Promoting Religious Freedom Abroad Shouldn’t Compromise the Fight against Radical Islam

July 15, 2020 | Brenda Shaffer and Svante Cornell
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Under the Trump administration, defending and encouraging the free exercise of religion has become part and parcel of U.S. foreign policy. While such an approach accords with both American interests and values, Brenda Shaffer and Svante Cornell argue that, if wrongly applied, it can interfere with other countries’ admirable efforts to prevent the spread of jihadism. The problem begins with the federal government’s two annual reports, that, by singling out specific states as violators of religious freedom, can make them eligible targets for sanctions and the like:

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 (NGOs), and media. . . . Following [these groups’] lead, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the 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, [in their recent reports’ sections] 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 . . . 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?

In working to promote international religious freedom, Washington may consider several guidelines. [Above all], 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.

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