A Discussion with Catherine Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst, US Commission on International Religious Freedom
May 22, 2011
Background: As part of the Future of Track-Two Diplomacy Undergraduate Fellows Seminar, in fall 2010 Emily Gaard interviewed Catherine Cosman, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, about the intersections of U.S. foreign policy, religion, and track-two diplomacy.
Please tell me about your current responsibilities and how you got to this position.
I applied for and got the job. I have worked with government and human rights groups. I focus on the former USSR and freedom of religion and beliefs. I also work with the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe. There are 56 participating states.
Do you think that others view the U.S. as highly religious or secular? What are the implications, from your perspective, of this view by other countries?
I would say people are confused. Better educated people would probably see us as frequently attending religious services. People in other countries who mainly see the U.S. through a Hollywood lens would have a very different impression.
Some people suggest that within the U.S. government there are many obstacles to learning about religion as well as barriers to engaging with religious actors abroad. What has been your experience?
I think this is true. The Department of State takes a strict constructivist approach to the separation of church and state which results in important issues being downplayed or overlooked. The U.S. government needs to respect our system of separation of church and state while also addressing human rights and strategic aspects of freedom of religion or belief.
Can you talk about how faith has affected your career and life?
I am an agnostic. I do believe in belief.
Have you tried coordinating with secular NGOs in the area?
I work mostly with human rights groups which traditionally have been involved in civil and political rights but at least until recently have not been much concerned with freedom of religion or belief. Many people are skeptical about the issue of religious freedom, because the former USSR was an atheist country.
Have you or your organization provided a forum or mediated between parties in conflict?
Yes, to some degree in the North Caucasus where we have tried to call attention to issues affecting both religious communities as well as human rights organizations. To a similar extent similar work is being done in Central Asia.
Have you or your organization provided unofficial services on behalf of peace to belligerents or government actors?
We highlight problems, especially on the part of government. Again, there is the work we do with the human rights groups in the North Caucasus.
My work is a combination of work here in my local office as well as travel.
Over your career, how has the U.S. government’s awareness and/or response to religious factors changed (or stayed the same)?
I think there is increased general awareness of the importance of freedom of religion or belief. As for policies, however, in regard to those governments that are chronic and severe violators of international commitments in this regard, not that much has changed, at least for the ex-Soviet countries. With regards to Uzbekistan for example, because it is an important area through which a major percentage of non-lethal goods are shipped to our troops in Afghanistan, the issue of religious freedom does not seem to be prominent, even though the country has been officially designated a "country of particular concern" since 2006.