religious actors won’t be effective partners if they live in an environment lacking religious freedom. Religious actors, including formal religious leaders and laity, can open unique doors into their societies. Through their unparalleled community access, religious actors can help prevent the next global epidemic or respond to a devastating flood. But to fully unleash religious actors, they need an environment with religious freedom. Environments lacking religious freedom are environments where religious actors are less capable, hamstrung out of fear of breaking oppressive laws or running afoul of societal norms.

And while religious freedom/religious engagement overlaps, they are distinct. At its core, FoRB work is human rights advocacy. Its mission is to press for greater freedoms and speak up for the oppressed. Religious engagement is broader. It includes freedom of religion or belief advocacy, but also other areas of engagement that could include global health, education efforts, the environment, etc. Religious engagement also asks questions about influence, purpose, and impact on foreign policy goals, with the purpose of understanding how best to navigate a religious landscape to advance priorities.

R&D: From your time in both the Obama and Trump administrations, you saw two different approaches to religious engagement. You worked with the Office of Religion and Global Affairs under Secretary Kerry, as well as with the Strategic Religious Engagement team once it was merged with the Office of International Religious Freedom. How should the next U.S. administration organize around these issues?

Thames: I’ve thought a lot about the relationship and have concluded no magic bureaucratic arrangement exists to perfectly balance human rights work with religious engagement. It will ultimately depend on the willingness of different offices to work collegially and collaboratively. It can certainly be done. In the United States, it’s often forgotten how you [Judd Birdsall] were the first to begin diplomatic religious outreach, starting the effort from within the Office of International Religious Freedom during the first Obama term. In the second term, Secretary Kerry launched the Office for Religion and Global Affairs under Shaun Casey.

During the Trump administration, RGA was rebranded as Strategic Religious Engagement (SRE), and the function was folded back into the IRF Office. On the positive side, I saw how this rearrangement provided programmatic resources, prevented silo-ing by facilitating greater communication, and created synergies. On the downside, it lowered the profile of religious engagement, both within the Department and internationally, as there was no longer a Special Representative. It also blurred the lines between the narrower human rights mission and the broader question of how to engage religious actors.

There is already talk in Washington about whether to revert to the RGA model. When the Trump administration came in, I advocated for maintaining a standalone office to focus on religious engagement and still believe it’s the best approach. However, more experimentation is needed to find the best structure, and we shouldn’t limit the debate to IRF/SRE versus RGA. For instance, it has been recommended to place RGA/SRE with the Under Secretariat for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (J) alongside IRF and other thematic offices like Trafficking in Persons. Or situate it in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). Doug Johnston wrote about several ways to increase the State Department’s religious IQ. One was establishing a dedicated cadre of diplomats focused on “Religious Affairs” reporting to a Deputy Assistant Secretary in each regional bureau specifically tasked with the topic. He also suggested creating an Assistant Secretary for Religious Affairs reporting to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (P), with a dotted line to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R) or vice-versa. Creative thinking may find other models.

There is also the question of what to call it. Much like its placement, there are pros and cons to any name. I will note that the SRE rebranding was my idea. RGA’s work was not well understood, in part because the vague name and its widely spread work. SRE gave it an explicit mission, changing the focus from a topic to an action. This helped “sell” the value of religious engagement to the new leadership and across the Building. Adding “strategic” also signaled that this would be outside domestic politics and help advance crucial foreign policy goals. On the other hand, RGA enjoys wider brand awareness.

Whoever wins our election, the placement and name debate will continue. I recommend elevating the SRE function out of IRF and re-establishing it as an independent office led by a Special Representative. To keep the mission tightly focused, an elevated SRE should not include thematic envoys on the OIC, anti-Semitism, and other topics. SRE should be focused on partnerships with them, the IRF Office, and regional bureaus. Most importantly, State Department leadership should provide the reconstituted office independent programmatic resources so they can put their ideas into action.

R&D: Several countries currently leading the international effort on FoRB have quite significant domestic problems with religious intolerance and discrimination. How should we think about this disconnect between preaching and practice? 

Thames: I’ve always appreciated the European phrase “internal/external cohesion.” While that’s the aspiration, we know as diplomats it’s not always the case. It’s difficult when our domestic situation falls short of our cherished values. No country is perfect, and since ours are open and transparent, the world sees our shortcomings. That doesn’t mean we should stop advocating for these values. Quiet the contrary. Advocating for human rights is both in our interests and values. Being humble about gaps between values and practices, and importantly how we address them, makes our interventions stronger and more legitimate, not less. (As a rule, I discount all criticisms from China. Their human rights record is so atrocious, any bad day in North America or Europe still beats a good day in China.)

When I was at the State Department, we did receive criticism about the inclusion of countries with problematic human rights records into the IRFB Alliance. For the Alliance, I worked with Ahmed Shaheed on the founding charter that drew a bright line on the issue of conversion—if a country didn’t permit it, they couldn’t join the Alliance. That meant we turned down countries the United States otherwise works with closely. In addition, the UK and the Netherlands played an active role with us in recruiting the right countries from a diversity of backgrounds and worldviews.

Several European friends raised concerns about Hungary’s participation, saying it undercut the Alliance’s stated goals. I personally shared their unease about Budapest’s democratic backsliding and the motivation (and effectiveness) for their singular focus on Christian persecution. By standing rule, however, we invited all EU members to join the Alliance in recognition of the block’s importance and commonly shared values on freedom of conscience and belief. While personally sympathetic, the IRFB Alliance wasn’t the right place to enforce broader EU standards with an EU member over their failures. The IRFB Alliance is just a network, unlike the European Union, which is an actual treaty-based political union. The EU can act (if it wishes) to discourage bad behavior of its members. Concerns about gaps between obligations and practices on broader issues are best policed by EU institutions and EU members, not networks focused on religious persecution.

Seeing gaps between preaching and practice is sadly common, but our countries continue to participate in various networks. The Global Counter ISIS Coalition has Saudi Arabia as a member. The UN Human Rights Council just admitted Russia and China to the body, and they will sit alongside human rights abusers Venezuela and Eritrea. (I wonder if these countries were confused and thought membership was for human rights violators and not defenders?) Despite hypocrisy of epic proportions at the Council, EU members remain very engaged and I hope the United States will return. While none of our countries are perfect, no such glaring breaches of the IRFB Alliance’s stated goals exist among its members.

R&D: Tell us about your new role, and what you hope to accomplish? Tell us about your book project.

Thames: Thanks to a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, in July I left government after 20 years to embark on a book writing project based on my experiences, as well as other writing projects. I joined the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) as a Senior Fellow, and I am also a Visiting Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), contributing to the Middle East and Religion & Inclusive Societies teams. Now out of government, I’ve rediscovered my freedom of speech, and I have enjoyed writing articles for online publications.

At IGE, I’m focusing on my book project, which is both exciting and daunting. I have some experience in longform writing, having previously written a guidebook for advocates on how to approach international institutions about religious freedom concerns. But my new book will be less formulaic and more ambitious. It will be my account of combatting religious repression, both a 30,000-foot view of the issue and firsthand experience of doing the work. I hope to take readers on a tour of some of the world’s most repressive countries in the Middle East and South Asia. I hope to tell a story about the reality of religious persecution in the 21st century and how to respond, explaining to a general reader the challenges working within government to fight for human rights and the difficulties facing freedom of conscience worldwide.

At USIP, I am developing a program called the Middle East Pluralism Project. The Middle East is the birthplace of many great religions, with a history of different faiths living side by side. Unfortunately, that tradition is under stress due to various social and cultural paradigms, harmful government policies, outmigration, and terrorist activity. I’m hoping to examine ways to protect pluralism in the Middle East by focusing on tolerance education, inclusive citizenship, and heritage preservation for religious minorities. For the USIP Religion and Inclusive Societies team, I’m advising the Closing the Gap project with USAID, as well as working with Peter Mandeville to develop strategies to insulate U.S. government efforts on international religious freedom from domestic politics, to ensure they remain nonpartisan in focus and effect.

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