Religious Freedom Promotion and its Discontents

A month ago, the U.S. Congress appointed Prof. Robert George and Dr. Zuhdi Jasser to serve as the new commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Speaker Boehner appointed George while Senator McConnell appointed Jasser. (The appointments were not without some controversy. An online petition against their appointments made the rounds accusing both of anti-Muslim bias through their organizational affiliations.) It still surprises me that the statute creating the USCIRF remains unknown to many Americans today. According to its website, the USCIRF “monitors and advocates for religious freedom abroad wherever that right is being abused. USCIRF also offers policy solutions to improve conditions at the critical juncture of foreign policy, national security and international religious freedom standards.” The Commission almost closed shop – it was given a last-minute reauthorization December 16 of last year by Congress and its mandate was extended up to 2018. Interestingly, there is a separate Office for International Religious Freedom within the State Department. The difference between the two is that the USCIRF is an independent federal government entity while the other works within the institutional framework of the State department. In any case, Canada, apparently the new constitutional powerhouse of the world, must think this office is a pretty good idea. Last January, the Conservative government announced the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom within the Canadian Foreign Ministry which would probably use its American counterpart as a model of sorts.

In this last post (thanks Mark and Marc for the guest stint!), I want to talk a bit about the history and implications of these official religious freedom promotion activities. Religious freedom has always occupied a special place in the pantheon of American freedoms. But the origins of this office are much more recent than what an ordinary observer might think. To be sure, this pair of offices was created by an enabling legislation enacted only in 1998, but its antecedents date earlier than that, specifically to the middle period of the Cold War. As argued by Samuel Moyn in his 2010 book, human rights rhetoric exploded in the international scene only in the 1970s. Part of my research takes a closer look at this influential decade and focuses on the role of religious freedom in helping spark this explosion. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, an awakened congressional human rights consciousness resulted in an intense confrontation between a Congress determined to inject morality into foreign affairs and an Executive bent on maintain peaceful international relations at whatever cost. What was striking during this process was the birth of an institutionalized global shaming process that was intended to undermine the thawing of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. An unprecedented composition made up of members from the executive and legislative branches of government (Kissinger threw a fit over this), annual country reports, witness testimonies and monitoring activities: all these pieces which would become key components of the USCIRF and its State department counterpart were created and tested during the tumultuous decade of the 1970s.

The biggest breakthrough of course was the emergence of the idea that human rights were now a matter of international concern, surprisingly a radical proposition notwithstanding the issuance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It did succeed in undermining the iron grip of the Soviet Union over its sphere of influence, and it is by now trite to say that the human rights idea contributed enormously in the eventual demise of Communism as a viable political ideology. At that time, what we meant by human rights was usually rights to religious freedom -there were other rights as well, e.g. right of emigration-  but by and large, religious persecution, then as now, always manages to easily capture American public attention. There are several reasons for that. Aside from its place in American history, the inevitable Communist antipathy against religion made persecutions visibly and easily measured. It also readily mobilized diverse sections of American society at a time of the rise of ethnic consciousness in the United States. Back then, Soviet authorities often countered that human rights were internal affairs, today; however, the main problem associated with religious freedom promotion, either by itself or as part of a broader project of human rights advocacy, is not that they are internal affairs but that the motives behind such promotion activities are almost always suspect from the beginning.

As some of the current work on the law and politics of religious freedom shows, the overwhelming critique is the project’s anti-Western bias. Some critics call it a modern incarnation of imperialistic tendencies.  While there is some truth to that, I have tried to hint at in my previous posts that the fact that we could ascribe many meanings to the idea of religious freedom opens the way for us to get past these debates on cultural relativism or imperialistic universalism. If we know that our understandings of religious freedom are products of historicity and contingency, we also know that we are free to remake it in a way that enables everyone, Western or not, to participate and contribute to a common understanding. That might be wishful thinking at the moment, and perhaps it will be for a period of time. But perhaps this is one thing that these official religious freedom promotion activities could cover under their respective mandates, not only to incorporate the promotion of religious freedom as part of U.S. (or Canadian) foreign policy, but also to facilitate an external dialogue of what religious freedom as codified in international legal instruments might mean. After all, there is no dispute that this freedom is protected under international law, but what it actually means, might vary from place to place. We’ve come a long way from our understanding of human rights as a Cold War weapon against a communist dictatorship. What we are left with now are simply human rights, not as a weapon against anybody, but as an ideal the fulfillment of which is yet to be realized in many places. Perhaps that is a more difficult thing to achieve.

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