Religious freedom is in crisis around the world. From violent Islamic extremists committing genocide across the Middle East (and inspiring terror attacks globally), to the destruction of crosses by the Chinese government, from blasphemy laws that silence religious debates and incite violence, to the imprisonment of religious leaders in places like Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere, religious freedom seems to be diminishing.
Yet, the United States continues to consider promoting religious freedom a fundamental foreign policy objective. In fact, there are now more than 50 full-time State Department employees who work on religion related issues, more than ever before. It is clear that understanding religion is critical to foreign affairs.
Contributors were asked to consider how a candidate might handle issues of international religious freedom as the next president of the United States.
To see all posts in this series visit: Election 2016: International Religious Freedom
A Hillary Clinton Administration promises a return to the Washington consensus of the foreign policy elite in a way that neither an Obama Administration did nor a potential Trump Administration promised. This new administration will face immediate challenges involving Russia, the Middle East, China, and the seeming unraveling of the international world order. And while international religious freedom, as a standalone objective, can match any of these priorities, it impacts and influences many of them.
Of course, international religious freedom will be a topic mentioned regularly in any administration’s foreign policy, it is part of the now established litany of rights, as in a recent Clinton speech criticizing Trump where she mentioned her activism as Secretary of State on “the rights of women, religious minorities and LGBT around the world.” But mentioning something and having an office that writes and talks about it seems the bare minimum in a world where religious freedom seems under renewed assault.
I have known and worked with a few of the people who may be part of a Clinton Administration’s foreign policy team and they are serious, thoughtful people. But the case will still have to be made on why international religious freedom issues need to be prioritized. I can think of at least four areas where this makes sense.
Recent military progress in Iraq has opened a window towards the restoration of some of the religious diversity of Northern Iraq that was all but extinguished in the heyday of ISIS expansion in 2014-2015. In both Sinjar and Nineveh Plain there is an emerging, perhaps last, chance to help restore struggling Yazidi, Assyrian Christian and Shabak people as viable communities rooted in part of their ancestral homeland.
This is not only an opportunity for restitution and for justice, not only a chance to strengthen religious freedom and diversity, but also to show a different path for governance that prioritizes subsidiarity and the art of the possible in a region drunk with sectarian passion and dreams of conquest. Taking tangible steps to restore this torn social fabric in Iraq is not an exercise in sentimentality or charity but rather a necessary element empowering those traits that can make societies more tolerant, stronger, and more democratic.
A second area where a new administration can do some actual good (and which is also related to the Middle East) is in expanding the fight against religious incitement. The term has been usually used within the context of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict but today the region and the Muslim diaspora is experiencing a wave of bigoted sectarianism turbocharged by social media and broadcast television. This is bigotry against Shia Muslims, against Sufi Muslims, against religious minorities, against freethinkers, Jews and Christians, often driven by the same Islamist supremacist sub-culture which nurtured the rise of ISIS. So the struggle against incitement is intimately connected to an ideological fight not yet waged against the political-religious building blocks which promote the growth of Salafi Jihadism. At the very least, candidate Clinton has not shrunk from publicly saying that the fight against Jihadism has an ideological component but it is unclear whether there is an appetite for more than words.
A third religious freedom concern that is deserving of attention in a new Administration is the contemporary transmogrification of that old succubus antisemitism into new patterns and tactics. From the “alt-right” of the West to the British Labour Party to the BDS movement to the strange mixing of Islamism and far-leftism, the antisemitism of old is reinventing itself, sometimes disguised as hatred of Israel but also often breathtakingly crude and obvious in its approach and seemingly freed of constraints. While the abiding presence of antisemitism in the world beyond the West is almost taken as a given, much of this new growth is actually occurring in Western societies that had thought themselves to be liberal, democratic and tolerant places that had outgrown the old demons.
My fourth concern is perhaps the most evanescent and unlikeliest of the bunch to get much attention and goes to the heart of – not a future Clinton Administration – but of something greater, the crisis of authority and governance in the world today, particularly in the West.
The progressive idea that a secular liberal democratic order welded to an individualistic society driven by hedonism and consumerism is our ultimate goal and polestar is not only offensive to many people of faith worldwide, but may not actually be true or desirable or even achievable. And while we often talk about religious intolerance (one religious community attacking another, often weaker, one) and gloss over the monist intolerance of secular states, religious faith and the freedom to truly practice one’s religious life in a full and authentic way can also hold societies together, build resilience and promote unity and solidarity. Today, it seems, we are coming apart.
Our post-modern era and the states and societies that it is engendering are not traditionally religious, of course, nor is it ever the role of the United States of America to “promote” religion. But the siren song of ISIS, the resurgence of far left and far right demagogues, and the thirst for strongmen on horseback in some quarters show the relevance of ideology and of the very real need to answer those antique questions of “how should we live, what we do we really believe in, and what is my purpose in life?” These are not only religious questions but the spiritual dimension is clear.
The role of faithful people in an environment of true religious freedom is one part of an answer to these questions, whether in Beijing or Paris or Cairo, of a human need to find authenticity, integrity and purpose in life. It is one key element that a new administration gazing with foreboding at the hydra-headed challenges of a seemingly unraveling world will have to respect and keep in mind.
Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). He also serves on the board of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. He served as a US foreign service officer from 1983 to 2015, including as Chief of Mission in Sudan and Equatorial Guinea, as the State Department’s Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (2012-2015) and tours at the US Embassies in Afghanistan, Syria, Jordan, Guatemala and Kuwait.