Freedom, Faith, and Foreign Policy

Daniel Cere on the state of the debate over the role of foreign policy in advancing religious freedom.
By: /
June 10, 2013
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The launch of Canada’s new Office of Religious Freedom has triggered an important and evolving debate about the role of religion and religious freedom in foreign policy. Some commentators are deeply disturbed by this project. Doug Saunders was so troubled that he wondered whether “it’s time to speak out against religious freedom”.

Clearly there are serious policy issues at stake. However to propose to drop religious freedom from our family of fundamental rights is probably a bit of an over-reaction. Canadian foreign policy must be anchored by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in which religious freedom is a “first freedom”. Religious freedom has a particularly well-established place in the family of human rights. It is widely regarded as one of the foundational rights in the development of the rights tradition. An early and more restrictive form of religious freedom (“liberty of the church”) was the first freedom listed in the Magna Carta. Religious freedom figures prominently in national and international charters of human rights. Religious freedom can be a difficult human right to define and implement but it is hardly unique in that regard – all human rights are complex, constitutionally entrenched troublemakers.

Furthermore, the global resurgence of religion has made a major impact on international affairs in the post Cold War era. We have witnessed the rise of numerous forms of conflict, oppression, and violence related to religious identity and difference. Religious minorities rights issues in China, Burma, Russia, and various Middle East countries, have taken on greater significance in regional and global geopolitics. In Syria, religious persecution is on the rise, blood is being shed, and lives are being shattered because of the religious identification of individuals and communities. The divisive effects of the escalating sectarian violence are already being felt far beyond the conflict’s borders. At home, even religious accommodation disputes in Quebec have drawn international attention.

That’s the bad news. However, religious communities also have a long history of social activism and positive engagement in the public sphere. Religious traditions played a critical role in democratization movements during the post World War II era, as Toft, Philpot and Shaw have explained. And religious communities remain critically important transnational actors, promoting social justice, relief work, education, health care, and conflict resolution throughout the world. They have a massive institutional presence with tremendous social resources and human assets. In most parts of our global society, religious communities continue to serve as the main source for communal identities. The work of international development, the human rights movement and democratization will only suffer if the religious sector is marginalized or sidelined.

Applying religious freedom norms to foreign policy is a laudable initiative, but it is also a task fraught with difficulty. Human rights, including religious freedom, are not straightforward self-evident axioms that can be readily applied to complex religious and geopolitical contexts. The existence of very sophisticated legal systems – both national and international – charged with interpreting and adjudicating diverse rights claims only serves to underscore the inherent complexity of human rights advancement.

A number of serious concerns concerning the specific difficulties involved with religious freedom claims need to be addressed. First, scholars like Saba Mahmood and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd have called for more critical assessments of the historical, religious, and geo-political implications of various types of religious freedom advocacy. The rubric of religious freedom has served as a pretext for colonial expansion, military intervention, and war. A healthy dose of critical self-analysis is well-advised before launching any religious freedom crusade.

Second, scholars in religious studies warn that the operative conception of the “religious” in religious freedom is often biased or weighted towards a particular conception or experience of “religion.” Arvind Sharma raises concerns about the ways in which conceptions of “religious freedom” have been shaped by the interests of the more missionary or proselytizing religions such as Christianity or Islam. Asian religious traditions, he argues, tend to view proselytization as invasive and aggressive rather than a basic human right. Western traditions, he argues, are also marked by a conception of diverse religions as very distinct forms of mutually exclusive identities. They cannot envisage believers who can thrive with multiple religious identities (a phenomena more characteristic of individuals and communities in the East).

Thomas Farr worries about the temptation to anchor foreign policy in thin Western conceptions of religious freedom that view religion as an essentially private and individual right. Elizabeth Hurd adds her voice to this concern, noting that Western conceptions of religious freedom have been shaped by secularized Protestant conceptions that view religion as essentially “belief” or “doctrine” rather than lived practice. Such approaches fail to appreciate and respect the more communal texture of religious experience in other religious cultures.

Third, critics caution that the emphasis on religious freedom claims may serve to fuel forms of conflict and violence based on grievances about infringements to, or defamation of, one’s religion. Elizabeth Hurd has raised concerns about how the focus on religious freedom might contribute to a “religionization” of conflict: “When religious difference is the primary lens through which social and political conflicts are framed, sectarian conflict is exacerbated.” The concerns voiced by Saba Mahmood and Arvind Sharma about the Western bent or bias of religious freedom advocacy are perceived to be part of a more “systemic” problem for Hurd. Constructions of foreign policy advocacy that accent religious freedom could work to politicize and exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, religious and sectarian divisions.

These warnings have some merit. On the other hand, singling out religious freedom claims could be misleading. Confronting any human right grievance – violations of civil and political rights, racial inequality, minority rights issues, right to life, etc. – can be a pretext for exacerbating social conflict and violence. These dilemmas point to the need for serious analysis of constructive ways of addressing and remedying human rights abuses in both domestic and foreign policy fields.

Finally, critics are concerned that religious freedom advocacy might work to restrict or violate other human rights and freedoms, such as gender or sexual equality. No human right operates in a vacuum. No human right, including religious freedom, can claim the status of a trump right. Members of the family of fundamental rights need to work in a collaborative fashion with one another so that no right violates or undermines other basic human rights. Some proponents of religious freedom do treat this claim as "unlimited" or “sacred,” and this flawed understanding of religious freedom rights can lead to unfortunate implications. Religious freedom is limited by other core human rights, as well as the basic norms of liberal democratic societies.

In short, fundamental challenges lie ahead in any concerted attempt to advance this important human right through Canadian foreign policy within an international context. However, Canada has demonstrated a proven, though stubbornly understated, capacity to punch above its weight. Its traditions of pluralism, multiculturalism, and deep diversity may serve it well as politicians, policy experts, and academics struggle to address the challenges involved in this project and construct a foreign policy sensitive to the geopolitical significance of religion.

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