My first thought upon reading the Chicago Council’s report “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy” is that the title is misleading. This report is not about engaging religious communities abroad—one hears little if at all from such communities—nor does it say anything particularly new. There is, however, an imperative. This report is an attempt to create a particular kind of world, one defined by the projection of American power—a certain kind of religious power. The report, as Winni Sullivan observes in her companion piece, endorses an establishmentarian position in American foreign policy, meaning that American policy could discriminate among religions and fund and promote religious activities that meet with U.S. government approval. This is a different kind of religious power than what Sullivan describes as the “periodic and not altogether successful efforts” at disestablishment that we have undertaken at home. Assuming that we agree with Sullivan, as I do, that “established religion is by definition not accepting of ‘pluralism, freedom, and democracy,’” it becomes clear that this report is not about engaging religious communities to promote either religious freedom or democracy. It is about the projection of American power through the securitization of religion.
There is an embarrassing giddiness in the religious studies world today. With our new mantra in hand—the new “salience” of religion—we, both scholars of religion and other self-appointed spokespersons for religion, feel licensed to instruct the world on the importance of religion. We are suddenly relevant again. Or so we think.
If there is an opportunity for religious studies today, and my own view is increasingly that this is an opportunity more for listening than for speaking, the Chicago Report suggests the likelihood that this opportunity will be misunderstood and misused. Religion today is an immensely complex phenomenon. And there are many who speak in its name. It is far from clear that there is any sense in which generalizing about religion is useful as a political matter—or, for that matter, that the United States government should be spearheading a new reformation.
Should the U.S. government employ American civil society to engage religious communities overseas in promotion of a “religious freedom agenda”? Scott Appleby, the Chicago Council’s Task Force Report (TFR), and the Obama administration think so. But there are serious problems with NGOs playing this role, either as an express supplement to, or possibly a covert screen for, U.S. foreign policy. First, it is worth emphasizing a point that might be lost in proposing such a “new” approach: civil society has autonomously done this for centuries. Beyond missionary groups’ traditional activities, both religious and secular NGOs have long engaged with overseas communities on political issues related to religion. Witness generations-old activism over foot-binding in China, female genital cutting in Kenya, and freedom of belief around the world.
What fascinates me most about these religious freedom conversations—within the U.S. and between America and the world—are the words we use. Some words, even with the very best of intentions, mean very different things to different audiences. Assuming we have been careful about our diction, what “we” say nevertheless is often not what “they” hear, and vice-versa. For example, I don’t like the term “secularism.” It rings of laïcité, which perhaps works for the French, but is certainly not germane to the American experience. Meanwhile, for my Muslim friends, “secularism” suggests a godless society—something inconceivable to them, and, for that matter, to me. … Here’s another term that is more complicated than it seems: “Cairo Speech.” I was in Pakistan recently, and a thoughtful person told me that he was tired of Cairo speeches. Between Condoleezza Rice’s speech there in 2005, which I had forgotten about, and Barack Obama’s speech in 2009, nothing had fundamentally changed.
“Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy” is an ambitious, thoughtful, and thought-provoking report that makes for necessary reading. Public discussions of religion are always difficult, and any attempt to forge a path for the United States to engage religion in world affairs is destined to leave controversy in its wake. Accordingly, the authors deserve considerable credit for confronting a cluster of hot-button issues—and, moreover, for doing so through a comprehensive and wide-ranging dialogue that included a broad spectrum of opinions. This report should be debated and discussed, not necessarily because it answers the difficult questions to everyone’s satisfaction, but rather because it confronts the difficult questions and tries, with honesty and integrity, to propose possible solutions. I was a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy that informed the report, and, while I proudly associate myself with it, there are two issues that worry me.
I applaud the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ call for the U.S. government to recognize the pivotal role of religion in societies around the world and to engage religious communities in pursuit of American foreign policy objectives. The Council’s Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy wisely recommends mandating diplomatic training in religious literacy to address the striking ignorance that often leads to foreign policy blunders and missed opportunities. The tensions within the Task Force, which Scott Appleby recounts, actually illustrate the misconceptions that bedevil what, by law and interest, should be a central thrust of engagement: the promotion of religious freedom as a universal human right. As one who closely observed the process that produced the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, I can counter a number of such misconceptions.
As I see it, the issue with “religious freedom” is not whether it should be upheld everywhere, but how and by whom. While I am in agreement with some of what Scott Appleby says of the Task Force Report of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I would challenge some of the conclusions and recommendations of the report as presented by Appleby, without going into discussion of the Report itself. The premise of my comments is that the government of the United States does have a pivotal role in upholding all human rights—not only freedom of religion—through all facets of its own foreign policy. But it should do so as a participant in a global joint-venture, instead of assuming the “White Man’s burden” of civilizing the rest of humanity. Religious freedom can neither be advanced in isolation of other fundamental human rights nor sustained by imperial imposition.
During his landmark address to the world, delivered in Cairo last June, President Obama proposed to open a new era of engagement with “Muslim communities”—engagement, that is, not just with Muslim states or regimes, but also with other economically and politically influential social sectors, including religious groups, educational institutions, civic organizations, health care institutions, and youth affiliations. In the hopes of accelerating the process of rethinking America’s attitude toward the Muslim word, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has issued a Task Force Report (TFR), entitled “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” Our hope is to build on the president’s ideas and explain why they apply not only to Islamic communities, but to religious communities more generally.