July 1, 2020 | Real Clear Religion

US International Religious Freedom Efforts Should Not Promote Islamic Extremism

July 1, 2020 | Real Clear Religion

US International Religious Freedom Efforts Should Not Promote Islamic Extremism

The Trump Administration has elevated the promotion of international religious freedom to a major component of U.S. foreign policy. President Donald Trump issued an executive order devoting additional resources to this topic and the Administration’s National Security Strategy includes upholding international religious freedom. Unfortunately, when lofty ideas are translated into government policies, they can sometimes prove ineffective or even damaging.

This downside is especially clear in U.S. policies toward promotion of religious freedom in many Muslim-majority countries, such as in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In its policies toward Muslim-majority states, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the U.S. Department of State advocate for allowance of greater activity of Islamic extremists, many backed by Iran, as part of their promotion of religious freedom. A change in U.S. approaches to international religious freedom, especially in Muslim-populated states, is necessary before Washington dedicates additional resources to the issue.

The U.S. government promotes international religious freedom primarily via three agencies: USCIRF, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office led by the State’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Both the USCIRF and the State Department produce annual reports on the state of religious freedom around the globe, categorizing the level of religious freedom in various states. The two reports are published within months of each other and basically mimic one another. Both single out countries which have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and which can be designated “countries of particular concern” similar to such U.S. designations for human trafficking and money-laundering. If designated, various U.S. foreign policy instruments can be applied to attempt to change the violator’s behavior, including U.S. sanctions. Thus, these reports are not just academic exercises, but can have consequences.

While these reports bear the imprimatur of U.S. government publications, the agencies that compile them base a large portion of their reporting on unverified information from various activists, non-governmental organizations, and media. USCIRF and the relevant State Department offices have very small staffs that, as the USCIRF itself acknowledges, clearly cannot independently research the state of religious freedom in every country around the world. For example, the chapters on the Muslim-majority republics of Central Asia and Azerbaijan are sourced largely to a very small NGO called Forum 18. Based in Norway but registered for tax purposes in Denmark, it refers to itself as a “Christian initiative.” Still, the U.S. government publications extensively rely on this group’s reporting. Furthermore, the government reports frequently accept at face value reports by activist media groups, such as the Akhbor website in Tajikistan or the Azerbaijani language Meydan TV, and uncritically repeat claims made by self-appointed “human rights defenders.”

Following this lead, the USCIRF and State Department condemn Muslim-majority countries that attempt to combat Islamic extremist and terrorist movements and to counter Iran’s attempts to build influence in neighboring countries. The USCIRF and State Department recent chapters on Azerbaijan, for instance, refer to that country’s actions to combat the Muslim Unity Movement as “repression against believers” and lists jailed combatants as “religious prisoners.” But the movement, which receives Iranian backing and training, has been credibly linked to violence, including the deaths of two policemen; the Iranian regime hosts regular television broadcasts in Qom by a member of the Movement who escaped to Iran and regularly agitates against the West and its secular culture. Is this the type of movement for which American taxpayers should advocate?

The reports likewise criticize Muslim-majority states that do not allow foreign-trained clerics to work in mosques in their countries, oblivious to the intention of these laws, which is to prevent the spread of Iranian and other Middle Eastern extremist networks. Similarly, the reports savage countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, advocating for their inclusion in a special watch list because they mandate government review of imported religious literature. While such measures may smack of government censorship to Americans, they are some of the most important instruments these countries have to stop the spread of extremist ideology. Should the U.S. government really advocate for the full and uninhibited spread of ISIS and Iranian propaganda across Central Asia?

In working to promote international religious freedom, Washington may consider several guidelines. First, focus on the most important cases, such as China and Iran, where religious minorities are killed and imprisoned for their beliefs. For these extraordinary cases and for accuracy in reporting, it would be more useful for the annual reports not to attempt to cover, each year, every country in the world, but to focus on the most extreme violations.

Next, U.S. government publications should only report independently verified information. Reports from embassies abroad should also be verified by the embassies and not just rely on activists’ claims.

Furthermore, while the U.S. government should point out where restrictions on religion are extreme, it should also understand that a part of freedom of religion is the freedom from religion. The right to live a secular lifestyle–for example to not be forced to wear religious dress and follow religious commands–are all part of the freedom of religion. Many secular governments, especially in Muslim-majority countries, walk a fine line in their efforts to protect their societies, especially women and minorities, from religious extremists. At times, they need to limit extremists and their ties to foreign states like Iran in order to preserve the rights of the non-observant. Washington should recognize the importance of these policies as part of preserving freedom and for their contribution to broader U.S. interests.

Dr. Brenda Shaffer is a research associate at Georgetown University, and a Senior Advisor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank in Washington, DC. Dr. Svante Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, at the American Foreign Policy Council, and co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. Both focus on research on Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran. Follow them on Twitter @ProfBShaffer and @SvanteCornell.

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Iran Iran Global Threat Network Jihadism