Contending analyses of a controversial facet of U.S. foreign policy.
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.Read Arab and American revolutions in history.
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.Read Where lies wisdom, where folly?.
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.Read Engagement for whose good?.
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.Read Engagement for the common good.
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.Read Proselytism and religious freedom.
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.Read For and against proselytism.
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.Read Good Muslim, bad Muslim.
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.Read Islam and terrorism.
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.Read “Sorry comforters” and the new Natural Law.
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.Read A valuation of religious freedom.
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.Read The global 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.Read The extra-territorial establishment of religion.
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.Read Government, civil society, and religious freedom.
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.Read Words for a faithful world.
“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.Read The wages of engagement.
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.Read Beware the unstated assumptions.
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.Read “Good Intentions” alone are not good enough!.
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.Read “Religious freedom” and its critics.