Don't Forget Religious Freedom

 
 

To practice what he preaches, to respect laws passed by Congress, and to support Muslims who advocate for peaceful pluralism, President Obama needs to take action in support of religious freedom. Here are specific suggestions to move this effort forward.

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While in China this week, President Obama said, “freedom of expression and worship…should be available to all people...” Yet one might question his administration’s seriousness about freedom of worship when one considers its track record so far on religious freedom.

Ten months have passed since the inauguration of President Obama for a four-year term. However, President Obama has not so much as even nominated a candidate to fill the vacant position of U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research indicates that religious freedom appears to be a positive factor in enabling societies to be prosperous and stable, and individuals to be happy. The 2009 Legatum Prosperity Index, which ranks countries on how well they support combined factors of wealth and human well-being, found that countries that attain well-rounded success – economic prosperity and happy citizens – treat a bundle of freedoms all together like a prix fixe meal, not like a pick-and-choose visit to a cafeteria. "Freedom,” according to a key finding of the report, “cannot be divided. While some nations seek to allow one aspect of freedom while restricting other aspects, prosperous nations respect freedom in all of its dimensions: economic, political, religious, and personal." Also, "The highest levels of overall life satisfaction are reported in countries which score best in the areas of health, safety, personal freedom, and social capital." So, Finland, which offers economic, political, religious, and political freedom comes out on top, while by contrast Saudi Arabia, a foe of religious freedom if there ever was one, may have monetary wealth but scores in the lowest quartile of human prosperity (81st out of 104) when considering well-rounded human flourishing.

In 1998, Congress enacted the International Religious Freedom Act establishing and requiring appointment of an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and creating an Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) in the State Department.

Yet, in this effort to advance religious freedom the State Department’s IRF office faces several challenges. To begin with, it is structurally and culturally isolated inside the State Department bureaucracy. Outside of the IRF office itself, the Department of State IRF Fan Club is, alas, not vast. To correct this, the IRF office needs to establish long-term working partnerships with other sections in the State Department, such as Public Diplomacy, in order to extend integration of religious freedom into U.S. foreign engagement.

In addition, the IRF office needs to increase awareness inside the State Department about the positive contributions of religious freedom to human well-being. The nearly exclusive focus of the IRF office on highlighting and seeking short-term intervention in cases of religious persecution and oppression has led some in the powerful regional bureaus of the State Department to flee the moment they see IRF staff coming. The IRF office would do well to expand its efforts to highlight and expand programs supporting the advantages offered by religious freedom, so that the regional bureaus will pursue rather than repel IRF engagement.

This is not just a matter of promoting a nice-sounding ideal to make the world a better place. There is also a national security imperative in supporting religious freedom. At a time when Muslims who advocate for peaceful pluralism face crushing censorship and devastating intimidation in many volatile areas of the world such as Egypt, creating and protecting freedom for constructive Muslim voices to participate freely and vigorously in public discussion is vital.

Support for religious freedom needs to be “translated” into concrete steps forward.

The area which offers the most potential for fruitful expansion is more robust incorporation of religious freedom into U.S. public diplomacy. Public diplomacy, the Cinderella of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since the abolition of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, is an underfunded and underestimated asset in our foreign engagement toolbox—including for advancement of international religious freedom. And other U.S. government-funded foreign engagement efforts also could be potentially fruitful allies for expanding religious freedom.

To its credit, Department of State Public Diplomacy has some efforts related to religious freedom. So too, though on an even lesser scale, with the radio and television programs of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, these tend to be sporadic at best, and at any rate not a priority or an area with long-term dedicated funding and staff.

With an eye to concrete action, I would like to suggest some avenues for supporting religious freedom. No one of these ideas is a “silver bullet.” Rather, these suggestions are meant encourage creative thinking about ways to foster engagement with Muslim and other voices on multiple fronts, leveraging already existing programs in the U.S. government. Perhaps this may spark other ideas in both foreign policy circles and the private sector that will expand religious freedom.

1. Book translations. The Department of State’s Public Diplomacy Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) office facilitates translation and publication of American books overseas. Fund an effort to include books about religious freedom in the IIP Book Program. This could include American books by Muslims about religious freedom. But don’t just print paper books; make the translated books available online in both text and audio versions.

2. Speakers Bureau. The Speakers Bureau run by the Department of State Public Diplomacy sends Americans overseas to engage foreign audiences. Establish long-term funding and develop a Speakers Bureau program dedicated to sending experts on religious freedom and religious leaders with experience in religious freedom issues overseas.

3. Exchange programs. Expand access to exchange programs offered by State Department Public Diplomacy Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) for religious leaders, seminary students, academics, and others with an interest in religious freedom so they can participate in foreign exchange programs.

4. International visitor programs. Boost the budget of ECA in order to enable ECA collaboration with the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom to bring academics, civic leaders, seminary students, and religious leaders to the U.S. to learn about what religious freedom is and how it benefits society at large in the U.S.

5. Films. The American Film Program of ECA lists support for, among other values, religious freedom. Collaboration with the IRF office and dedicated funding could expand this effort, for example supporting the dubbing and subtitling of films about religious freedom into key foreign languages. This should not be limited to documentaries; include feature films.

6. Polling. Understanding perceptions and misperceptions of foreign populations regarding religious freedom is essential if one wants to identify hurdles as well as opportunities in the expansion of religious freedom. When we say, “religious freedom,” what do people in Egypt, China, and Iran think this means? Which aspects of religious freedom are least understood in key target audiences? Understanding this would help us best determine how to use limited resources wisely in promoting religious freedom.

7. Radio and television. Provide funding specifically for programming about religious freedom on the radio and in television broadcasts, such as Voice of America and Al-Hurra, funded by U.S. tax payers, overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

8. Arts. Develop a Religious Freedom and the Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts which would support development, translation, and distribution of creative media, such as plays and novels, that explore the role of religious freedom, and the social consequences of the lack thereof. To begin with, translate Akbar Ahmed’s play The Trial of Dara Shikoh and the novel The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout into Arabic and other languages.

9.  USAID. Expand USAID support for inclusion of religious freedom promotion in development projects, and establish long-term mechanisms for collaboration between USAID and the IRF office.

10.  U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Designate funding for collaboration between IRF and USIP to examine and foster ways in which protection of religious freedom can support peace and stability.

On Thursday, November 19, the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, part of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, plans to hold a hearing on, “The State of Political and Religious Freedom in the Middle East”. Hopefully Congress will support not only the Congressionally mandated Office of International Religious Freedom, but also a variety of other efforts to expand religious freedom.

As for President Obama, the clock is ticking. He has only three years and two months left before this term is up. If his administration is to make a difference for religious freedom, he needs to appoint an ambassador for religious freedom. The president will need to move quickly to set attainable goals to support international religious freedom and stand behind implementation of them before the window of opportunity in this term of the Obama administration ends.

Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project. She is a contributor to Public Discourse.

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