Obama at the crossroads on religious liberty

By: Thomas Farr

May 6, 2010

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (IRF) has come down hard on the Obama administration for its failure to promote international religious liberty. "U.S. foreign policy on religious freedom," said Commission chairman Leonard Leo, "is missing the mark."
The Commission, established by the 1998 IRF Act, is a bipartisan group of nine men and women drawn from across the American political and religious landscape, and it includes Obama supporters. To its credit, the group's annual report, released last week, is raising the right issues at the right time.

The report reminds us of a primary reason the United States seeks to advance religious freedom. It recounts in disturbing detail the cruelties practiced worldwide on human beings because of their religious beliefs and practices, or those of their tormentors. A small sampling: Rape victims still languish in Pakistani prisons because religious laws require women to produce four male witnesses to the act of rape. Unable to do so, many rape victims have been accused of "adultery," found guilty, and imprisoned.

In March 2009 Chinese security forces literally beat to death a Tibetan Buddhist monk for passing out leaflets supporting the Dalai Lama. In China, the torture and "disappearance" of Buddhist monks and nuns, and of disfavored Muslims, Christians, and adherents of Falun Gong, occur with inhuman regularity.

In Saudi Arabia a senior cleric recently issued a fatwa calling for the death of anyone arguing that men and women could work together professionally. Such edicts emerge from a Saudi interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism, a malevolent political theology that continues to be exported from the desert kingdom worldwide -- including to the United States.

In Iran, Shi'a Muslims critical of the regime's brand of Shi'ism were executed for "waging war against God." Iranian Baha'is live in constant fear of imprisonment, torture and death.

All this makes for dismaying reading, but the section on Iraq is particularly wrenching. In a country whose opportunity for ordered liberty has been purchased with American blood, Christians are being targeted and murdered. Thousands among this ancient but rapidly shrinking Iraqi minority have been forced to flee their homes and villages.

The slow death of Christianity in Iraq is a tragedy about which most Americans know very little. Had this story gotten the attention it deserved from the mainstream press, perhaps public opinion would have brought more pressure on the Bush administration to do something about it. The Commission, long a leader in this area, has provided powerful reasons for the Obama administration to act.

These and other tragic stories in the report provide a human face to the alarming trends published by the Pew Forum in its December 2009 analysis, Global Restrictions on Religion. It found that 70 percent of the world's population live in regimes where citizens are vulnerable to religious persecution. As a humanitarian matter alone, surely this is unacceptable to the American people and their elected representatives.

Of course, no one supports persecution. The question is what can, and what ought, the United States do about it? Most Americans want their government to try and relieve the suffering of innocent human beings. But are there other reasons for action, reasons that might lead to U.S. IRF strategies that both reduce human suffering and further American interests? More on this below.

The Commission provides a host of practical, country-specific recommendations, for example, linking the substantial U.S. economic assistance to Egypt to improvements in that country's respect for religious freedom, or taking steps to ensure that the Chinese hear a consistent message on this issue from all U.S. officials (which is not now, nor ever has been, the case).

The report urges more pressure on the Saudi government to do what it has already pledged to do - reform the religiously-bigoted text books that teach Saudi children the wrong lessons, and make their "religion and morals police" more accountable. This is the same Wahhabi-inspired "police" agency that a few years ago prevented Saudi schoolgirls from fleeing a burning school building because they were not sufficiently covered. Fourteen girls perished in the flames.

Importantly, the report adds to the Commission's "watch list" two key Muslim democracies -- Indonesia and Turkey. The commissioners judge, quite accurately, that those nations, while making strides in other areas critical to democracy, are lagging in religious freedom. This matter is important to the United States, not only because we want to help the victims, but also because the success of democracy in these countries is vital to our own security.

This brings us to the "other" reasons for advancing religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. The Commission's findings tend to confirm what scholarship in international relations and sociology are strongly suggesting: democracy in highly religious nations cannot consolidate and yield its benefits -- including economic opportunity, security, low levels of religious extremism, and peace with other democracies -- without religious freedom. That is a lesson our foreign policy elites must learn, not only that we may help influence the democratic consolidation of allies Turkey and Indonesia, but also to ensure that our investments of blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan succeed.

Commission chairman Leonard Leo highlighted the connection between religious freedom and national security in his remarks: "If the United States cares about human rights, if we value international stability, if we are concerned about countering extremism, freedom of religion ... must be a critical component of our nation's diplomacy, national security and economic development objectives."

The Obama administration should pay close attention to these words as it decides how to position its own religious freedom policy. Whether it will do so or not is still unclear. The report acknowledges that some good things are beginning to happen inside the State Department. But it also points to signs that IRF policy is being sidelined and may assume an even lesser role than it has in previous administrations.

Decisions over the next several weeks will likely tell us which path this President will take. Will he and Secretary Hilary Clinton decide to retool and upgrade an IRF policy that was neglected by prior administrations of both parties? With proper leadership and training, U.S. religious freedom strategies will not only help alleviate human suffering far more effectively than they have to date, but they can also help achieve the national security goals emphasized by Chairman Leo.

On the plus side, there are a few reasons for hope. Within Foggy Bottom, a handful of officials are working hard to convince skeptical senior Department leaders of what ought to be obvious: the global resurgence of religion warrants systemic training for foreign service officers in religions and religious freedom. Our embassies abroad need expertise in this area, just as they possess expertise in politics, economics, or military affairs. This case has recently been made by, among others, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in a series of recommendations to the administration.

Unfortunately, as the Commission's report makes clear, many within the administration are resisting the obvious. One could easily conclude that Obama officials have no intention of given priority to religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy, if for no other reason than the President's extreme lassitude in nominating an official to head the IRF operation -- the ambassador at large for international religious freedom required by the IRF Act. Sixteen months into the Obama presidency, with a bevy of envoys on issues from outreach to Muslim communities to the closure of Guantanamo long in place, the administration has not seen fit to move on the IRF position.

What the report does not mention is that the White House is said to be on the verge of announcing the President's nominee for ambassador at large. That person is reported to be a pastor rather than a diplomat, and someone with no experience in either foreign policy or religious freedom. Would the President nominate someone to head his programs on Muslim outreach, women's rights, disabilities, energy policy, climate change, or any of the other issues that are represented by senior envoys under his administration, if he or she were not a seasoned expert in the field? Why would he do so in the field of religious freedom?

If this were not enough, the Commission also notes reports that when the new IRF ambassador shows up for work, she will have even less authority and less support than is the norm at Foggy Bottom, and less than is required by the IRF Act itself. Other ambassadors at large, such as the official in charge of Global Women's Issues, work directly under Secretary Clinton. The IRF ambassador, on the other hand, will reportedly have four other officials between her and the Secretary. And the office that has for 12 years served the IRF ambassador (as required by the IRF Act) will now report to someone else.

Is the Democratic-controlled Congress paying attention? Does it care that a law it passed unanimously under one Democratic President is apparently being set aside by another?

One final point. The Commission report worries, correctly in my view, that both the President and the Secretary have taken to speaking publicly of "freedom of worship" rather than "religious freedom." Why should that matter? Because "worship" is essentially a private activity, far less threatening to authoritarian governments or powerful majority religious communities than is religious freedom. The latter encompasses both private worship and public practice. It means protection for all religious communities on an equal basis, including the right to engage in the political life of a nation.

If the Obama administration wanted to downgrade US international religious freedom policy, it might prepare the way by rhetorical shift such as this.

Is that what the administration is doing? It is too soon to tell, but there are reasons to be concerned. In a follow-up post I will explore why the President and Secretary of State might in fact be acting to move IRF to the obscure margins of U.S. foreign policy, and, if they are, why their actions would reduce our nation's capacity to undermine religious persecution, and harm the interests of the American people.

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Obama at the crossroads on religious liberty