As I see it, the issue with “religious freedom” is not whether it should be upheld everywhere, but how and by whom. While I am in agreement with some of what Scott Appleby says of the Task Force Report of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I would challenge some of the conclusions and recommendations of the report as presented by Appleby, without going into discussion of the Report itself. The premise of my comments is that the government of the United States does have a pivotal role in upholding all human rights—not only freedom of religion—through all facets of its own foreign policy. But it should do so as a participant in a global joint-venture, instead of assuming the “White Man’s burden” of civilizing the rest of humanity. Religious freedom can neither be advanced in isolation of other fundamental human rights nor sustained by imperial imposition.
The first aspect of my objection is that while there is a need for “engagement with ‘Muslim communities,’” such an endeavor does not fall to the government of the United States, or any other national government, whether those communities are at home or abroad. Any governmental attempt to engage religious communities abroad will be “the kiss of death” for the protection of religious freedom internationally, for the same reasons that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion at home. The Golden Rule, which is in my view the best foundation for the universality of human rights, mandates that we treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. Why should we allow the government of the United States to do abroad what it is not allowed to do at home? The common human conceit of exceptionalism (which would exempt one from the Golden Rule) is bad for human rights everywhere. But American exceptionalism is probably the most damaging of all, because of the global reach and imperial posture of the foreign policy of the United States.
Second, in my view, the so-called International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) is a hypocritical, futile, and counterproductive example of American exceptionalism. This misadventure is hypocritical because the United States is unilaterally appropriating the right to protect religious freedom abroad, while deliberately refusing to apply any international human rights standards to the United States itself. I am not suggesting here that human rights norms as such are not protected in the United States, because citizens of this country enjoy one of the highest levels of protection of these rights in the world today. Rather, my point is that the United States deliberately and consistently refuses to respect these rights as universal obligations under international law. This trend started with the Eisenhower administration’s effort to defeat the Bricker Amendment in 1953, by averring that it did not view human rights treaties “as the proper and most effective way to spread throughout the world the goals of human liberty.” Even when the United States ratified a few international human rights treaties, it did so much later (almost 40 years later in the case of the Genocide Convention), and always attached extensive reservations, understandings, and declarations designed to exclude the application of the treaty to the United States itself. As the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee observed in its General Comment 24: “Of particular concern are widely formulated reservations [by the United States] which essentially render ineffective all [Civil and Political Rights] Covenant rights which would require any change in national law to ensure compliance with Covenant obligations.”
In view of this entrenched exceptionalism, I believe it is futile and counterproductive for the United States to appropriate a right to protect religious freedom according to its own definition of the latter, and through its unilateral and discretionary coercive power. The United States can apply whatever principles it chooses to determine its own foreign policy and to maintain friendly relations and cooperation with whatever government it chooses. That is entirely within its authority as a sovereign state. But it has no right whatsoever to claim, or to pretend, that it is doing that in the name of “international” religious freedom.
My third comment is in response to what Appleby reports as the view of the champions of religious freedom in the Task Force; namely, that the “best way to counter religious extremists […] is to foster a religiously plural public square marked by the give-and-take of free, open, and civil debate.” This is true, but only insofar as this approach is applied to all human rights, peace, and social justice issues, and not to religious freedom alone. In fact, focusing on religious freedom, especially through the IRFA, without addressing other relevant concerns, such as fair trade and security cooperation, will probably be seen, as the opponents of this focus on the Task Force feared, “as a superpower-charged means of advancing hegemonic U.S. […] interests.” Speaking for myself, as a Muslim advocate of human rights, peace, and social justice for all human beings everywhere, this is indeed how I see the IRFA and its process.
To conclude with what Appleby opened with, President Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, I recall my comments at that time in the Guardian:
Whatever one might have been hoping for from the speech of President Obama to the Muslim World, it’s clear that any change will have to come from within the region and on its own terms. For now, the words, and more importantly the actions, of an American president are critically important for that internal initiative to emerge and succeed.
To me, as a Muslim from Sudan, this dependency on external actors is part of the problem, signifying a neocolonial state of mind among Muslims, thereby perpetuating ourselves as the subjects of empire, rather than self-determining persons and communities. I wish this was not the case, but since it is, we have to start somewhere, and Obama’s speech can be a good start […].
An American president can help to the extent he can change the imperial posture of the United States, and challenge its client regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to ensure freedom of internal debate and change. Improvement in Muslim-American relations or any other objective is untenable while American imperialism continues, but imperialism ends in the minds and hearts of its subjects, not the vision and charisma of western leaders, though that can help.
In closing, then, I do share the objectives of the Task Force Report, as reported by Appleby, but disagree on the scope of, and the means of realizing, those objectives. In my view, their realization requires a clear focus on the self-determination of Muslims, rather than imperial beneficence. To the United States government, I would recite a Hadith Qudsy of the Prophet Mohamed, which reports that God told the Prophet Jesus to reproach himself first about his own transgressions, and if he heeds that, he may reproach others for their transgressions. Otherwise, the Prophet Jesus should be humble in the sight of God. Finally, I say to the citizens of the United States, you are the only human power than can change the foreign policy of your country; please do so in ways that truly uphold the Golden Rule for humanity at large, and do so as a matter of principle, and not only for the legitimate but limited purpose of countering religious extremists.