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It’s time to de-emphasize religion in US foreign policy

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Religious freedom as a political ideal has enjoyed the support of many Americans and members of Congress. Yet, elevating religion above other factors in foreign policy risks doing damage to the cause of religious diversity and tolerance. The best way to support religious tolerance abroad is to step back from religious freedom as a guiding principle in favor of justice, equality and respect for diversity. 

Here are three examples of why this is the case, and four recommendations for U.S. policy:

First, religious freedom is often mobilized in ways that deepen social divisions and increase the risk of conflict. It encourages people to base political claims on religious identity. This aggravates, rather than calms, sectarian tensions by drawing a line under one’s religious identity as the factor that trumps all others. In Syria, for example, foregrounding religion as the determinant factor in the war meant that being Christian or Muslim, or Sunni or Alawite, often became more important than being pro- or anti-regime, or pro- or anti-democracy. We lose sight of the big picture.

This has a potent impact on how we interpret world affairs. For example, many claim the Rohingya in Myanmar are persecuted because they are Muslim, that religious intolerance is motivating the violence and that the solution is religious freedom. In fact, the Rohingya are caught in an intricate web of oppression, with aspects that are ethnic, racial, economic, religious, post-colonial and state-sponsored. To single out their Muslim identity as the central problem blinds us to this broader field. It fixes the idea of the Rohingya as persecuted Muslims, rather than as Burmese citizens or as humans with multiple affiliations. 

And yet, given that there is a religious element to the violence, why not support religious freedom for the Rohingya, among other freedoms? The answer is that such advocacy reinforces the hard lines dividing Muslims from Buddhists — the same lines on which violent Burmese extremists (including elements of the state) depend to propagate the violence. To prioritize religion inadvertently reinforces a violent Buddhist nationalism that seeks to rid Burma of Muslims altogether. Rather than sapping these forces, politicizing religious identity actually strengthens them. Instead, U.S. policymakers should ask: Are the Rohingya being killed because of their religion, because they’re seen as immigrants or outsiders, because they’re perceived as threatening the political and economic interests of the former Burmese junta, or all of the above? 

Second, religious freedom privileges the right to believe at the expense of others ways of being religious. Practice-based, land-based, and other non-belief-based affinities are not protected. The result is less space for religious diversity on the ground. 

A case in point is the K’iche’ people of Guatemala. In 2010, plebiscite 87 Maya communities in the department of El Quiché, represented by the K’iche’ People’s Council (CPK, in Spanish), unanimously and democratically rejected the mining and hydroelectric projects proposed for Guatemala in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other treaties. Foreign commercial companies responded to those rejections with offers to reward the CPK with a higher percentage of profits, failing to understand, as Dianne Post points out, that “the reason these projects were rejected is not monetary but is linked to the refusal to allow destruction of the earth for religious and cultural reasons.” The CPK’s refusal to acquiesce in these projects has led to discrimination and violence, including assassination attempts against activists and massive violations of K’iche’ cultural heritage and land rights facilitated by collusion among multinational mining corporations, the police and the Guatemalan state.

And yet, in 2012, the State Department reported “no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice” in Guatemala. K’iche’ attachment to the land does not qualify for international religious freedom protections. Their claims are ignored because, in an important sense, they are perceived as having no recognizable religion. Violations of K’iche’ religious-cultural heritage are literally invisible because religious freedom privileges a right to belief.

Third, to define religious freedom requires defining religion. This is not the job of the government. Examples of government repression are often cited to establish a need for religious freedom initiatives. For instance, in what is known as the Maspero massacre, in October 2011, the Egyptian military attacked peaceful protesters demanding rights for Coptic Christian citizens. At least 25 people were killed and 300 injured. 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. 

The U.S. prides itself on a long tradition of freedom and disestablishment. Defining religion is not the government’s job. This is also the case in foreign policy. To put the government in charge of these matters silences those who cannot speak in a politically legible “religious” register. It creates divisions between religion, non-religion, and the rest of the world’s practices — including those considered sacred to the communities involved but that don’t count as religious for the U.S. government. Examples are Indigenous practices and other religions that are out of political favor with parts of the government, including Islam and, in the not-so-distant past, Catholicism

So, what can the architects of U.S. foreign policy do?

  1. Do not make conflict worse by reducing it to religion. The U.S. should refrain from naming religion or religious difference as the natural or presumed cause of conflict. Take a comprehensive approach that accounts for economic, social, caste, public health, geographic, gender, educational and environmental concerns, in addition to religious ones. 
  2. Consider privileging justice, equality and respect for diversity, rather than religion and religious freedom in U.S. policy. Direct American resources to securing equality, economic justice, a free media, an independent judiciary, environmental security, and the rights of marginalized communities whether defined on religious, racial, ethnic, gender  or other grounds. 
  3. Work with all local groups and do not privilege religious leaders over others. Be careful to ensure that dissenting and grassroots communities that are not able to speak as religions are not ignored.
  4. De-politicize religion as a gesture of respect. To step back from religion as a focus in our foreign policy is neither to ignore nor to denigrate it. It is to respect the role and variety of religious authorities and traditions in social and political life. Such respect requires that the government tread lightly. 

Imposing American versions of religious freedom abroad is not guaranteed to secure respect for religious diversity. It threatens it.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is a professor of political science and religious studies at Northwestern University, where she is also Crown Chair in Middle East Studies. She is the author of “Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion.”

Tags Freedom of religion Islam religious tolerance Rohingya Genocide US foreign policy

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