By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Religious fundamentalism can lead to hate and violence and become a threat to national security where there is no tolerance of religious differences. The violence of al Qaeda and ISIS is fueled by sectarian differences that could be defused by the freedoms of religion and speech. The U.S. should promote those fundamental freedoms to help create a climate of religious tolerance in the Middle East and Africa that could minimize the threat of Islamist terrorism.
President Obama has vacillated on promoting the freedoms of religion and expression as a priority for U.S. national security policy. He has considered those fundamental freedoms as worthy ideals, but not given them serious consideration as a means to counter Islamic violence and terrorism. That reasoning should be reconsidered.
The best long-term defense against the violence of Islamist extremism is to promote the tolerance of sectarian differences in Islamic cultures. That does not obviate the need for effective short-term defenses to protect lives and property from sectarian violence, but U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has proven that military force is not a solution, and may well be an aggravating factor for the religious hate and violence that plagues Islamic cultures.
Apostasy and blasphemy laws encourage sectarian violence by preventing any real freedom of religion or speech. Promoting those fundamental freedoms in Islamic cultures should be a primary strategic objective of U.S. national security policy; and the first step in promoting such a policy should be to cease providing security assistance to nations that enforce apostasy and blasphemy laws, like Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Such a policy change would likely create issues similar to those surrounding the Leahy Amendment, which bars U.S. aid to train or equip foreign troops who commit gross human rights violations. In March, 2013, Admiral William H. McRaven told Congress that the Leahy law complicated the ability of the U.S. to train and equip foreign security forces fighting Al Qaeda and its affiliates. It illustrates how conflicting standards of legitimacy can pit tactical and operational objectives against strategic objectives. At the operational level U.S. trainers and advisors must gain the trust and confidence of their indigenous counterparts to accomplish their mission, but ignoring violations of fundamental human rights for the sake of operational expediency is counterproductive to strategic objectives.
Compliance with fundamental human rights, including the freedoms of religion and expression, should be a requirement for U.S. security assistance, but an exception should be made for those governments fighting Islamist terrorism that cannot provide the essentials of law and order, such as those in Libya, Kenya, Mali and the Central African Republic. But all assisted governments should be required to build their rule of law on a foundation of fundamental human rights consistent with those in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which includes the freedoms of religion and expression.
The Cairo Declaration subjects the human rights of ICCPR to Islamic Law, or Shari’a, giving Shari’a precedence over international human rights law. Apostasy and blasphemy laws are part of Shari’a and are analogous to treason in secular law, but since there is no distinction between religion and politics in Islam, regimes like Egypt have used blasphemy laws to stifle political as well as religious criticism. It should be expected that U.S. allies like Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan will oppose any U.S. policies that promote the freedoms of religion and speech in Islamic cultures.
It is a strategic dilemma with daunting operational consequences, as illustrated by our experience with the Leahy amendment. Promoting fundamental human rights can conflict with local standards of legitimacy in Islamic cultures, but the freedoms of religion and speech are necessary to defuse sectarian violence and promote justice in the Middle East and Africa.
President Obama has been ambiguous on the role of Islam in the terrorism of al Qaeda and ISIS, and on the priority of human rights in national security policy. That ambiguity must be dispelled to counter the religious hate and violence that motivates radical Islamic terrorists; and the clarification of U.S. national security policy should begin with terminating aid to any regime that uses apostasy and blasphemy laws to stifle religious or political criticism.
Notes and References to Resources:
On related blogs, see Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, posted December 29, 2014; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; and A Fundamental Problem with Religion, posted May 3, 2015.
On the ambiguity of President Obama on human rights in U.S. foreign policy, see the editorial in the Washington Post, Trouble at the core of U.S. foreign policy, September 26, 2013 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trouble-at-the-core-of-us-foreign-policy/2013/09/26;
and on the reluctance of the Obama administration to acknowledge the role of radical religion in the terrorism of ISIS, see Shadi Hamid and Will McCants, John Kerry won’t call the Islamic State by its name anymore. Why that’s not a good idea. Washington Post, December 29, 2014 at
On how conflicting concepts of human rights and legitimacy complicate contemporary U.S. training and advisory missions and national security objectives, see Barnes, Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission; on similar issues with the Leahy amendment, see Eric Schmitt, Military Says Law Barring U.S. Aid to Rights Violators Hurts Training Mission, New York Times, June 20, 2013, at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/us/politics/military-says-law-barring-us-aid-to-rights-violators-hurts-training-mission.html?_r=0.
On conflicting concepts of human rights and legitimacy in Western libertarian democracies and Eastern Islamic cultures, see Barnes, Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at pp 7-8 and end notes 17 and 18; on differing views of Islamic scholars, see pp 10-17. Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ratified by the U.S. in 1992 and by Israel in 1991) protect the freedoms of religion and free expression, but the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights of 1990 has no comparable provisions, and Articles 24 and 25 of that treaty condition all human rights on Shari’ah “…as the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.”
On America’s effort to promote the freedom of religion under the Religious Freedom Act (1998) in combating Islamic terrorism, see Erasmus, America, religion and anarchy, The Economist, at http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2015/05/america-religion-and-anarchy. The article notes that the Central African Republic should not be considered a bad government that can be persuaded to be better, but one that is beholden to paramilitary forces, not the other way around.
The 2013 International Religious Freedom Report of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. Department of State reported increased violations of religious freedom around the world (see http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper). Of the nine countries identified as engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom, five are Islamic nations: Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with Burma, Eritrea, China and North Korea the exceptions. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh and Indonesia were also mentioned in the report as having serious violations of religious freedom.
On the problem of providing aid to Egypt’s military government while ignoring human rights violations, see Jackson Diehl, Fulfilling the Arab Spring, Washington Post, April 26, 2015 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/investing-in-the-legacy-of-the-arab-spring/2015/04/26/c44b1638-e9c7-11e4-9767-6276fc9b0ada_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On the practical problems of enforcing human rights in Kenya, where al-Shabab has evaded government forces and the government has attacked those who have criticized their tactics, see Hussein Khalid, Prodding Kenya forward, Washington Post, May 1, 2015, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/prodding-kenya-forward/2015/05/01/e1177c74-ef86-11e4-a55f-38924fca94f9_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On an Islamic perspective of human rights based on the Qur’an and Shari’a rather than the secular libertarian freedoms of natural law popularized by the Enlightenment, see Muhtari Aminu-Kano, et al., Islamic and UN Bills of Rights: same difference, at https://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/muhtari-aminukano-ayaz-ali-atallah-fitzgibbon/islamic-and-un-bills-of-rights-same-d.