Rethinking Our Policy on Religious Freedom

Reform Should Start with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

As recent events have unfolded throughout the Middle East, it is increasingly clear that an in-depth understanding of the role of religious freedom—and the cultural and political role of religion itself—is crucial to advancing American foreign policy interests especially in that region. Religious freedom is going to become ever more relevant as a policy issue as Middle East countries change their political systems, and there is an urgent need for reform of the United States’s “religious freedom” policy. Reform is needed in several areas, but especially in redefining the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s approach to religious freedom.

The commission, also known as CIRF, was authorized by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its principal responsibilities are to monitor violations of religious freedom internationally and make policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress. CIRF, however, does not take sufficient account of the role of religion in different cultures around the world in its current approach to religious freedom. In addition to such improvement in how religious freedom is defined, religious freedom issues should be better integrated into U.S. foreign policy.

The role of the blasphemy law in two recent assassinations in Pakistan is an especially important case in point. Both Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer and Minister for Minorities’ Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti were murdered earlier this year after they called for amendments to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. These laws make it a crime punishable by death to insult Islam, the Koran, or the Prophet Mohammed.

Religious and political leaders around the world condemn the assassinations. In the United States there are calls for greater speed on the appointment of an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom—someone to lead on advocacy for religious freedom in the administration and to stand up for religious minorities around the world—as one important response.

Without substantial reform of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and of the role of on the ambassador-at-large position, however, there is little hope that this position, and the commission’s current approach, will be helpful in addressing this violence in Pakistan. Indeed, there are reasons to think it would be counterproductive at best. The United States can ill afford more mistakes where Pakistan is concerned. It is a key player in the region and with the imminent draw down of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a country where vital U.S. security interests are at stake.

One key area of needed reform is how the commission defines religious freedom in contrast to how religion is understood around the world. The U.S. CIRF has approached the issue of religious freedom to date as a matter of “rights.” This does not take into account the fact that many people around the world do not regard religion under the heading of “rights,” but more under the heading of “identity.” Jeremy Gunn of the American Civil Liberties Union made this point at a symposium at Georgetown University in 2008, one of a three-part series assessing U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy.

It is critical that American foreign policy experts recognize that approaching an issue like the role of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan cannot be done solely under the heading of “religious freedom” as individual rights. They must approach the issue as part of an assessment of how the blasphemy laws are integral to struggle for Pakistan’s identity as a nation and intricately tied to political struggles in that nation. Those responsible for the violence in the country are using the blasphemy law to justify their actions, and the first assassination “reignited the debate of national identity crisis faced by Pakistan,” according to Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations.

While Pakistan still has “a vibrant civil society, free media, relatively progressive status of women,” and a progressive infrastructure, key institutions such as the intelligence community and the military “have been infected with extremist ideas” and they are seeking to define Pakistan’s political identity through establishing a radical religious identity.

Thus radical clerics, and their religious organizations, often use accusations of blasphemy as way to incite political violence against opponents. These clerics and their organizations are tied to important and powerful elements in Pakistan, and in particular they have strong ties to the Pakistani military. These kinds of religious organizations have always fared poorly at the polls, but their “street power is increasingly driving the agenda in Pakistan.”

A narrow focus on “religious freedom,” without recognition of the destabilizing role the blasphemy law is playing right now in the political life of Pakistan itself, and the possible repercussions for the region, does not help American foreign policy formulate a useful approach.

Rather than dealing with religious freedom in a silo, for example, a more useful approach would be to attend to a broad range of needed advances in a civil society context. This is not only a matter of changing laws, but also of engaging political and cultural institutions and actors to advance the broadest protections for religious diversity in a society.

A second much-needed reform is better integrating the work of CIRF—especially as revised to take better account of the role of religion and cultural identity—into American foreign policy. In 2009 the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and the Center on Faith and International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement issued a joint report on “The Future of International Religious Freedom Policy: Recommendations for the Obama Administration,” co-authored by Thomas F. Farr and Dennis R. Hoover. One of the report’s three main critiques is that U.S. international religious freedom policy “has not been integrated into U.S. democracy programs, public diplomacy, counterterrorism, or multilateral diplomacy or international law.” The report recommends bringing religious freedom policy “into the mainstream of foreign policy.”

This report identifies other serious problems with the how the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 has been implemented as policy. The report finds that the U.S. CIRF’s main approach of “rhetorical denunciations of persecutors” has had “minimal effect on global levels of persecution.” The authors argue that “U.S. CIRF policy is often viewed abroad as an attack on majority religious communities, as cultural imperialism, and as a front for American missionaries.”

Such an approach by the United States could easily become an incendiary one in a country such as Pakistan, where the struggle for national identity is often defined by persecution of religious minorities such as Christians.

The nomination of Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, a Baptist minister, as ambassador-at-large for religious freedom has been met with criticism not only from conservatives but also from some progressives. Instead of moving ahead with this appointment the Obama administration should shift its focus to reform of the U.S. CIRF, including better defining the ambassador’s role.

The larger issue is that religion and foreign policy cannot be dealt with in one broad stroke of “religious freedom,” but must be specific to the multiple roles religion plays in each culture and society, and its relationship to American foreign policy. The administration should develop a coordinated approach to each country and its religious, cultural, and political issues. Both the work of the commission and the position of ambassador, however, should be substantially reformed before any appointment is made.

Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.