International religious freedom and national security

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Last week, a congressional oversight committee hearing was held to check on government compliance with the International Religious Freedom Law. It was virtually unprecedented.

Congress hasn’t been paying attention. Now that they did, the press wasn’t paying attention.

That law was passed 16 years ago, but this is the first time Congress has checked on whether the State Department is implementing it. Given what has happened in the world with increasing global crises involving religious extremism and religious persecution, one wonders whether anyone has wondered about this law. The answer is yes, and Thomas Farr. He has been asking questions for years. Because he knows international religious freedom is an issue of national security, besides being a human rights issue.

Here’s his latest.

I address three questions: First, given the status of religious freedom in the world, how has the current administration implemented IRFA during its approximately six years in office? Second, how can US IRF policy be employed to advance American national security? Third, the president has nominated Rabbi David Saperstein as the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

(The fact that the job of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom went vacant from October 2013 to late July 2014 when Rabbi Saperstein was finally nominated to it, is itself egregious. But wait…Saperstein has only been nominated.)

Farr continues:

How can Rabbi Saperstein be empowered to succeed in a field where others have had precious little success? In particular, what can the Congress do?

He lets that question dangle long enough to extend credit where it’s due to those inside the bureaucratic apparatus who are committed to doing what they can for religious freedom around the world through assorted programs.

Unfortunately, their work is compartmentalized, marginalized, and isolated within the State Department. The course at FSI is voluntary and, in any case, does not train diplomats in how to promote religious freedom. Funding levels are tiny and are not controlled by the person responsible for US policy—the IRF Ambassador. The State Department’s working group on religion and foreign policy is made up of civil society representatives; we need a working group on international religious freedom made up of senior U.S. foreign policy officials.

This is all unacceptable.

The key point, however, is that each of these efforts is ad hoc. None is part of an integrated strategy to advance international religious freedom. Such a strategy has not existed for the five years and nine months of this president’s tenure, and it does not exist today.

As a consequence, the United States has had virtually no impact on the global rise of religious persecution. While American diplomats have helped in individual cases, we have had no comprehensive policy in place to help the millions who suffer because of their faith.

Emphasis added. That’s a serious statement, the revelation of a grave fault line.

Equally important, we have missed opportunities to employ IRF policy as a means of undermining the development of violent religious extremism, encouraging economic growth, and helping struggling democracies to stabilize.

The evidence for this stark assessment is compelling. When testifying before this committee in June of last year, I could not identify a single country in the world where the United States under this administration has advanced religious freedom or reduced religious persecution. That remains true today. Meanwhile, we have seen an explosion of violent Islamist extremism, and the continuing decline of struggling democracies in highly religious societies such as Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt.

So, totally understating the obvious, Farr says international religious freedom is not a priority for the Obama administration.

The president’s nominee, Rabbi Saperstein, should be confirmed immediately. But when he steps into the job, the post of Ambassador at Large will have been vacant for almost a full year since the departure of the previous incumbent, and vacant for over half the tenure of this president.

Consider that for a moment, together with Farr’s observations about the US having no plan, and no impact on advancing religious freedom or reducing religious persecution. That it’s “not a priority” for this administration is acknowledging that they didn’t just overlook it, they put it aside.

Compare the administration’s treatment of this position with another similar job: that of Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues. Someone has been in that position for virtually the entire tenure of this administration. Why? Because women’s issues are a priority, as they should be. On the other hand, it is difficult to conclude that the office of the IRF Ambassador at Large, or the issue it represents, is perceived as important at the State Department.

To cite but one example: if you peruse the Department’s listing of “Assistant Secretaries and Other Senior Officials” on its website you will find Coordinators, Special Advisors, and Special Envoys for a host of issues, including Global Food Security, Global AIDs, Global Youth Issues, the Arctic, Muslim Communities, the Organization of Islamic States, and many others.

But you will not find listed the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

The reason for that omission is clear. If religious freedom is not a priority for the administration, there is little reason to label that Ambassador a “senior” official with an important portfolio. The sad fact is that he is not considered senior, nor his job of any real significance, by this State Department or this president.

It’s more than a sad fact, worse. It’s egregious, to repeat.

I would note that the IRFA established this Ambassador as a “principal advisor to the President and Secretary of State” on religious freedom abroad. Whatever Congress intended that phrase to mean, under this administration it has meant very little.

You can be sure that the Department of State’s marginalization of the Ambassador and U.S. international religious policy is not lost on America’s diplomats, who fully understand the low priority that policy has been given. Nor is it lost on foreign governments and those who persecute on the basis of religion.

Here’s why this issue is so important, no matter what your beliefs.

There are two powerful reasons for a coordinated, comprehensive American strategy to advance religious freedom. The first is a moral imperative.

Last year in Rome, Iraqi Patriarch of the Chaldeans, Archbishop Louis Raphael Sako, said something that still haunts me: “If they kill us all, will you do something then?” We have a responsibility to that man, and to the others of Iraq and Syria—Christian, Yazidi, and Muslim alike—who are fending for, or fleeing for, their lives.

Patriarch Sako said something else. The title of his speech was: “What Happens to the Middle East if Christians Flee?” The answer was twofold: terrible suffering for the Christians, but also increased instability and harm to the societies themselves.

Yes, that means everyone, in a community with any diversity.

Here lies the second reason for a coordinated, comprehensive US strategy on religious freedom. Religious freedom is not simply a “nice to have” human right, consisting mainly of the right not to be tortured or killed, or a right to private worship. It is a fundamental human right that has distinct and inevitable public dimensions. As such it is utterly necessary, not only for individual human flourishing but for the success of any state—especially highly religious nations like Iraq, Pakistan, or Egypt.

Ample research demonstrates what common sense suggests: democracies cannot consolidate without religious freedom. Economies cannot develop without religious freedom. And—perhaps most important for American national security—religious freedom is a counter to religion-based terrorism.

Farr lays out a plan of action and details a strategy the president should take up now.

It is no accident that ISIS announced itself to the world by its efforts to eradicate Yazidis and Christians. This vicious group defines itself by its religious intolerance. And now we see that ISIS poses a serious and direct security threat to the United States. Surely we can learn from our past neglect and failure that religious freedom can contribute to the long-term solution. Military action is now necessary to defeat ISIS. But integrating religious freedom into our overall strategy can reduce the need for future military action. At a fraction of the cost, and without loss of blood, a diplomatic counter-terrorism offensive can increase American national security.

Robert George, immediate past chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has been saying this for months. In September he said this:

Wherever violent religious extremist groups have held sway, be it central Somalia or elsewhere, they have penetrated every nook and cranny of human endeavor, imposing their will on families and communities in horrific ways. In many instances, they have banned routine activities such as listening to music and watching television. They have crushed all forms of religious expression other than their own, even seeking to destroy historic Islamic religious sites. They have imposed barbaric punishments on dissenters, from floggings and stonings to beheadings and amputations.

As a result, especially in places where these forces operate, people want an alternative: They want the right to honor their own beliefs and act peacefully on them. And as a number of scholars in recent years have shown, societies where this right to religious freedom is recognized and protected are more peaceful, prosperous, and free of destabilizing terror…

In other words, in a world where religion matters, a key answer to violent religious extremism in the post-9/11 era is for governments to act in such ways to affirm and protect freedom of religion. It is not only a moral imperative – it is a practical necessity, empowering people everywhere to choose a better way.

As Farr concluded:

Such changes will not work overnight. But without steps like this, and without the commitment of the president, the Secretary of State, and the Congress to support the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the policy he leads, the remaining Christians and other minorities of the Middle East will face violent persecution into the indefinite future. And the United States will face a permanent threat from the ever spreading phenomenon of violent Islamist extremism. For all these reasons, I urge you to act.

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