Thomas Farr, in his recent post, links the mass protests in the Arab world, combined with the persecution of Christian minorities in the region, and what he called “the Obama administration’s striking indifference to America’s statutory policy of advancing international religious freedom.” In my view, if the Obama administration is to do anything with respect to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), it should seek to repeal it and to dismantle the whole policy and institutional structure that it entails, because this statutory policy is an insult to and betrayal of victims of human rights violations throughout the world, including Christian minorities in the Arab world.
Two recent developments provide good reason to revisit a debate that took place in these pages last year concerning the U.S. policy of advancing international religious freedom (IRF). The first is the emergence of mass protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, combined with an outbreak of severe persecution against Christian minorities in the region. The second is the Obama administration’s striking indifference to America’s statutory policy of advancing international religious freedom.
It is coincidental but telling that Emile Nakhleh’s post supporting U.S. “engagement” with Muslim communities appeared the same week as the disclosure of a new directive authorizing clandestine military operations in both friendly and unfriendly countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa. The Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, signed September 30, 2009, by General David Petraeus, aims primarily to disrupt terrorist groups and to “prepare the environment” for armed assaults. Of particular relevance to the Chicago Council Report, the Execute Order reportedly calls for using, not only special forces, but also “foreign businesspeople, academics, or others,” to “identify militants and provide ‘persistent situational awareness,’ while forging ties to local indigenous groups.”
Alongside this and numerous other recent U.S. policies, the Chicago Council Report looks increasingly futile and, in key places, wrong-headed—even if, doubtless, well-intentioned.
I have been following the contributions and “debates” on The Immanent Frame in response to the Chicago Council report. My initial reaction to the ongoing exchanges is that a) the intense interest in the report seems to indicate it has something to say; b) some of the respondents seem to read their own ideological orientation into the report, rather than read what the report really says; and c) other respondents criticize the report for, in their view, advocating a specific ideological position on religious freedom, secularism, and religion in general. The report, in my judgment, offers a pragmatic policy approach to the growing influence of religious groups in the policy realm; it is not, nor does it purport to be, a theological treatise on religion, secularism (however defined), or religious freedom.
The distinguishing feature of proselytizing is an aim that typically supervenes upon “ordinary” religious expression. It is an accompanying mental state, or maybe just the unintended effect of bearing witness to the truth of one’s faith. Proselytizing is not an observable form of distinct behavior, and so anti-proselytizing laws are quixotic and notional, or they are certain to sweep up more elemental religious expressions—teaching, preaching, worship—which are eminently deserving of protection. This is enough to establish that these laws are unjust, and no additional evaluative premises would be needed to establish that they would be deemed unconstitutional in any American court.
No doubt, some missionaries are so aggressive that they need to be restrained by just laws against forcing conversion. But, more often, the problem (where there is one) is that they are annoyingly persistent and self-righteous. These folks should be corrected and ignored; they should not be arrested. Almost all missionaries are guilty of a peculiar Original Sin, namely, they present their own cultural instantiation of the faith—Irish Catholicism, say, or Midwestern evangelicalism—as part and parcel of the gospel. This Original Sin naturally leads to unjustified criticism of local customs and folk traditions which are not incompatible with the faith.
I view my task not as that of winning points in a debate on the grounds of logical or rhetorical argumentation. I concede defeat already. No layperson could ever win a debate with an American law professor, much less with Gerry Bradley.
My task is to complicate the framework and the context of our arguments. In fact, I would like to argue for and against proselytism simultaneously, not because of indecisive avoidance, wanting to both have my cake and eat it too, but because of a recognition of the tension between two goods.
I would like to divide the rationales for and against proselytism into three groups—theological, legal-juridical, and socio-cultural—and to argue both for and against proselytism on each of these grounds.
In my opening post, I suggested that a second assumption underpinning the Chicago Report is that American foreign policy should more effectively engage with and support the “good Muslims.” In this post, I seek once again to consider the coherence and plausibility of this prescription. Is it really true that you can read people’s political behavior from their religion or culture? Again, as Mamdani asks, “Could it be that a person who takes his or her religion literally is a potential terrorist? And only someone who thinks of the text as not literal, but as metaphorical or figurative, is better suited to civic life and the tolerance it calls for? How, one may ask, does the literal reading of religious texts translate into hijacking, murder, and terrorism?”
This raises the complex question of what, in the words of Saba Mahmood, “constitutes religion and a proper religious subjectivity in the modern world,” and how such a conception relates to the language and normative structure of religious freedom in international law and politics. It is not possible here to address the details of such a complex set of issues, but let me offer just a couple of observations and lines of inquiry for future thought and discussion.
In my previous post, I suggested that one of the latent assumptions underpinning the Chicago Report is that terrorism is “religion-based,” i.e., that there is a necessary (although unexplained) causal link between Islam and Islamic extremism. In this post, I seek to consider the coherence and plausibility of this assumption.
Consider again story of the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. In using this example to illustrate American ignorance of the role of religion in acts of terrorism, the Chicago Report is curiously silent about one salient fact: that the U.S. is militarily occupying a Muslim country, which, following its earlier intervention and continuing presence in Afghanistan, it has unilaterally invaded in violation of both the UN Charter and international law. The report is similarly silent on the fact that the U.S. project of “occupation as liberation” violates the occupatio bellica (the international law of occupation), which restrains the occupant’s authority to unilaterally transform Iraq’s political order.
I read the Chicago Council Task Force Report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” as a student of the history and politics of international law. From this perspective, the report evokes Immanuel Kant’s famous denunciation of Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel in his 1795 essay Toward Perpetual Peace as the “sorry comforters” of the law of nations. For Kant, the principles and doctrines of the early modern natural lawyers not only lacked all “legal force” in restraining the belligerence of nation states, but, by appropriating the voice of international legality to the interests of power rather than right, they were ultimately apologists for such belligerence. Kant accordingly denounced these juristic advisers to historical states as “political moralists,” who, by basing their conceptions of justice on the political governance of conflicting interests in an attempt to humanize relations between warring nation-states, subordinated principles to ends and became thereby accomplices to war, imperialism, and colonialism.
Winnifred Sullivan and Elizabeth Hurd, in particular, seem to interpret the Chicago Council Report as an attempt to construct a narrow version of religious freedom as a jingoistic, American Protestant-secular hegemony grab, with undertones of neo-imperialism (or, “a particularly American style of imperialism,” as Sullivan puts it). In Hurd’s words, “Could it be the case that American exceptionalism and a particular notion of American religious freedom and American power are sacralized in this report…?” Thus, the Report’s counsel that the American national security community take religion seriously as an interpretive category and engage with religious leaders and communities as important actors is labelled the “securitization of religion.”
But attaching the “-ization” label to something, while possibly effective as a rhetorical device, is less persuasive as a substantive critique.