Religion & Diplomacy

Ian Linden reflects on critical responses to championing religious freedom.
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August 6, 2013
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The last decade has seen a breakthrough in attitudes to the importance of religion in diplomacy.  The German government is clear that religion must be a central element of the Federal Republic’s foreign policy.  Both the United States and Canada now have active offices for religious freedom. The British Foreign Office has a dedicated staffer for the topic in its human rights department.  Last week the Council of European Union Foreign Ministers made a commitment to monitor religious freedom through their diplomatic missions.

This is not to say that religious concerns were totally ignored before 9/11.  Some diplomatic services in the former Soviet Union formally placed help for Jewish dissidents and Pentecostals as part of their diplomatic responsibilities.  But as the former Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See, Anne Leahy, is reported as saying, her Prime Minister now “implicitly puts [religious freedom] promotion on a level equal to that of other major interests such as economic prosperity and security”.  This is an altogether different, and welcome, level of concern.

Why?  The most obvious answer is indicated by the best available statistics – from the Pew Foundation – illustrating that constraints placed on the practice of religion, government controls and social hostility, are on the rise.  The “Arab Spring”, perhaps unexpectedly, has added to the deterioration. Religious freedom has risen up the agenda as a major human rights concern.   

Christians and Muslims, the latter facing a frightening level of fraternal strife between Sunni and Shi’a in West Asia and the Middle East, are often seen as complicit in the foreign policies of the powers fighting proxy or hands-on wars, and suffer accordingly.  Sometimes a preference for autocratic regimes that you know over revolutionary chaos which, by definition, the consequences you cannot know, creates new vulnerabilities.  The jeopardy in which minority religious communities can find themselves must have heightened concern.

But this is not invariably the understanding. An insight that I took away from a Tony Blair Faith Foundation/McGill University Summer School on religion and foreign policy in Montreal last month was that the championing of religious freedom was far from benignly received.  It was viewed with suspicion by some weighty academics from “unaligned” countries.  There were two arguments running concurrently.

The first dates from the founding of the United Nations and the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  After the Holocaust, and in the face of Stalinist suppression of religion, the British Council of Churches and Jewish organisations in New York approached Eleanor Roosevelt seeking a declaration on religious freedom.  The response was that a declaration on religious freedom could only stand in the context of a much wider declaration promoting other basic rights.  Today the echoing argument is that you cannot have religious freedom without democracy and an end to authoritarian forms of governance.

The fulfillment of UN Article 18, the right to religious freedom, demands democratic governments committed to pluralism and protection of minorities.  Prioritizing rights can be an invidious game.  But the counter argument - recently made explicitly by the British All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion – that religious freedom has become de facto a “residual right” to be honoured only when reasons of realpolitik do not suggest otherwise.  While this would not make religious freedom exclusive in this regard, it highlights the problem.

So it is precisely a question of sustaining the equal importance of the different articles.  Though, of course, the right to life and to religious freedom, understood as the right to meaning, are surely moving into a deeper discourse, basic to human dignity.  Moreover, a concept of human rights that does not include a concept of human dignity will likely end up as a right of citizenship rather than a universal right. And citizenship rights can disappear like the morning dew for minorities and refugees.

The other argument is less easily discussed in general because it stems from how each country chooses to interpret and advocate Article 18 and the right to religious freedom. Here an inveterate “hermeneutic of suspicion” rears its head.  This is coupled with the not unreasonable question to critical governments: “is your own house in order?”

Let’s begin with the first. The history of colonialism and imperialism does not provide comforting precedents.  A nation that has tortured and castrated Kenyan detainees might blush at lecturing Kenyans on human rights today.  But, does that disqualify any moral stance indefinitely?  Even if there is egregious backsliding in the face of terrorist threats, are powerful countries forever to be denied the possibility of having values as well as interests, and expressing them?  Might it not be on this occasion that this is a matter of fellow human beings wishing to make amends and doing the right thing for the right reason?

With regard to the second, yes, hysteria about minarets in Zurich and knee-jerk reactions to building mosques and Islamic centres is not my idea of a culture practicing or at ease with religious pluralism.  But what moral equivalence exists between that and a young Pakistani girl shot by Taliban militants in the name of God because she stood up for girls having a proper education?  Do we all have to become post-modern relativists, throw away any concept of truth, and become obliged to give up on any shared moral compass?

There can be no doubt that the Cold War, amongst other pernicious consequences, resulted in the politicization of human rights.  The Cold War is over.  Pace some of the participants at the TBFF/McGill Summer School, the current attempt to honour Article 18 is not another “western plot” nor is it inevitable that it will be used as a political weapon.  Let’s just say, as Gandhi said of British democracy…. it would be a good idea.  

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