The United States Needs an Ambassador for Religious Freedom Now
Egyptian Copts murdered while at worship. The threat of religious extremists gaining political power in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The terrorist "Party of God" (Hezbollah) in control of Lebanese democracy.
Catholics slaughtered at mass in Baghdad. Iraq's ancient Christian population shrinks, and many non-Muslim minorities flee Iraq.
A Pakistani Christian mother sentenced to death for insulting the prophet Muhammed. A Muslim governor murdered for defending her; the public supports the murderer. Al Qaeda continues to operate in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Taliban ideology flourishes in Afghanistan. Muslim reformers are prosecuted for blasphemy.
Iran's religious courts impose death. Iranian Christians are subjected to a massive roundup by authorities. The Iranian theocratic regime seeks nuclear weapons and supports Islamist terrorists.
The fact that the Middle East is a cauldron of religious persecution and extremism is perhaps unsurprising.
What many Americans may not know is that the United States has for over a decade had an official policy of countering persecution and extremism by advancing religious freedom.
In 1998 Congress passed unanimously, and President Bill Clinton signed, the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act. The law established at the State Department a very senior diplomatic official—the IRF ambassador at large—to lead in matters of policy, and to put the promotion of religious freedom at the center of American diplomacy.
No administration has succeeded in doing that. But both Clinton and President George W. Bush appointed well-qualified ambassadors, and U.S. IRF policy, while not without serious problems, became a fixture at the Department of State.
The Obama administration, however, has largely ignored that policy. Today, as the Middle East cauldron threatens to boil over, there is quite literally no one in charge.
In November, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing for Suzan Johnson Cook, President Obama's nominee for IRF ambassador at large. Despite having a whole platoon of senior envoys in place to pursue favored initiatives (e.g., closing Guantanamo, outreach to Muslim communities, disabilities, and climate change), the President had taken18 months even to nominate Johnson Cook.
After her nomination, some voiced concerns about her qualifications for the job. Such concerns led Senator Jim DeMint (R, SC) to place a temporary hold on the nomination in committee, but neither Senate Democrats, the State Department, nor the White House paid much attention, and time ran out in the last Congress. The administration has now re-nominated Johnson Cook, but, even if she is confirmed, it remains highly unlikely that she will have the authority or the resources within the State Department to succeed. Unlike other ambassadors at large, such as the ambassador for women's issues, she will not work directly under Secretary Clinton, but will be buried in State's bureaucracy under a much lower ranking official.
The utter indifference to this key office, and to IRF policy, by the White House and the State Department has been scandalous. The administration apparently does not believe that religious persecution and extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere constitute a humanitarian imperative for U.S. action.
Additionally, it clearly fails to grasp the national security implications of religious freedom's absence.
In few places are these implications clearer than in Egypt. Christians have been present in Egypt for two millennia, but their existence has proven fragile for two interrelated reasons: the authoritarian policies of President Hosni Mubarak and the growth of Islamist extremism. Thus far the Obama administration has cautiously shepherded Mubarak to the exits, perhaps too cautiously. But whatever happens next, the United States cannot afford to make the same mistake it did with the Palestinian Authority in 2006—simply hoping that "free and fair elections" will be the gateway to stable democracy. It bears recalling that Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 through free and fair elections.