Religious Freedom Advocates Resemble ISIS? Really?

This past weekend a group of about 30 parliamentarians from around the world came together to sign a “Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief.”  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom played a key role in organizing the effort.

How much will such a charter matter?  It’s hard to know.  It can’t be a bad thing, though, to build an international coalition of parliamentarians for religious freedom.  It was the U.S. Congress that passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which was championed by key legislators.  Legislatures in other countries can mobilize their foreign policy makers to advocate for religious freedom around the world.

Beth Hurd, though, is not happy with the Charter.  Hurd is a fellow political scientist at Northwestern University who did much to pioneer the study of religion in international relations through her crackerjack book, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations.  But Hurd and I disagree over religious freedom, or at least over the wisdom of promoting it through foreign policy.

Monday, she published a piece in Religion Dispatches saying that the Charter will only embolden ISIS.   She continues an argument against religious freedom policy that she has been carrying on in collaboration with colleagues like Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, Indiana University’s Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, and Maryland Law School’s Peter Danchin.  The four of them have been conducting a project on (or against) religious freedom funded by the Luce Foundation.  From Hurd’s website, it looks like she is set to publish a couple of books next year with Princeton Press and Chicago Press presenting her arguments on religious freedom in extended form.  While I am impressed with Hurd’s productivity, I’ll be ready to argue with her.

In yesterday’s piece, Hurd does not mince words.  The “international religious freedom lobby,” as she calls it, “sought to capitalize on the moral panic surrounding ISIS to advance their agenda.”  She then wonders “whether it would be possible to imagine a more effective ISIS-recruitment tool than the image of a group of global parliamentarians, led by the US and the UK, poised to lead the way to civilization by instructing citizens of the Middle East on how to be religiously free.”

Hurd believes that religious freedom advocates are guilty of espousing and seeking to impose a Manichean worldview that resembles that of ISIS itself.  She pulls back from the brink: “Let’s be clear: ISIS and the IRF [International Religious Freedom] lobby cannot be equated.”  But then she goes on to say how similar the two are.  Both seek to impose a simplistic worldview that divides the world up between “us/good” and “them/bad.”  Much like the colonialists of yesteryear, religious freedom advocates carries on a “mission civilisatrice” that aims to export religious freedom to parts of the world who just don’t think in the same terms.  (In a previous post Hurd compared religious freedom advocacy to the Inquisition.)  Religious freedom advocates focus blindly on religion to the exclusion of other causes of conflict and end up reinforcing religious divisions.  Better to respect diversity and allow the rest of the world to do religion and state as it pleases.

What to make of all this?  It is worth remembering that the cause that Hurd believes to resemble that of ISIS is one that is enshrined in . . . the texts of a religion?  No.  The screeds of a fundamentalist?  No.  Try the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And numerous international law documents.  And the United Nations, which has a rapporteur for religious freedom.  And now the foreign policies of the United States, Canada, Italy, Britain, Norway, and Germany.  The basis for these efforts is the belief that religious freedom is a universal principle that safeguards the dignity of the human person with respect to his or her religious beliefs and pursuits.

But why advocate – or “lobby for,” as Hurd says – this cause now?  Quite simply, because religious freedom is violated on a vast scale in the world today.  76% of the world’s population, according to the Pew Forum, lives in a country in which religious freedom is seriously violated.  Are there many other human rights that are violated today?  Of course.  Numerous other groups of victims also have strong “lobbies” – ngos, governments, the UN – working on their behalf.  Consider the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or the outcry against torture during the administration of George W. Bush, or the network of groups fighting human trafficking.  Today’s advocates of religious freedom believe that for too long, religious freedom was ignored and so they are trying to create an architecture for this cause, too.

Does religious freedom involve a western colonialist imposition of power?  I wonder what the Bahai’s in Iran would think.  Or the Muslims in Gujurat who were massacred under the eyes of then-governor, now-prime minster of India, Narendra Modi.  Or the Ahmadi sect of Islam in Pakistan or Indonesia.  Or Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who is now on death row for allegedly insulting Islam.  Or Christians or Uighur Muslims in China.  Or – yes – the many Yazidis and Christians who were victims of ISIS, and the thousands more who would have been had not the Obama Administration intervened with bombs.  And yes, it was their religion per se that drew ISIS’s ire.  So religious freedom advocates resemble ISIS?  Really?  In almost all instances, religious freedom violations are committed against those who are manifestly disempowered – usually small minorities, and on some occasions, majorities such as the Orthodox Russians who were massacred in the millions by the Soviet government in the 1920s. Disempowerment can look like anything from murder to torture to having one’s place of worship destroyed to being imprisoned in metal shipping crates for months in the blistering Eritrean desert.  Like most human rights causes, the religious freedom movement is aimed at defending people against this sort of treatment.

Does religious freedom suppress diversity?  The whole point of religious freedom is to preserve diversity.  The right of religious freedom means that all persons and religious communities have a just claim against being coerced or interfered with in the expression and practice of their religion.  In a country with robust religious freedom, everyone’s religion is protected.  And this necessarily means all minorities as well as every individual who decides not to practice a faith at all.  Religious freedom is only justly curtailed when religious people violate other human rights; obviously there are some things that one cannot do in the name of religion.  It is hard to imagine something more conducive to diversity than religious freedom.

Are religious freedom advocates one-dimensional?  I have not met one to date who believes that violations of religious freedom are the only source of conflict or that other sources of conflict are not equally worthy of attention by foreign policy makers.  Most of us fight hard to get religious freedom on the agenda because we believe that religion and religious freedom alike were muted in American foreign policy (and that of other Western powers) for several decades during and after the Cold War.  We consider it a victory when American (or western) foreign policy makers incorporate religion into their analysis in a serious way at all or make religious freedom even one of many goals of foreign policy.

Funny, Hurd’s (again, very fine) book on secularism makes the same argument – that religion was long squeezed out by secularism in international relations, including in American foreign policy.  She argued, for instance, that a myopic secularism led the U.S. to support the Shah of Iran and helped to breed the Iranian revolution, fueled by forces that U.S. policy makers thought were fading out of history.  Exactly!  Religion matters.  And it was precisely religious freedom that was lacking in the Shah’s Iran.  And precisely his brutal secularism that gave rise to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Yet, now that people are advocating for bringing religious freedom into foreign policy, Hurd labels them Manichean zealots – resembling ISIS, no less.  Again, far from dominating the foreign policy agenda and crowding other causes and dimensions of conflict, most religious freedom advocates yearn for their cause to be anything more than one forgotten in a corner of the State Department.  Consider that even the George W. Bush administration, whose ideology one might think to have been the most conducive among recent Presidents to religious freedom, utterly subordinated this principle to the desire for stability and the war on terrorism.  When U.S. military forces occupied Afghanistan and Iraq – that is, when they exercised power in its rawest form – in both cases the U.S. begged off from insisting on religious freedom in each country’s constitution.  In other words, in those moments when U.S. policy did most resemble colonialist domination (to grant Hurd and company their argument), religious freedom was imperceptibly low on the U.S. agenda.

Does religious freedom advocacy cause division and reinforce the religious dimension of conflict?  Where is the evidence?  Can Hurd name a single place where advocacy for religious freedom has reinforced religious conflict?  Scholars like Brian Grim and Roger Finke have provided evidence for just the contrary – that it is the denial of religious freedom leads to religious violence.  My coauthors Monica Toft, Tim Shah, and I argued much the same in God’s Century.  Is there any doubt that decades of jailing thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood has led to instability and violence in Egypt – and still fuels it?  Or that father and son Asad’s religiously repressive policies in Syria bred Sunni hatred against the regime there?  Or that Saddam’s brutal suppression of Shiites in Iraq stirred up passions for revenge that, once unbottled, led to civil war and the very sectarian governance of Iraq of which ISIS now takes advantage?  Was the denial of religious freedom the only cause of conflict in these countries? Of course not; nobody has ever said that.  But religion is far more important than the traditional — and still standard — secular analysis allows.

Or maybe Hurd thinks that religious freedom is divisive in that it is opposed by, well, all those who do not accept religious freedom in other parts of the world.  But this is hardly an argument against a human rights policy.  Would she say the same for advocacy against torture or human trafficking – namely, that it should not be pursued because it stirs up the ire of the torturers or the traffickers?  Doubtless religious freedom does not conform to the values of many.  But those same many are the ones at whose hands repressed minorities yearn for diversity.

In an earlier post in Arc of the Universe, Tim Shah, developing an argument of his Georgetown colleague, Jacques Berlinerblau, presented Hurd and her colleagues with a contradiction in their thinking.  At the core of Hurd et. al.’s analysis appears to be the view that people should not impose their values on others – imposition and intolerance of diversity is the besetting sin of western advocates of religious freedom.  But if people have a just claim not to have others impose upon them and to be respected in their diversity, does this not start to look like a defense of autonomy?  Of rights to conscience?  Of freedom to practice one’s own way of life?  Of values that emerged at a great price and through great struggle in the West?  If so, then do not these core values start to look an awful lot like liberalism?  Like religious freedom?  Is not religious freedom also about protecting people against imposition, coercion, and domination?  At the heart of things, are not Hurd and colleagues presupposing exactly what they are arguing against?  On the other hand, if they want to deny this, then are they not coming awfully close to relativism with all of its familiar attendant problems?

How might Hurd and her colleagues respond to these criticisms?  A response is in order.

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Daniel Philpott

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.