Although the state of international religious freedom gives us plenty of reason for pessimism, I’d like to offer one glimmer of optimism. From my work I already know that this will be controversial with some, and I’m genuinely eager to hear varying perspectives. Moreover, I know this will sound like it is coming out of left field when everyone is so focused on the Middle East (understandably), but the glimmer of optimism to which I refer is: Indonesia. Though I knew it intellectually, I had to go to Indonesia to truly be struck by the fact that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, containing more Muslims than in all of Arabia. And the dominant Islam of Indonesia is a moderate, pluralistic Islam. I began to imagine what it would look like if the face of worldwide Islam were the Islam of the great archipelago instead of the Islam of the Saudi Wahhabis. And then I began to wonder why it wasn’t. Indonesians are reputedly modest, unassuming, even demure, but it was hard for me to believe that these personal traits carried over into international politics. But, indeed, Indonesia does not assert itself too strongly in the so-called Muslim world, instead following the consensus at the OIC and elsewhere. Nor does it have the economic might to fund mosques and madrassas all over the world the way the Saudis do. And it lacks the worldwide influence that comes with large stores of oil. But American foreign policy experts might do well to begin thinking about how the country of our president’s childhood could be more assertive on the international stage, promoting a form of Islam suitable for the modern world. I do not suggest this as a panacea, nor do I for a moment suggest that Islam presents the only problem for international religious freedom—there are extremist Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma, and godless communists in China all lined up together—but the ascendance of Indonesia would be a remarkable development.
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.
A few weeks ago, I participated in an event at the American Enterprise Institute called “Edge of Extinction: The Eradication of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iraq.” (Video and a description of the event are here.) Our panel discussion was headlined by former longtime-congressman Frank Wolf, whose new group, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, recently traveled to Iraq and published a report of its findings. The report (which can be downloaded here) covers both the world-historical scope of the tragedy, including the destruction of ancient communities of Christians and others, and the acute suffering of the victims of ISIS’s unimaginable barbarism. It tells of virgins being sold for twenty dollars and of women being separated by eye color so that their ravagers can select according to their preferences.
The report contains recommendations for protecting and restoring these communities of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, and they are all worthy of consideration. But, as I said in my remarks, the sad reality is that very few of these people are going home. We have the military capability to defeat ISIS but probably not the political will. If so, the best we can hope for is successful resettlement. That is to say, the damage can be mitigated, but, in many respects, it is irreversible. So, for us, it is another hard lesson from history about evil, genocide, and the precariousness of religious freedom and human rights.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which I serve, released its 2015 annual report today, along with an introductory video. As anyone following the news this part year knows, the state of religious freedom in the world is not good. It is worth thinking carefully about what can be done (and what can be done by the US in particular) about this tragic state of affairs, and the report offers specific recommendations for US policy.
As the press release notes:
USCIRF, in its role as an independent U.S. federal government advisory body, recommends that the State Department add eight more nations to its list of “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated. These countries are:
Central African Republic (first time recommendation)
USCIRF also recommends that the State Department redesignate as CPCs the following nine countries and take additional actions to promote religious freedom:
Along with recommending CPC designations, USCIRF also places 10 countries on its 2015 “Tier 2” list, a Commission designation for governments that engage in or tolerate violations that are serious but not CPC-level. USCIRF urges increased U.S. government attention to the following countries:
The USCIRF Report also highlights religious freedom concerns in countries that do not meet Tier 1 (CPC) or Tier 2 thresholds, but should also be the focus of concern. These countries are:
This week, Jews the world over celebrate the holiday of Passover. There’s a curious detail in the Passover story, the story of the Exodus, that is largely overlooked though it is well noticed by the rabbinic commentators. Before Moses makes his famous demand of Pharaoh—“let my people go”—he requests that Pharaoh grant the Israelites a three-day sojourn in the wilderness to go worship God. This is a strange request; we, the readers, know that God intends to take His people out of Egypt for good, not just for three days. Is Moses lying? If so, Pharaoh is wise to his trick because Pharaoh suggests that the men go on the prayer retreat and leave the women and children behind, thus ensuring the men will return. And even if Pharaoh did let them all go, to where exactly would they escape? Pharaoh could simply send his army to round them up, as he attempted during the real Exodus. Only a great and completely unanticipated miracle prevented the runaway slaves from being trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. So why the request (what good could it do), and why the refusal (what harm could it do)?
In America, we sometimes refer to religious freedom as the “first freedom.” For one thing, religious freedom is the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights. But religious freedom is the first freedom in a deeper sense as well. The idea of religious freedom is where we first learn, conceptually and perhaps historically as well, the in-principle limits on the power of the state. The commands of a higher power mark out a realm of existence that is beyond the authority of the state. The state cannot rightly dictate how to act with respect to those obligations, nor can the state countermand them. Religious freedom teaches us that our lives never belong wholly to the state. Once we establish that fact, we open the door to consideration of the full panoply of human rights and of the limits of the state. For Pharaoh to acquiesce in Moses’s request for three days of worship in the wilderness would be to acknowledge that the Israelites were not ultimately subjects of the Egyptian god-king but of the transcendent God-King.
Though I am not an historian, I imagine that this is a significant feature of the enormous revolution that the Bible brought to the world. In the pagan world, a world in which the gods were the gods of the city, the state claimed everything for itself. To oppose the political order or the ruler was sacrilege. And then there came a time to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s but also to render unto God what was God’s. We would do well in our own time to remember the centrality of religious freedom not just for its own sake but also for its role in undergirding all of our rights.
Before I move on to other topics, I wanted to provide an update on Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to a thousand lashes for his criticism of the political and religious establishment in his country. Following the offer by seven of us on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to take a hundred lashes each on his behalf, by popular demand we also launched a site for people all around the world to sign up to take a lash (symbolically, at least) as well. Once that petition surpassed a thousand signatories, we sent a followup letter to the Saudi ambassador in Washington reiterating our stance and encouraging his government to take note of the worldwide support for the beleaguered victim. You can read the letter and petition here.
Since the first installment of the lashings (meant to be fifty a week for twenty weeks), there has been a series of postponements, so Raif Badawi has been spared further brutality–thus far. The question, of course, is what happens next. No one really knows, except that the intense international pressure (for which we are only partly responsible, to be sure) does seem to have convinced the Saudi government that it cannot go ahead with the intended barbarism. This is just the effect we hoped for, but it’s a tricky thing: Intense pressure is necessary to sway the government, but the government–especially under a new king–surely wants to avoid appearing to have bowed to international pressure. So then it becomes a matter of how, or whether, the government can find a face-saving way to back down. There was a glimmer of hope when the case was referred back to court, an odd (and therefore perhaps promising) development given that Badawi had already been sentenced and his punishment already begun. That optimism was dashed when it was reported that the referral of his case back to court meant that the apostasy charge, which carries the death penalty and which had previously been thrown out by a higher judge, could be back on the table. Fortunately, some politicians, including in Quebec, where Badawi’s family now lives, are keeping up the pressure; it is clearly bothering the Saudis. One hopes that they will soon capitulate and perhaps release him to Canada, even if they have to do it without ever admitted they were wrong. One also hopes that the international community can sustain the attention necessary to see this injustice brought to an end.
Six of my colleagues on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and I have been very gratified by the outpouring of support and prayers following the release of our letter to the Saudi ambassador, which I wrote about here, concerning the case of Raif Badawi, the blogger sentenced to a thousand lashes. We’ve been especially amazed by all the people who have called and written to ask how they can join us in solidarity and offer to take a lash for Badawi as well. While we can be fairly certain the Saudi government won’t give a thousand people one lash each instead of lashing Badawi, the gesture of so many standing together for freedom of religion and freedom of speech–for justice, really–is deeply important. Those who wish to add their name can do so here:
Another frequent question I’ve heard is why we chose to take up this particular case among the far-too-many atrocities around the world. I wrote a bit about that this week in US News & World Report here.
Yesterday, I joined six of my colleagues on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in an open letter (see below) to the Saudi ambassador in Washington concerning the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who is being punished for expressing dissenting views on religion and politics. He was originally sentenced to seven years in prison and six hundred lashes. On appeal, his sentence was raised to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes, as well as a hefty fine of one million riyal, the Saudi currency. (A freelance writer has a good summary of the case and a roundup of news links here.) The lashing, which began a couple of weeks ago, is to be carried out in installments of fifty lashes, each Friday for twenty weeks. (The UK’s Daily Mail covered the first round of the beatings here.) Round two of beatings, to be held this past Friday, was delayed because he had not healed sufficiently from the first week’s beatings to withstand another one quite so soon. I suppose the authorities might find themselves a bit red-faced if he died before they had barely gotten started, but some observers think there is a good chance this will kill him before it’s over in any case.
In the letter to the Saudi ambassador, the seven of us call on his government to halt this brutal, unjust punishment, and, failing that, we offer to each take one hundred of the lashes. When this idea was originally floated, my first thought was that I was too scared (cowardly?) to sign on. My second, more comforting thought was that the Saudis would never call our bluff, as it were, so it was a safe gamble in our attempt to bring enough negative attention to the case that they might reconsider their cruelty. (There’s also a slim hope that the publicity will move President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who are understandably embarrassed at the absence of high-level US officials from the recent, massive rally in France—where, by the way, many carried #IAmRaif placards—to involve themselves in this matter.) My third thought, though, was that I should not sign the letter unless I was genuinely committed to taking the lashes if the Saudis took us up on our offer. Especially in light of the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day earlier this week, I’ve been thinking what it means to sacrifice for others, to go to the Cross, as some might say, in the fight for justice. Similarly, for those who believe it is something to be emulated and not just admired, what does it mean to say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”? What is our responsibility for this man who is suffering for nothing more than exercising his freedom of speech and freedom of religion?
PDF version of our letter: Standing in Solidarity with Raif Badawi
(Worryingly, the website of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, led by one of the signatories, went down right after posting the letter. I’m told that signs point to a cyberattack, but I don’t know more.)