American Conservatives, Islam, and Religious Realism in U.S. Foreign Policy

Today we'd like to share with you, as food for thought, a blog by Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He has given us full permisison to share this, and you can find out more about Thomas Farr here

Yesterday on the Corner I argued that U.S. foreign policy should become more effective in advancing the institutions and habits of religious freedom. Doing so would aid the victims of religious persecution in Muslim-majority countries and advance American national security.

How? Empirical studies (and common sense) indicate that more religious freedom in those countries will reduce violent religious extremism, including the terrorism that has reached our shores, while also increasing the chances for stable democracy and economic growth.

Andrew McCarthy says these ideas smack of George W. Bush’s “dreamy rhetoric” about American liberty’s depending on the liberty of others. He argues that Bush’s approach (and by implication, mine) entails “the politically correct suppression of inquiry into sharia,” the pretense that sharia “is compatible with liberty,” and a failure to marginalize those who support sharia. He says U.S. foreign policy should pressure Muslim countries to repeal sharia, rather than helping them write it into their constitutions.

There is something to McCarthy’s argument. But it needs weeding.

Some American conservatives (a tribe to which I have belonged for some time) appear to think that advancing religious freedom means tolerating extremist sharia. This is a serious error — one made, to be sure, by some, including some conservatives, who oversaw the drafting of the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions. But it need not be made by right-thinking foreign-policy practitioners.

A vigorous religious-freedom policy would not tolerate extremism, sharia or otherwise. It would not be grounded in dreamy rhetoric but in religious realism. The vast majority of the world’s people are religious, and that is unlikely to change. If struggling democracies such as Egypt’s are to be stable and lasting — if they are to achieve, as Mr. McCarthy puts it, legitimate democracy — they must find ways to accommodate religion to the common good.

He says that the achievement of legitimate (stable) democracy will take years. I agree. But I also contend that its achievement in Egypt is vital to our own security, and that it will never happen without religious freedom.

Religious freedom in its most robust sense carries with it a self-denying ordinance. If I and my group have religious liberty, I (and we) have the right to do things like build houses of worship, raise our children in the faith, create and operate faith-based institutions in civil society (colleges, hospitals, businesses, soup kitchens), speak openly about our religion or that of others, and enter into political debate on the basis of our beliefs — all within due limits.

Those limits will vary from society to society, but there are certain common red lines. I cannot cite religious liberty as a justification for burning widows, carrying out suicide bombings, or coercing others to accept revealed doctrines. I cannot employ religion to reduce the value of a woman’s testimony in court, or to impose criminal penalties on those who offend my religion (if I could, the editors of the NYT would have been in jail long ago).

If we could get Egypt or Pakistan to move toward religious liberty, accepting its benefits (stability, security, economic growth) and its limits, we would be nudging them away from the kinds of sharia that Mr. McCarthy rightly fears. As I have argued elsewhere, the practices sanctioned by these kinds of sharia are a gateway to extremism. They are the very antithesis of religious freedom. So long as they exist, not only will Christian Copts and other minorities suffer, but America’s vital interests will be affected, including its interest in national security.

As for Mr. McCarthy’s suggestion that the United States pressure Muslim-majority societies to repeal sharia, he is half right. We should indeed tie foreign aid to taking steps toward religious liberty. But that is insufficient. No highly religious society is likely to change its religious practices unless it concludes that the tradition itself supports those changes, and that they are in the interests of the society. A vigorous U.S. international religious-freedom policy could help accomplish both.