Well-intentioned Interference and the Freedom of Religion

Last week, the U.S. Department of State released its annual report on religious freedom, chronicling an unsettling increase in religion-related violence around the world. Included in the report were comments from Secretary of State John Kerry, who reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to combat international intolerance, even when that means confronting close allies.

Well-intentioned interference of this kind is part of an increasingly globalized world, and it enjoys support within economic, geo-political and human rights circles. The role of developed nations in the mediation of international religious affairs is growing, as overwhelmingly Western-based initiatives work to protect religious freedom overseas.

The ethical implications of State-sponsored religious engagement were the focus of a recent summer session on Religion and Foreign Policy, which I attended at McGill University. The course, supported by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, asked that participants consider the ability of any nation to mediate faraway faith crises.

At the North Atlantic breakout session of the course's accompanying Religion and Foreign Policy Conference, Nigerian Ambassador Ojo Maduekwe came to the microphone and asked the panelists the hardest question they heard all morning: "How do we respond to international outcries that religious freedom is the latest cultural issue arising from Western hubris?" The degree of difficulty came less from the question than from its source. How do three Canadians and one American gracefully explain that their own countries deserve to have a louder voice in global affairs than Ambassador Ojo's own Nigeria and other distant lands?

This accusation of arrogance may be easily swept aside by proponents of international religious freedom initiatives, but for me it was an outward expression of a tension that ran throughout our course. Though most people agree that religious freedom is a valuable human right, there is something unsavory about the predominantly Western origin of current religion and foreign policy projects.

As Ambassadors Andrew Bennett of Canada and Suzan Johnson Cook of the U.S. would argue, however, international work in the area of religious freedom is a matter of life and death for millions of people currently being persecuted because of their beliefs. Is it fair to argue about the motives behind religious freedom offices if they are saving lives?

My answer is yes. We should be arguing about motives and messaging because it is becoming too easy to make unqualified claims about the ability of large nations like the United States and Canada to make a difference in complex global conflicts. In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Ambassador Bennett explained that, "When we speak about Canadian values or Canadian principles like freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights, these aren't just Canadian principles. They are universal principles." But are they? I certainly hope for a world in which all can be safe and free, but when faced with the heartbreaking situations in countries like Myanmar, Egypt and Nigeria, I do not think it is American diplomats carrying copies of the Constitution that will save the day. As Thomas Farr of the Berkley Center noted at the congressional committee on the International Religious Freedom Act, too much of the current work being done is based on "anemic, largely rhetorical methodology." A revised self-understanding may not allay accusations of Western hubris, but it will better equip Canada and the United States to engage rather than enrage the representatives of other countries.

My fear is that established democracies are forgetting what it is like to be a fledgling nation. The U.S. obsession with creating lists to "name and shame" the worst violators of human rights fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of countries in the world put far fewer resources into establishing themselves as the home of the best and brightest. Many global leaders struggle daily, instead, with keeping their nation unified or with fighting off rebel forces. Canada's Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was quoted by CTV News saying, "Even making statements is nothing to be sneered at," when asked to defend the creation of Ambassador Bennett's position. But such statements do seem naïve in an international environment that includes such players as Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As we move forward in this era of globalization, I recognize that it would be immoral as well as politically imprudent for Canada and the United States to remain silent in the face of religious freedom violations. But I think representatives of organizations like Canada's Office of Religious Freedom or the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom need to leave their sense of diplomatic privilege at the door when meeting with troubled communities. The path to a pluralistic world won't be paved with formal speeches and reports, but with actual engagement with people on all levels of religiously motivated conflict.