Twenty years ago, President Clinton, with bipartisan support, signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act. The intention: To enshrine religious freedom as a core component of American foreign policy, and spread the blessings of religious liberty around the world.
This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is hosting the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The July 24-26 event brings together high-level officials, diplomats, religious leaders and activists from more than 40 countries “to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”
So kudos to Mr. Pompeo — and to Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump — for making this a priority. But let’s be clear: The event will not celebrate religious freedom’s advances over the past two decades because, sadly, there have been precious few.
Leading the U.S. government’s efforts to support international religious freedom (IRF) is Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback, a former governor, U.S. senator and House member from Kansas. There’s also a bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), charged with fact-finding and providing independent policy recommendations to Congress, the State Department, and the White House. USCIRF has nine commissioners. I served as one from 2016 until May of this year.
The IRF community is dedicated to the proposition that everyone everywhere has a right to “freedom of religion or belief” (yes, there’s an acronym for that, too: FoRB).
As part of this week’s ministerial, I was asked to deliver remarks on “Religious Freedom and Countering Violent Extremism.” I enthusiastically support both. But the conventional wisdom of religious freedom proponents — that promoting the former is an effective means of achieving the latter — strikes me as unconvincing.
Repression may encourage extremism but it’s not the only or even primary cause of it. And reducing repression — praiseworthy as that is — does not necessarily diminish extremism.
Examples abound. Lebanon has had more religious freedom than most of its neighbors, yet Hezbollah, Tehran’s terrorist proxy, now dominates the country. China’s rulers brutally suppress religious freedom, yet terrorism has not posed much of a problem for them.
As many as 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 countries joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. About 6,000 — the highest per capita rate in the world — came from Tunisia, among the Middle East’s most moderate nations.
Also joining the Islamic State: Thousands of Muslims from European nations where religious freedom has long been firmly established. These volunteers were not pushed into the arms of the violent extremists by oppressive governments. More plausibly, they were pulled by visions of conquest, power and glory.
America’s commitment to religious freedom is the product of intellectual and moral evolution. The popular notion that immigrants sailed to these shores to enjoy religious freedom is imprecise. Most fled persecutors but were not averse to persecuting others they deemed heretics. Over time, however, a live-and-let-live attitude came to seem sensible, and was encapsulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
That’s the best model, but we should be tolerant of other approaches. Some countries with Roman Catholic and Muslim majorities have implemented policies intended to prevent the religious classes from becoming the ruling classes.
France, in its constitution, proclaims laicite — strict secularism in the public sphere, controversially interpreted to include bans on wearing religious apparel in public. A number of Muslim-majority, former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan among them, support “quietist” religious traditions while banning religiously based political ideologies. The aim is to keep ambitious imams from taking over and imposing theocracies such as that which has ruled Iran since 1979.
No reasonable person would object to outlawing the Islamic State or al Qaeda, groups that employ and justify violence based on their reading of Islamic scripture. But what about groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir which have similar goals — e.g. establishing a caliphate and imposing their version of sharia worldwide — but are cagey about how to achieve them?
As for the “international community,” in theory it has long been committed to freedom of religion or belief. Article 18 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
In practice, dozens of U.N. members disregard Article 18. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are among the 16 nations currently designated by USCIRF as “Countries of Particular Concern,” the diplomatic euphemism for regimes that most egregiously violate religious freedom including by means of torture, imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment.
If freedom of religion is not really an “international norm,” and if we can’t prove that it’s an antidote for violent extremism, what is the best case for it?
We should state as objective truth that freedom is preferable to tyranny. Not for dictators, perhaps, but for the rest of us. And the most foundational freedom is the right to believe or disbelieve as one chooses, as one’s conscience dictates. So long as rulers persecute those they rule for thought crimes, all other rights — e.g. freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, representative government — will remain out of reach.
Regimes not progressing — however slowly and incrementally — away from tyranny and toward liberty should be disdained and disfavored by Americans and other free peoples. Am I being judgmental? If so, I offer no apologies.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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