International religious freedom and national security

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.

‘Graveyard of integrity’ at highest level of leadership

Benghazi is in a few more headlines today, like it or not.

The Daily Beast:

In its seventh week, discussion about what happened in Benghazi has begun to focus on why military teams in the region did not respond to the assault on the U.S. mission and the nearby CIA annex.

This is pretty thorough, and it tries to piece together what happened, when, and who tried to do what.

But military backup may have made a difference at around five the following morning, when a second wave of attackers assaulted the CIA annex where embassy personnel had taken refuge. It was during this second wave of attacks that two ex-SEALs working for the CIA’s security teams—Glenn Dougherty and Tyrone Woods—were killed in a mortar strike.

About those former SEALs, this commentary from The Blaze speaks more clearly than most anything else.

All political drama aside, the piece of this story I choose to hang onto has nothing to do with the finger pointing or political side stepping aimed at preserving the integrity of the current administration long enough to get reelected. Men sacrificed themselves for one another and for their country. What kind of a man, in the face of overwhelming odds, knowingly and freely lays down his life for the man next to him? Glen Doherty and Ty Woods did just that. At that moment it didn’t matter that they had been Navy SEALs or that they were now contractors operating under different laws and rules of engagement. History doesn’t remember “Golgatha Gate” and the political fallout of crucifying Jesus. An entire religion was born from that simple act of suffering and sacrifice, not the reelection of Pontius Pilate…

What I’m saying is that politics and bureaucracy trend towards failure, and that individuals have the capacity to instantaneously realize divine greatness despite being captives of a flawed and broken system led by individuals who do not possess comparable character.

Take their past and future out of the convoluted story and focus on the cold hard truths people face when in combat. You either fight or you run. What makes a person stand and fight to the death? Is it an oath to a piece of paper or a paycheck? No. People fight to the death for the respect and love of the individuals next to them. It’s their common lives, shared suffering, and love for one another’s unlimited futures that keeps them in the fight.

The actions of two Americans in battle and the character they displayed in the face of overwhelming odds should be what guilts this administration into letting the truth be told…

Could this have happened under anybody’s watch? Of course. What is telling is how the administration handled the incident. There was a blatant failure in leadership somewhere in the chain and instead of admitting it, identifying it, and taking steps toward fixing it, they instantaneously moved to deflect the entire event. Since that didn’t work , they are attempting to use any and all events as a platform to move past the event.

It is not the failure and the loss of life that bothers me. That’s a cold thing to say, but anyone who has spent time working within our Government bureaucracy understands how poorly it operates and that these events will happen regardless of who is at the helm. What’s extremely troublesome is that the character and valor being displayed at the lowest levels consistantly and without exception outshines the “leaders” at the top of the chain. This is not a recipe for success. Transparency is what we need as a nation right now and we need to face some painful truths. Glen and Ty were just two Americans trying to do the right thing and in the pursuit of what they believed to be right they sacrificed their lives without concern for their own fate. Isn’t that the kind of character we should demand of our elected leaders?

Yes.

What the Muslim outrage is really about

Power. Not a ‘dopey’ short video, which few rioters likely even saw.

That’s the sentiment of a few bold analysts I’ve heard who were willing to step outside the press corral. And the paraphrase of thoughts buried somewhere deep in this analysis piece by Andrew McCarthy at NRO.

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” So declared the Obama State Department in a statement issued on the website of its Egyptian embassy. At the time, it was clear that another episode of Muslim mayhem was imminent.

The statement is a disgrace, just as Mitt Romney said it was. It elevated over the U.S. Constitution (you know, the thing Obama took an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend”) the claimed right of sharia supremacists (you know, “Religion of Peace” adherents) to riot over nonsense. Further, it dignified the ludicrous pretext that an obscure, moronic 14-minute video was the actual reason for the oncoming jihad.

Here is the important part, however, the part not to be missed, no matter how determined the president’s media shysters are to cover it up: The disgraceful embassy statement was a completely accurate articulation of longstanding Obama policy.

As Obama struggled to put daylight between himself and his record, the press was duly pathetic. The president, Politico was quick to cavil, had nothing to do with “the statement by Embassy Cairo.” An administration official declaimed that it “was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.” You are to believe the Obama White House exists in a galaxy separate from the Obama State Department, which itself inhabits a frontier distant and detached from the U.S. embassy in Cairo — except, one supposes, for the $38,000 in taxpayer funds the embassy spent on Obama autobiographies, apparently thought to be craved by Egyptians, at least when they’re not ever-so-moderately chanting “Obama, Obama, there are still a billion Osamas.”

In point of fact, the embassy’s statement perfectly reflects the views of the United States government under Obama’s stewardship. It is anathema to most Americans, but it has been Obama’s position from the start.

I’ve saved a handful of good news items on this violent outburst, but McCarthy lays it out best here and the points he makes need attention. In its detail. Which is little known.

In 2009, the Obama State Department ceremoniously joined with Muslim governments to propose a United Nations resolution that, as legal commentator Stuart Taylor observed, was “all-too-friendly to censoring speech that some religions and races find offensive.” Titled “Freedom of Opinion and Expression” — a name only an Alinskyite or a Muslim Brotherhood tactician could love — the resolution was the latest salvo in a years-long campaign by the 57-government Organization of the Islamic Conference (now renamed the “Organization of Islamic Cooperation”). The OIC’s explicit goal is to coerce the West into adopting sharia, particularly its “defamation” standards.

Sharia severely penalizes any insult to Islam or its prophet, no matter how slight. Death is a common punishment. And although navel-gazing apologists blubber about how “moderate Islamist” governments will surely ameliorate enforcement of this monstrous law, the world well knows that the “Muslim street” usually takes matters into its own hands — with encouragement from their influential sheikhs and imams.

In its obsession with propitiating Islamic supremacists, the Obama administration has endorsed this license to mutilate. In the United States, the First Amendment prohibits sharia restrictions on speech about religion. As any Catholic or Jew can tell you, everyone’s belief system is subject to critical discussion. One would think that would apply doubly to Islam. After all, many Muslims accurately cite scripture as a justification for violence; and classical Islam recognizes no separation between spiritual and secular life — its ambition, through sharia, is to control matters (economic, political, military, social, hygienic, etc.) that go far beyond what is understood and insulated as “religious belief” in the West. If it is now “blasphemy” to assert that it is obscene to impose capital punishment on homosexuals and apostates, to take just two of the many examples of sharia oppression, then we might as well hang an “Out of Business” sign on our Constitution.

The Obama administration, however, did not leave it at the 2009 resolution. It has continued to work with the OIC on subordinating the First Amendment to sharia’s defamation standards — even hosting last year’s annual conference, a “High Level Meeting on Combatting Religious Intolerance.” That paragon of speech sensitivity, Secretary of State Hillary “We Came, We Saw, He Died” Clinton, hailed as a breakthrough a purported compromise that would have criminalized only speech that incited violence based on religious hostility. But it was a smokescreen: Speech that intentionally solicits violence, regardless of the speaker’s motivation, is already criminal and has always been exempted from First Amendment protection. There is no need for more law about that.

Important lesson here. Tough for some skewed cultural sensibilities, but it remains the reality.

The First Amendment permits us to criticize in a way that may provoke hostility — it would be unconstitutional to suppress that regardless of whether the law purporting to do so was civil, as opposed to criminal.

But let’s put the legal hair-splitting aside. Knowing her legal position was unsound, and that traditional forms of law could not constitutionally be used to suppress critical examination of religion, Secretary Clinton further explained the administration’s commitment “to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.” The government is our servant, not our master — besides enforcing valid laws, it has no business using its coercive power to play social engineer. More to the present point, however, the administration was effectively saying it is perfectly appropriate to employ extra-legal forms of intimidation to suppress speech that “we abhor.”

That is precisely what the Egyptian mob was about to do when the U.S. embassy issued its statement. The Obama administration’s position? The president endorses extortionate “peer pressure” and “shaming,” but condemns constitutionally protected speech. That’s exactly the message the embassy’s statement conveyed.

Mind you, what is playing out in Egypt — as well as Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia — is a charade. It has nothing to do with the dopey movie. There is as much or more agitation to release the Blind Sheikh — which the Obama administration has also encouraged by its embrace of Islamists, including the Blind Sheikh’s terrorist organization. The latest round of marauding is about power.

In spite of news outlet after news outlet, White House press conference one after another, political surrogates and strategists all over ‘mainstream media’ to the contrary, here’s how it shakes down:

In a situation that called for a president who would actually defend the Constitution, Mitt Romney rose to the occasion. The administration’s performance was, as he asserted, “disgraceful.” Further, Romney admonished,

“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We’ll defend also our constitutional rights of speech, and assembly, and religion. We have confidence in our cause in America. We respect our Constitution. We stand for the principles our constitution protects. We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world.”

Can you imagine the current incumbent, the guy sworn to defend the Constitution, ever saying such a thing — or, better, saying it and actually meaning it? Me neither. It will be remembered as the moment the race for president finally became about the real job of a president.