Religious liberty and national security

Written by Jonathan Ammons

January 11, 2023

The author’s views are his own.


The problem of national security is one that has existed from the moment borders were drawn between one group of people and another. In the United States, national security has played a critical role in executive and legislative leadership and decision-making from its very inception as an independent nation. While some of the most prominent instruments of national security include armed forces, diplomacy and economic measures, an oft-overlooked instrument is the promotion of international religious freedom as part of a broader human rights agenda.

A recent report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) makes a strong argument for the inclusion of international religious freedom promotion as an integral component of U.S. national security policy. In response to “attacks on religious freedom and the rise of authoritarianism and extremism around the world,” USIP’s Religion and Inclusive Societies Program convened the Working Group on U.S. International Religious Freedom Promotion to Advance Peace and Stability to propose recommendations “for promoting international religious freedom as a key component of American national security and peacebuilding.”

Religious freedom is under virtually constant attack throughout the world. While debates around religious freedom domestically tend to revolve around the potential conflict of intersecting, constitutionally guaranteed rights, religious freedom internationally is often a life-or-death situation. Consider the following scenarios (among many others) highlighted by the 2022 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF):

Afghanistan: Following the abrupt and disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, the Taliban promptly filled the power vacuum. “Religious minorities faced harassment, detention, and even death due to their faith or beliefs,” USCIRF reports. “The one known Jew and most Hindus and Sikhs fled the country. Christian converts, Bahá’ís, and Ahmadiyya Muslims practiced their faith in hiding due to fear of reprisal and threats from the Taliban.” USCIRF further noted that “the Taliban’s brutal application of its extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam violates the freedom of religion or belief of all Afghans who don’t adhere to that interpretation, including Muslims and adherents of other faiths or beliefs.”

India: USCIRF reports that “[t]he government continued to systematize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.” The report further posits that “[g]overnment action, including the continued enforcement of anti-conversion laws against non-Hindus, has created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups, including against Muslims and Christians accused of conversion activities.”

Nigeria: “Despite Nigeria’s constitution protecting religious freedom,” the annual report says, “Nigerian citizens faced blasphemy charges and convictions, violence, and attacks during religious ceremonies. … A diverse array of nonstate actors in Nigeria also continued to conduct attacks on houses of worship, religious leaders, and religious congregations.”

These three examples illustrate the social and economic instability that can occur when states violate human rights or foster an environment in which nonstate actors can commit such violations with impunity. These examples also illustrate a serious and growing need for the U.S. to put its money where its mouth is, so to speak, and increase the strength of its response to such violations. As USIP’s Knox Thames notes, “US administrations rarely use the sanctions function, leaving one of the most powerful IRF policy tools on the sideline.”

Promoting international religious freedom by responding with strength to blatant violations of this basic human right can do much to maintain peaceful societies. And what’s more, the federal government already has the congressionally granted authority to do so, as contained in the International Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1998 and amended in 2016.

Furthermore, vigorous and consistent championing of the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence, namely that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” provides U.S. leaders and officials opportunity to demonstrate America’s bedrock commitment to the principles of human dignity.

Citizens, elected officials and policymakers would do well to peruse USCIRF’s annual report, as well as USIP’s special report and accompanying recommendations. Doing so will provide a valuable education about the perils facing numerous religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, as well as put them in a position to act or call for action when lives are endangered by those who exercise violent intolerance against those who would live peacefully.

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