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Obama administration sidelines religious freedom policy

By Thomas F. Farr
Friday, June 25, 2010; A17

Last week President Obama nominated an ambassador at large for international religious freedom, a position created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The nominee, Suzan Johnson Cook, is a distinguished pastor who will, if confirmed by the Senate, be strongly supported by advocates of religious freedom.

She will need their support.

It appears that the policy Johnson Cook has been nominated to lead is being sidelined even before she takes the job. The Obama administration seems to have decided that other policy initiatives -- outreach to Muslim governments, obtaining China's cooperation, advancing gay rights -- would be compromised by vigorous advocacy for religious freedom. In fact, such a decision would harm the victims of religious persecution, hamstring key Obama initiatives and undermine U.S. national interests.

The IRF Act was passed unanimously because millions are denied religious liberty. An exhaustive Pew Forum study revealed in December that 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted. A few recent examples:

A senior Saudi cleric issued a fatwa mandating the death of anyone arguing that men and women could work together professionally. Such edicts emerge from Wahhabism, a malevolent political theology that nurtured Osama bin Laden and continues to be exported worldwide.

In Afghanistan, a journalist was sentenced to death for blasphemy because he made Islamic arguments for women's rights. Even after the military defeat of the Taliban, such Taliban-like ideas and practices will continue to destabilize Afghan democracy.

In 2009 Chinese security forces beat to death a Tibetan Buddhist monk for passing out leaflets supporting the Dalai Lama. The torture and "disappearance" of Buddhist monks and nuns, and of disfavored Muslims and Christians, are routine in China.

These stories and thousands like them represent more than humanitarian tragedies. They signal a national security threat -- and a diplomatic opportunity -- for the United States. The absence of religious freedom is highly correlated with unstable democracy, low economic growth, low female literacy rates and religion-based terrorism. Religious liberty could help solve these problems, undergird Obama's Muslim strategy and advance women's rights. In Afghanistan, for example, a sound IRF policy could help rid that nation of the toxic ideas and practices -- such as criminal prosecutions for blasphemy and apostasy -- that will continue to undermine Afghan democracy and nourish religious extremism, even after the hoped-for military defeat of the Taliban.

This is why many bipartisan groups, such as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, have urged the administration to view IRF policy as central to American interests.

But the administration is not listening.

Expert envoys have long been at work on favored subjects, including HIV/AIDS, Guantanamo, disabilities and outreach to Muslim communities. A task force on gay rights has been in place for months.

Yet it took 18 months to nominate an ambassador for international religious freedom. And despite bipartisan urging to employ religious freedom as a means to advance our national security, the recent National Security Strategy ignores IRF policy. The ambassador will not report directly to the secretary of state as do other ambassadors at large (all of whom are experts in their fields). The staffers who reported to predecessors will not report to Johnson Cook should she be confirmed. The position will be emasculated, in direct contravention of the legislation that created it.

Why downgrade religious freedom? Administration officials apparently think that "engaging" Muslims abroad precludes a vigorous policy on international religious freedom. But while many Muslim governments fear religious liberty as a threat to their authority, polls show religious freedom is popular among Muslims. Among other things, Muslims need religious liberty to undermine Islamist extremism and to advance women's rights -- to argue, for example, that the Koran does not require repression of women or non-Muslims, or death for apostasy. The administration is missing a huge opportunity to employ IRF policy as a means of countering religious terrorism. And supporting Muslims' right to religious freedom could reenergize Obama's engagement strategy in Islamic lands.

Meanwhile, China has insisted it will handle its "religion problem" its way. We seem to have acquiesced, settling for periodic "dialogues" in which little is accomplished. But our averted gaze will only increase human suffering while Beijing decides whether to accommodate its exploding religious population or to crush it.

As for a gay rights initiative, it would indeed be complicated by a policy empowering religious actors to argue in favor of traditional sexual morality -- but religious actors also have a right to free speech.

Against the odds, the smart and courageous IRF staff in Foggy Bottom has made inroads and is leading several promising interagency efforts on religion. The ambassador to the Organization of Islamic States advocates for religious freedom. New training on religion for diplomats is under consideration. But these efforts are ad hoc and under-resourced. Alone, they cannot counter a decision to sideline religious liberty in U.S. foreign policy. Whatever one's views on engaging Islam, cooperating with China or advancing gay rights, surely we can all agree that religious freedom deserves our vigorous and sustained defense. Without it, no one is safe. And that includes us.

Thomas Farr is a visiting professor at Georgetown and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He was the first director of the State Department's office of international religious freedom, under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, from 1999 to 2003. He wrote "World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security."

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