From the July/August, 2009 issue of Touchstone

Peace & Piety by Keith Pavlischek

Peace & Piety

World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security
by Thomas F. Farr
Oxford University Press, 2008
(384 pages, $29.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Keith Pavlischek

Thomas Farr served as a Foreign Service officer for twenty-one years before retiring to become a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. In his last assignment, from 1999 to 2003, he served as the first Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom, which Congress created when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998.

As Farr explains in detail, Congress stipulated that the office would be led by an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom. But the State Department bureaucrats at Foggy Bottom had other ideas, and they quickly buried the ambassador and his office within the existing human rights bureaucracy, making the ambassador subordinate to State Department officials, with “authority substantially below that normally accorded an ambassador at large.”

You might think this would have evoked howls of protest from several quarters, but, as Farr says, despite this demotion, “scarcely a complaint” was heard from Congress, the faith-based community that had agitated so long for IRFA, or the newly empowered United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

This latter organization, which was in effect a high-profile, government-funded, bi-partisan watchdog organization, “had the unfortunate effect of diverting attention from the failures of the State Department, in particular its bureaucratic isolation of the office responsible for carrying out the mandates of the law.” Consequently, Farr declares, “the widely trumpeted (and widely feared) International Religious Freedom Act has so far had little long-term effect.”

Wasted Promise

Farr argues that the “enormous promise” of the IRFA has been squandered. His chief complaint is that that the laudatory goal of “promoting religious freedom” around the world has been reduced to a focus on “denouncing persecutors and achieving prisoner releases” on an ad hoc basis. This is not to say, of course, that these efforts are not an important part of what the office and the ambassador should be doing; they are indispensable to any robust defense of religious liberty. But the office could have been doing much more.

There are two principal reasons why it hasn’t been. First, the average official at the State Department just can’t understand the importance of religious belief and obligation as a motive for behavior in world affairs. Second, much of the campaign to pass IRFA was perceived to have focused on the more narrow issue of religious persecution, and the persecution of Christians in particular (and hence as merely another lobbying effort by special interests, i.e., the Christian right). And so, writes Farr, the office has paid little “systematic attention to the structures of persecution” or to “the whole range of issues associated with ‘religious freedom’ in its cultural and political sense, especially relationships between religion and state and between religious norms and public policies.”

Farr thoroughly exposes the ideological resistance both he and his successor met as the first two Ambassadors at Large for Religious Freedom. His personal attempts to persuade agency bureaucrats that religion, for better or worse, ought to be taken seriously as an explanation for the behavior of state and non-state actors alike (especially in the Arab-Islamic world) were dismissed and ridiculed. Farr describes all these things in depressing detail.

A Vital Link

His book thus serves as both a fine personal recollection and an informative history of the embryonic phase of the Office of International Religious Freedom. But it is not merely another inside-the-beltway memoir, for it also provides a first-rate argument for the contention expressed in its subtitle: “Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security.” Farr makes a compelling case for placing the issue of religious freedom at the center of American foreign policy.

If Islamic nations don’t also embrace religious freedom, he argues, the open discourse required for a deliberative democracy will get choked out before it even gets a chance to breathe. As long as religious freedom is absent, religious minorities—including dissenting Muslims—will face the threat of punishment or persecution for heresy, blasphemy, or proselytizing. Such an atmosphere of fear is not conducive to open, democratic debate. And if you don’t get open, deliberative democracy, you can’t “peel off the disaffected,” those who turn to the world of the violent Islamists as an alternative. Terrorism then becomes politics by other means.

Farr believes that the West, and the United States in particular, will remain the villain and a target of the Islamists as long as it continues to support autocratic and dictatorial regimes, such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Such support leaves the West open to the charge of hypocrisy: You claim to be for democracy and human rights, say the Islamists, but you always end up supporting the Mubaraks and other dictators in the Arab-Islamic world.

Farr’s nuanced argument is actually too complex to summarize succinctly in a short review. But I think he is quite right to emphasize the necessary connection between religious freedom and deliberative democracy. Nevertheless, crucial questions remain.

No Appealing Choices

What if the choice is not between an authoritarian dictatorship that denies basic liberties and a deliberative democracy that guarantees religious freedom, but rather between an authoritarian dictatorship that denies basic liberties and an Islamist state that does the same? More bluntly, what if the only real choice before us is between, say, Mubarak on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other?

It is easy to understand why the Israelis would prefer Mubarak: for reasons of national security. It is also easy to understand why the Coptic Christians of Egypt would prefer Mubarak: for reasons of self-preservation. So the central question raised by Farr’s thesis is whether or not a predominantly Islamic nation has the historical and theological capacity to embrace religious freedom, the necessary condition for the sort of democratic regime that would drain the swamp and, politically speaking, kill off the Islamists. Or will the choice always be: either autocratic and dictatorial rule with little religious freedom, or an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law, with no religious freedom? These questions do not offer appealing choices, but we neglect their reality at our peril.

Despite his unsuccessful but noble attempt to persuade officials in the Arab-Islamic world to allow some freedom at least for private worship (the easier argument to pitch to American audiences, ironically), Farr is modestly hopeful that Islamic societies have the resources to allow for religious freedom should they choose to pursue a more open democratic society.

Whatever position one might take on that question, the immediate need is to put it at the center of our policy debates. Therefore, Thomas Farr’s World of Faith and Freedom should be required reading for all Foreign Service officers and State Department bureaucrats, because their secularist biases tend to blind them to the obvious: that religion as a motivation for behavior needs to be taken far more seriously in American foreign policy.

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