Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

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Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Good for What Ails Us

Falwell and Robertson Stumble

Islam is Everywhere

Pacifism on the Record

No Bad Sects in France

The Stem Cell Conundrum

Gain, No Pain

On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times

Letter to the Editor and Reply


Religion After 9-11:
When Our Allies Persecute
by T. Jeremy Gunn

The tragedy of September 11 shows signs of being bad news for U.S. efforts to promote freedom of religion around the world.

During the three years before September 11, the United States had been international religious freedom’s most vigorous and vocal advocate. But now several of the countries that were among the principal targets of American criticism—including China, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia—are being courted by the Bush administration to participate in its coalition against terrorism.

The recent U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom came largely as a result of a law entitled "The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998" (IRFA). In October of 1998, at the exact time that a bitterly divided House of Representatives voted to authorize an impeachment investigation of President Clinton, IRFA was adopted by a unanimous House and Senate.

Politicians across the ideological spectrum embraced the new law. It was, said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "designed to further elevate religious freedom on our foreign policy agenda." Then-senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) called it "a vitally important piece of legislation to raise awareness of and combat religious persecution overseas."

IRFA was the final incarnation of what had begun in 1997 as a far more controversial bill "to establish an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring [and] to provide for the imposition of sanctions against countries engaged in a pattern of religious persecution." Introduced enthusiastically in the House by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and tepidly in the Senate by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), the "Wolf-Specter bill" seemed—by what it said and how it was promoted—to target Communist and Islamic governments that persecute Christians.

Although the Wolf-Specter bill had some Democratic co-sponsors, its three most vocal advocates were conservative Republican partisans: Wolf himself, Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), and a former Reagan administration official and political provocateur named Michael Horowitz. While Wolf and Smith had been longtime advocates of religious freedom, their promotion of the Wolf-Specter bill was inseparable from their intense personal dislike of President Clinton and their suspicions of his administration. Horowitz, a complete newcomer to the cause, was even more partisan.

As Peter Steinfels, the religion columnist of the New York Times, observed of Horowitz and his Wolf-Specter ally, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, "Sometimes [they] sound as though the American Government is as much the enemy as any of those that persecute Christians. Their appeals for a special adviser sound more like demands for a special prosecutor."

Over the protests of Wolf, Smith, and Horowitz, IRFA ultimately repudiated the polemical tone of the original Wolf-Specter bill. A complicated piece of legislation, it most importantly created a new Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department. The office, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, is responsible for integrating the promotion of religious freedom into the diplomatic activities of the United States; issuing an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom; identifying the countries that are the worst abusers of religious freedom; and implementing "presidential actions" against all violators of religious freedom.

As a concession to the diehard Wolf-Specter supporters who believed that the Clinton State Department would distort its reports on religious freedom, IRFA also created an independent advisory Commission on International Religious Freedom. (In a government where money typically speaks louder than words, Congress authorized no additional funds for the State Department to carry out its new responsibilities but provided the Commission with an annual appropriation of $2 million.)

The Commission was charged with monitoring religious freedom around the world, making policy recommendations, and issuing its own annual report. As Horowitz told Christianity Today, "If, as I expect, the Commission established under [IRFA] does its job, world press attention to religious persecution will significantly increase-and with it, massive pressure on persecuting regimes."

IRFA’s most visible accomplishment has been the State Department’s Annual Reports on International Religious Freedom. The three reports released to date each consist of more than 500 densely packed pages that evaluate the state of religious freedom in every country on earth (except the United States). Although the reports necessarily suffer from having been prepared by several hundred people whose knowledge and perspicacity vary, they have nevertheless already become the standard international reference on the current state of religious freedom.

In addition to mandating the Annual Report, IRFA requires that at least one of 15 specified "presidential actions" be taken against each country found to have violated international religious freedom. Although this has led many observers to label it a "sanctions" law, there are a variety of other options available. And to date, the only "presidential action" that the U.S. government has taken under IRFA has been to deliver criticisms (sometimes privately, sometimes publicly). Even actions against the worst offenders—the so-called "countries of particular concern"—have been nothing more than criticisms and reaffirmations of pre-existing sanctions imposed on other grounds.

But in contrast to the measured tones of the State Department, and to the delight of Wolf-Specter’s original supporters, the Commission has employed provocative language and issued prickly recommendations. While it has the same statutory responsibility as the State Department to report on all countries, it has followed the original Wolf-Specter approach of targeting only a few violators.

The Commission has laid its principal emphasis on the two bêtes noires of the religious right, China and Sudan. (Much like a novice writer enchanted with exclamation points, it repeatedly uses the term "genocidal" to describe the actions of the government of Sudan.) It proposed that several measures be taken against the two countries, including aiding the armed opposition of the government of Sudan, opposing Beijing’s selection as host city for the 2008 Olympic games, and making approval of permanent normal trade relations with China contingent on the latter’s improving its record on religious freedom.

The Commission also recommended that several additional countries be added to the State Department’s list of "countries of particular concern." Eschewing IRFA’s language requiring that "presidential actions" be taken in response to violations, the Commission reverted to the original Wolf-Specter language, insisting that "sanctions" be imposed. Yet while the Commission repeatedly asserted that the State Department should sanction Saudi Arabia for its religious freedom violations, it was unable to identify even one sanction that actually should be imposed.

Moreover, as the U.S. has engaged in diplomatic efforts to improve relations with Sudan and China since September 11, the Commission’s approach has become increasingly irrelevant. Horowitz’s blustering prediction that the Commission’s recommendations would precipitate "massive pressure on persecuting regimes" has proved to be yet another example of his rhetorical excess. Indeed, by focusing on the worst and most intractable cases—and hewing to the philosophy articulated a few years ago by its current chairman, that "the United States leads best when it leads by irritation"—the Commission has neglected opportunities to have a positive effect in places that are amenable to change.

Although the Commission’s tactics have been well received by the original supporters of Wolf-Specter, it is difficult to see any measurable results of its policy of denunciation and sanctioning. The U.S. government has not imposed any new sanctions and has added only North Korea (a "freebie" in the internal language of the State Department) to its recommended list of "countries of particular concern."

During IRFA’s first two years, which coincided with the last two years of the Clinton administration, Congress exhibited considerable interest in the law. It agreed to a number of statutory enhancements, appropriated funds for the Commission, and held hearings upon the release of the State Department and Commission reports. But in year three, the first year of a Republican presidency, congressional interest showed a marked decline.

Rep. Frank Wolf is a case in point. In 1999, he delivered a number of harsh speeches accusing President Clinton of neglecting the Commission by delaying his appointments to it and by failing to include funds in his budget proposal (even though the latter had been prepared before IRFA was enacted).

But when the Bush administration let nine months pass without appointing an Ambassador-at-Large, Wolf remained silent. Nor did he react when the president was tardy in appointing Commission members. Nor did he or others complain, as they had during the Clinton administration, when the State Department failed to designate its "countries of particular concern" in a timely way.

However strongly Wolf and the religious right felt about religious freedom as a moral issue, one cannot help but observe their interest in exploiting it as a partisan wedge issue as long as they had a political opponent in the White House.

While the religious-freedom bills were being considered in Congress, a number of articles on the subject appeared in the mainstream media—not least a long piece by Jeffrey Goldberg in the New York Times Magazine. Journalists focused particularly on the support that the early drafts of the legislation had received from conservative groups and the religious right. Later articles cited the opposition of the business community to the provisions of the bills that called for sanctions against countries found to persecute on the basis of religion.

Once the law passed, however, media interest melted away. To be sure, the Commission maintains a list of articles mentioning itself and its members that has grown to 38 pages. But an examination of these and other articles that refer to the State Department’s IRFA activities reveals that the media attention has largely been insubstantial. It consists for the most part of brief wire stories (from AP, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Deutche Presse-Agentur, and even the Xinhua News Agency) and accounts in specialized outlets for religion news such as the Religion News Service. Except for a handful of articles in the Washington Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, the major national and regional news outlets gave IRFA a pass.

Not only have the leading American media failed to discuss the government’s initiatives on religious freedom, but so have the serious foreign policy journals. This is particularly unfortunate, since religious freedom is a powerful and polarizing issue in a number of countries whose efforts to suppress religious dissent have the potential of rocking the world: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, India, Turkey, and Nigeria.

Religion is now one of the dominant stories in the media. But it is not the story of the "importance of religious freedom" that the U.S. spent three years trumpeting. Rather it is the "dangers of religious extremism" story that has long been used by regimes in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to justify their policies of repression. While it is impossible to know with certainty whether IRFA will play any serious role in U.S. foreign policy as the U.S. wages war against people professing to act in the name of religion, there are ample grounds for doubt.

The State Department’s third religious freedom report (the release of which was delayed for more than a month after September 11) does not appear to have been edited to conform to the needs of the pressing international crisis. Unfortunately, it appears that the criticisms the report makes are not likely to dissuade the Bush administration from cozying up to a number of questionable regimes.

In the weeks following September 11, the U.S. sent clear messages that it was prepared to overlook their violations of religious freedom if they would join the campaign against terrorism. These messages have been particularly appealing to such countries as China, Uzbekistan, and Sudan, which characteristically claim that their religious minorities are terrorists or insurgents.

China has publicly linked the U.S. battle against terrorism to its own battle against the Muslim Uighers in its western provinces. Uzbekistan has an unseemly reputation for criminalizing all religious groups that have not received prior approval from the government. And the U.S. has been notably uncritical in public of Saudi Arabia, whose policies might fairly be blamed for having nourished and financed the very extremism against which war is now being waged.

Sudan presents a more contradictory picture. On the one hand, the Bush administration is quietly continuing Clinton-era sanctions. On the other hand, the administration has repudiated the religious right’s wish to treat Sudan as a pariah state and has launched what the right finds anathema: a policy of engagement. The U.S. now emphasizes Sudan’s cooperation with the anti-terrorism war while it downplays the Sudanese government’s lethal abuse of its own people.

At the administration’s urging, and to the bitter disappointment of the diehard opponents of any type of engagement with the Sudanese government, Congress on September 19 unceremoniously dropped the fast-moving and widely popular Sudan Peace Act, which would have put added pressure on the regime. Then, in mid-November, the bill appeared to be back on track. Depending on what private diplomatic communications the Sudanese leaders are receiving from the U.S., this could all add up to anything from sophisticated diplomacy to cynical duplicity.

In the weeks following September 11, the Washington voices that earlier had sounded the alarm about religious freedom fell silent. For some, the partisan value of using the issue to attack a political opponent in the White House had disappeared on inauguration day. Others no doubt saw combating terrorism as the more pressing need.

Sadly, the attack by fanatics who wish to quash religious liberty is not prompting government officials to press for the larger principle of religious freedom that was loudly proclaimed in 1998. Rather, it is precipitating them to cultivate convenient alliances with religious oppressors. If the United States pursues its war by abetting regimes that suppress religious freedom in the name of security, it will likely lose the battles for freedom and security.

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