On Thursday, the U.S. State Department added Pakistan to a watch list for religious freedom violations. This follows an angry tweet from Donald Trump about Pakistan, and a more substantive cut-off of U.S. security assistance. Pakistan has faced years of criticism for its failure to disrupt terrorist activity within its borders and its persistent violations of religious freedom. Should those of us worried about the status of religious freedom be heartened by this move? Unfortunately, the answer is no. There is no indication the Trump Administration will actually follow through with these actions to call for reforms in Pakistan.
Tensions between Trump and Pakistan have been growing for months. In an August 2016 speech on his Afghanistan strategy, Trump criticized Pakistan, accusing it of “housing the very terrorists we fight.” And then on New Year’s Day, Trump sent an angry tweet about Pakistan, threatening to cut off U.S. aid. This week, he followed through, suspending U.S. aid. To the surprise of some, the Administration also called out Pakistan for human rights abuses, placing it on a watch list for religious freedom violations.
The Trump administration’s actions may appear abrupt, but they reflect long-standing concerns. Pakistan and the United States have had a tense relationship on counterterrorism since the 1990s. The United States was initially critical of Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri militant groups. This expanded to concerns about al-Qaeda due to Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban — which hosted Osama bin Ladin — and blind eye towards al-Qaeda operatives. As I discussed in my book, while Pakistan did cooperate with America in some very important ways after 9/11, it continued to allow terrorists to operate in its territory.
Pakistan’s religious freedom record is also a problem. The country’s blasphemy laws have enabled vigilante violence against religious minorities — particularly Christians — and the authorities have done little to stop this violence. Additionally, Ahmadi Muslims face both social and governmental discrimination and harassment. The government also has favored hard-line Islamist groups for decades, giving these groups significant sway over the society to the detriment of Muslims and non-Muslims. When I ran the Pew Research Center’s work on religious freedom, Pakistan was consistently among the most repressive countries in the world.
So I should be happy with the Trump administration’s actions. It is taking steps to pressure Pakistan on counterterrorism while also clearly condemning its religious freedom violations. But as with other aspects of its foreign policy, this administration is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. It is also unlikely to follow through.
First, there is no indication this administration is committed to religious freedom. While Trump has made a big show of domestic religious freedom debates, international human rights promotion is not a priority. Secretary of State Tillerson announced that advancing U.S. values can be “an obstacle” for U.S. interests. In this case, condemning Pakistan is in line with Trump’s security priorities, but religious freedom is clearly the secondary issue here. Advancing religious freedom requires not just cutting off aid, but working with states to reform their policies. I don’t see that happening under Trump.
Second, even if Trump was serious on increasing religious freedom in Pakistan, how would he do it? Under Tillerson, the State Department has been gutted. State Department employees — including its religious freedom office — appear to be valiantly attempting to continue their mission despite Tillerson’s cuts. But actually advancing religious freedom will require engagement on religious issues and close monitoring to ensure compliance. As with Trump’s declaration on ISIL’s genocide, rhetoric will not translate into actions without a fully-staffed, well-supported State Department. Moreover, Trump’s belligerent, confrontational style will undermine existing initiatives; Pakistani political figures are calling on their government to “remove” U.S. diplomatic personnel in response to Trump’s actions.
Some may accuse me of being cranky, or biased against Trump. But religious freedom advocates need to be very careful. Trump is saying the right things, but there is little indication he will actually act on international religious freedom. We have seen this repeatedly over the past year. Besides Tillerson’s dismissal of “values,” there is also Vice President Pence’s trip to the Middle East, meant to show solidarity with Middle East Christians; it was postponed after the furor over Trump’s statements on Jerusalem, and there is no indication it will be rescheduled.
If religious freedom advocates cheer nice-sounding words from Trump but don’t pressure him to follow through, we undermine our cause. In response to critics of his human rights policies, the Administration can point to support from religious freedom advocates for cover. Meanwhile, countries around the world will intensify limits on religious freedom, as they know the United States will do little to pressure them. Instead of cheering, the response to every action like this from Trump should be, “ok, great; so what are you going to do about it?”