“Alongside every religion lies a political opinion which is linked to it by affinity,” wrote Tocqueville. The religious motivation of political forces, not least in the world’s conflict zones, is one reason why the incoming U.S. administration must integrate issues of religious freedom into foreign policy in the areas of democracy promotion, counter terrorism, and public diplomacy, a new book argues.
“Religion is seldom a purely private matter,” writes Thomas F. Farr, visiting professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, as people “draw on their religious beliefs to shape the laws and policies under which they live their lives.”
The new administration should reinstate the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, and appoint an individual “capable of mainstreaming this issue into democracy promotion, counter-terrorism and public diplomacy”, Farr suggests.
“In the 21st century the challenge for American policy is to help shape the religion-state relationship in key countries — such as Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Russia, and China — so that religious ideas and actors are accommodated to the public good,” he contends.
The National Endowment for Democracy and its affiliates have done excellent work in seeding democracy, and assisting groups cultivating the “civil society of those voluntary associations and non-governmental organizations that teach citizens the habits and the virtues that democracy needs.” But religious freedom should also figure more largely in the work of democracy assistance groups, he says.
“We have got to include religious freedom in the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the USAID, and all of our democracy promotion efforts,” he writes. “We’ve got to mandate it, because it’s not going to happen unless it is required. The habits of thought are too entrenched.”
Others appear to share his view. “The National Endowment for Democracy promotes programs largely indifferent to the question of religious freedom,” wrote Joseph Loconte in a recent review of Farr’s book. But the NED’s grantee profile does include many groups that actively promote religious liberty, tolerance and inter-faith dialog.
Sudan’s Inter-Religious Council, for example, publicizes violations of religious liberty, surveys educational institutions to identify religious biases and trains Christian and Muslim youth on issues of religious freedom.
The China Aid Association‘s quarterly journal analyzes and documents human rights abuses of religious believers, and maintains an online library of Chinese and English-language laws and regulations governing religious practice in China.
In Pakistan, the Lahore-based Democratic Commission for Human Development runs an educational and advocacy program to counter the influence of religious extremism and to foster principles of religious freedom and tolerance.
Que Me, the leading international advocate of human rights in Vietnam, has worked extensively with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau in promoting freedom of worship in the communist state.
The International Forum for Islamic Dialogue supports and assists liberal Muslim democrats in promulgating modern interpretations of Islam and highlighting the compatibility of Islamic values with universal values of human rights, democracy, pluralism, cultural diversity, and women’s rights.
Promoting democracy inevitably requires an appreciation of the fact that freedom of worship is inextricably bound up with basic democratic rights, including freedom of speech, association and conscience. Religious freedom is, to coin a cliché, the canary in the coal mine: where freedom of worship is denied or compromised, other liberties are invariably and equally vulnerable.