The United States Needs an Ambassador for Religious Freedom Now
If democracy is to be stable, especially in the highly religious societies of the Middle East, it must entail a commitment in law and culture to fundamental human rights, especially religious freedom. This means, inter alia, the freedom of minorities to worship and to engage in public life without fear and on the basis of full equality with majority groups.
But—critically—religious freedom also means that religious groups from the majority, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, must accept limits on their power. Even if (under the most optimistic of scenarios) a stable transition to democratic government takes place in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood will have considerable influence on Egyptian politics and society in the coming years. But will it accept the norms that make democracy stable and lasting? Will it embrace, in law and practice, the equality of women, of non-Muslims, of opposition Muslims, and of secularists? Will it foreswear the coercive powers of the state to privilege Islam (e.g., in laws against blasphemy, apostasy, or conversion)? Will it work to undermine the virulent anti-Semitism that dominates Egyptian media?
Some are certain that the answer to these questions is a resounding "no." They may be right. But the honest answer is that we don't know the answer. American diplomacy has never "done" religion well (remember Tehran, 1979?) and, while things are beginning to change on that score, they are changing much too slowly.
The mass protests now afoot in the Middle East are likely to be met either by force or by reform. The United States cannot control the outcome, but it should state its principles clearly, and be ready to act upon them: if the people of Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East seek stable, durable democracy, they must embrace religious freedom in full.
To have an influence on this critical element of our own national security, the United States must begin to take its international religious freedom policy seriously. Both the administration and the Senate should move quickly to put in place a credible, experienced ambassador at large with the authority and the resources to get the job done.
Thomas Farr is a visiting professor at Georgetown and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He served as the first director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2003. He is author of World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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Previous stories on international religious freedom include:
Pew Forum Releases Landmark Survey of International Religious Freedom | 70 percent of the world lives in areas with high restrictions on religion, report says. (December 16, 2009)
Looking for Clear Signals | Religious freedom needs less talk and more action in Washington. (November 4, 2009)
'We're Not Actually Advancing Religious Freedom' | Thomas Farr says it's time for policies that actually improve liberty around the world. (April 13, 2008)