A well-known Pew study estimates that over three quarters of the world’s population live in places where restrictions on religious freedom (perpetrated or tolerated by the government) are high or very high. Of course, this terrible state of affairs has been severely exacerbated by the rise of ISIS, which is unrivaled in its barbarism. It is hard to find the words to describe it, but we need to avoid looking away. At a minimum, even if we cannot do anything, we must at least keep informed of what is happening. One day when we look back and wonder why more was not done, at least none of us should dare to say, “Well, I didn’t know.” In addition to the sheer brutality of ISIS, we must appreciate the historical catastrophe that this destruction also represents. First, there is the destruction of ancient statues and temples, historical treasures gone forever. Second, and more importantly, there is the destruction of living communities of ancient pedigree, Christian, Yazidi, and other communities that persisted in Iraq for centuries or millennia before being wiped off the map by ISIS. These historical (and historic) losses do not compare to the enormous human tragedy brought about by ISIS’s rapacious and murderous advance, but neither must they be overlooked.
Naturally, all of this bad news demands a response. This is one of the great questions of our day: What is to be done? Or, why is more not being done? Many call for action but decry military intervention. Many lament the disappearance of ancient communities but (understandably) support resettlement efforts that, incidentally, mean their permanent extinction. Unfortunately, I am not an optimistic about the prospects for corrective action to the grave violations of religious freedom by ISIS and others. Instead, let me briefly outline some of the institutional and political challenges facing those who wish to respond.
By “institutional challenges” I mean a lack of tools to do the job. For example, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, on which I serve [though these comments reflect my own views only], has a system for recommending offending countries for designation by the State Department as “countries of particular concern.” So designated, countries are sanctioned or face other appropriate measures mandated by the legislation. But this works only when there is a state to sanction or with which to enter into a binding agreement. This does not work for non-state actors such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria or Boko Haram in Nigeria, to which regular diplomatic measures cannot be applied. Similarly, in states, such as the Central African Republic, that are essentially failed states, it is hard to apply the standard model. This is why USCIRF has called for a new designation to be developed for addressing non-state actors and failed states—though we have no illusions about how tough it will be to give that designation bite. (Even with states, we face the problem of giving our designations bite. The executive branch has many options for what amounts to inaction, even when it does make a designation.)
Another institutional problem is the inability to deal with the nearly unprecedented refugee crisis and the difficulty of dealing with such a problem even with the best intentions and best policies. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees recently put the number of refugees at almost sixty million, a staggering figure that represents a high water mark for the postwar era. The gripping stories and photos of boat people highlight the quandary that this represents. On one hand, we must protect the right of people to flee persecution. On the other hand, we must ensure that people are not driven into these unsafe and often fatal conditions, for their own safety and for the sake of not abetting the bad behavior of regimes that are only too happy to see unwanted populations leave. Though these problems are persistent in the refugee issue, they were easier to handle when the scale of the crisis was more “manageable.”
The other set of challenges is political, by which I mean a lack of will to address the dire situation for international religious freedom. Above all, there is little appetite for military action, which may in the end be the only option for sparing millions from the ravages of ISIS. Even with great political support, a military operation against ISIS might be complicated to execute, but that is a moot point if “boots on the ground” is off the table. In addition, the continuing economic woes of the West mean that fewer financial resources are available, whether for funding military action or humanitarian aid. More deeply, with respect to refugees, the unraveling of the European welfare state and its consistent failure to assimilate and integrate new immigrants translate into a diminishing willingness to welcome refugees—and that is to say nothing of the concern of terrorism from those admitted among the migrants. In the United States, the acceptance of refugees has been swallowed into a larger, highly-charged debate over immigration that has little to do with those fleeing religious persecution.
The most important political theme underlying the decline of international religious freedom is America’s retreat from the world and the growing prospect of a post-American order. We have been the world’s lone superpower long enough that we can take for granted the current balance of power. But we must think carefully about what the world will look like as countries like China, Russia, and Iran go increasingly unchecked by America.
So what can be done? Specific solutions to these problems will have to be hammered out, but let me touch on two broad points, one concerning internal affairs and one concerning external affairs. For domestic politics, we need to keep making the case that fighting for religious freedom is not just good ethics but good policy. There is more and more social science that shows that societies with more religious freedom do better across a range of measures. That is, our values and our national interest coincide, not just because our good values are worthy for their own sake but also because our values and our national interest coincide in practice. This is why America ought to remain invested in—indeed, redouble its commitment to—international religious freedom in its foreign policy.
With regard to foreign affairs, we need to convey the message that freedom is the solution, not the problem. In the past half-year or so, I have been to Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam for religious freedom work. Probably the most common theme in our conversations with government officials is the need for restrictions, or what I’d call oppression, in the name of stability or security. They think—or at least they say—that freedom threatens the unity and harmony of their society. If you let people do what they want, who knows what will happen? But they have it backwards. Denying people religious freedom creates resentment and resistance that threatens stability. For the most part, people just want to be left alone. A free people is a happy people and quite likely a people far more dedicated to the well-being of their country than its oppressed counterparts. Freedom is the solution, not the problem.