The Middle East Channel

What's wrong with promoting religious freedom?

The U.S. State Department is about to create a new office of religious engagement to incorporate a focus on religion and religious actors in U.S. foreign policy. While there is excitement in some quarters about the prospects for new religious and civil society partnerships overseas, the initiative raises some concerns at the intersection of religious freedom, religious establishment, and foreign policy. 

The United States has been promoting religious freedom abroad for some time. Americans have been official evangelists on its behalf at least since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 established a State Department Office of International Religious Freedom, which prepares an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world except the United States itself. A tweet from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who approved the creation of the new office, described religious freedom as "a bedrock priority of our foreign policy." 

Today the United States is expanding its official foreign affairs religion portfolio to include religious engagement abroad. Citing widespread religious persecution and religious violence overseas, proponents of this new initiative hope to further institutionalize the U.S. commitment to globalize religious freedom, marginalize extremism, and promote interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. Examples of government repression are often cited to establish a need for these initiatives. For instance, in what is known as the Maspero massacre, in October 2011, the Egyptian military establishment attacked peaceful protesters demanding rights for Coptic Christian citizens. At least 25 people were killed and 300 others injured. In Burma the Rohingya, a people living in the state of Rakhine in western Myanmar, are denied citizenship or legal representation by the government. Government repression of critics continues in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the Arab Spring was never able to get off the ground.

Surely these groups need international and local support -- but not necessarily as "religious" groups. Defining religion is no simple task. When the United States uses its authority to promote religious freedom abroad, the government weighs in on what counts as religion and what forms of religion should be protected. When the United States officially engages actors abroad as "religious," it sets standards that effectively bolster the sects, denominations, and religious authorities that it has defined as benevolent, while marginalizing less desirable counterparts.

This approach doesn't address the complex challenges posed by everyday life in religiously diverse societies. Rather, the "operationalization" of religion by the government allows it to over-simplify complex questions of causation. This has at least three consequences that are worth considering.

First, instead of calming tensions, official religious engagement with "religion" can harden lines of division between communities by defining identities and interests in religious terms. Identity takes on an exclusivist tinge: "are you this or are you that?" This aggravates sectarian tensions, drawing a line under one's religious identity as the factor that trumps others. In Syria, for example, foregrounding religion as the determinant factor in the war means that being Christian or Muslim, or Sunni or Alawite, often becomes more important than being pro- or anti-regime, or pro- or anti-democracy. We lose the big picture.

Second, there is less space for diversity in a world of official religion. Dissenters, doubters, and those with multiple religious affiliations are compelled to choose a side. Take the case of the new South Sudan. Many South Sudanese identify as Christians but also see no contradiction in maintaining traditional rites and rituals. Hybrid religion of this sort is difficult to see, and even harder to "engage." These forms of religion become invisible under a regime of religious freedom and religious engagement, even as official religions gain newfound political standing. The new South Sudanese government's Bureau of Religious Affairs registers "Faith-Based Organizations," rejecting those Christian organizations whose constitutions "do not line up with Biblical chapters or verses," according to one inspector in the bureau interviewed by Noah Salomon, a Sudan expert. When religion is bureaucratized, religious freedom can easily become religious persecution.

Third, engaging religion requires defining it. When religion is bureaucratized the U.S. government decides what counts as religion, as opposed to tradition, culture, or superstition. Religion requires protection, but superstition does not. The 2010 State Department's Report on the Central African Republic (CAR) notes that as many as 60 percent of the imprisoned women in the country are charged with "witchcraft," which the government considers a criminal offense -- and yet concludes that the government "generally respected religious freedom in practice" in CAR, and gives the country a good ranking overall. The "religious freedom" model has no room for this kind of discrimination against African traditional religions (ATR, in the jargon). Women imprisoned for witchcraft cannot suffer from violations of religious freedom because, in Western eyes, they have no religion. ATRs fall out of the picture when religious freedom comes to town.

And there's the rub. It is far too easy for the "religion" of the majority, the religion of those in power, or the particular version of a religion supported by the United States or other power brokers to carry more weight, politically, than others. This is occurring in South Sudan, as groups that the government disfavors are classified as "cults" while others are registered and protected as orthodox.

Power relations matter at the intersection of religion and state. Foreign policy is no exception. As Amy Frykholm, associate editor at the Christian Century, notes "if you want to have a ‘strategic dialogue' with ‘civil society,' with whom exactly are you going to talk? The dialogue partner is vague -- and it can never be a conversation among equals. One has vast resources at its disposal. The other needs support and help."

To elevate a concern for what is named as religion above other affiliations is a risky proposition in U.S. foreign policy. The goal should be to see individuals in civic terms. The State Department would do more to help the Rohingya, Copts, Alawites, and others by insisting on equality before the law. The Rohingya are not excluded solely with religious slurs, but with racist and other dehumanizing terms. Monks leading the charge to democratize Myanmar have turned against them, blocking humanitarian assistance and calling for their social and political exclusion. The government considers them illegal Bengali immigrants. A leaflet distributed by a monks' organization described them as "cruel by nature." Ko Ko Gyi, a democracy activist and former political prisoner, has said that they are not Burmese. This discrimination is multifaceted: it is ethnic and national as well as religious. To single out "religion" marks the Rohingya as even more removed from mainstream Buddhist society. It reinforces the exclusionary dynamics such measures are intended to defuse. The United States should pressure the Burmese government -- and the democratizing monks -- to include the Rohingya as humans, and not as Muslims.

Michael Wahid Hanna, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, makes a related point in a recent piece on the activities of the U.S.-based Coptic diaspora "on behalf" of Egyptian Copts. He calls for recognition of the internal diversity of the Coptic community in Egypt, and points to Egyptian Copts' differing life experiences depending on socio-economic factors and geographic location. While there may be a place for outside lobbying, Hanna concludes, "it would be perverse if the efforts of Coptic diaspora activists were a further cause of strife and a rallying cry for Islamists who seek to implement a vision of religious supremacy." In other words, when religion becomes the object of outside intervention it matters more -- and differently -- in the world. Pro-Coptic interventions by U.S. governmental and non-governmental actors risk making religious difference in Egypt more salient, rather than less.

The U.S. Office of Religious Freedom is modeled on Cold War attempts to combat communism by promoting global spiritual health. At that time the United States intervened in the landscapes of other countries to identify and bolster the kind of religion that aligned with U.S. interests. That religion was freed -- or co-opted. The politics of U.S. religious intervention today are not all that different -- the United States engages with religious actors abroad to secure its national security interests. In Iraq for example, as the New York Times reported, in 2005 the Pentagon paid a contractor working there to "identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis in violence-ridden Anbar Province to participate in national elections and reject the insurgency." The government promoted a particular set of policy options using religious actors as a vehicle to further state interests. The advent of the new office at State is likely to bolster this approach to religious intervention and religious policy making in the name of national security and U.S. interests.

Americans are proud of our achievements in the field of religion. We see ourselves as having invented religious freedom and mastered religious toleration. Creating an office to spread the word overseas to less fortunate corners of the world allows us to feel morally secure, even superior, at a time of economic uncertainty and global decline. It deflects attention from suffering at home, such as violence against immigrants and rising economic inequality. And it fits with a widely held, if rarely discussed, tenet of U.S. foreign policy: national security interests are often understood to require the United States to engineer religious affairs abroad.

Some will defend this U.S. religious interventionism in the name of government support for religious pluralism, international religious freedom, or national security. The new office at the State Department will be at the forefront of these efforts, working to engage and shape religious affairs overseas. The new religious establishment is here.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

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