In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). For the first time in the history of the United States, the Clinton administration decided that protecting and promoting religious freedom was a crucial element of US foreign policy. IRFA is, in part, the story of the West’s reaction to the end of the Cold War. It is the story of associations, religious groups, and politicians who, after experiencing the persecutions of the Soviet regime, saw the perils of a militant Islam. There is no point in denying that most of them were primarily interested in protecting Christian communities that, in many parts of the world, found themselves to be minorities, and for this reason, were suffering from discrimination, and at times full blown persecution. However, the group certainly did not lack a healthy dose of universalism and idealism.
The religious freedom in question was indeed that of Christian minorities, but it could and should be a commodity to export, so that everyone could enjoy the extraordinary development that such freedom, liberated by the European protection of state churches, granted to all who escaped European persecutions.
Certainly, the American narrative did not consider how much the United States themselves had witnessed, how much the fights between Catholics and Protestants had inflamed political and legal debates, or how much religious minorities such as Mormons had been forced to migrate westward to avoid government persecutions. In 1998, however, Democrats and Republicans, unanimously, decided that the United States had to identify themselves with the right to religious freedom, and that religious freedom should identify itself with the American experience. The State Department created a special office for religious freedom, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was also established. This was an independent commission capable of monitoring the state of religious freedom around the world, and to undertake targeted visits to countries at risk. A few years later, a special Ambassador for Religious Freedom was appointed. As often happens with bureaucracies, good intentions did not necessarily yield results.
Therefore, in a 2008 book published by Oxford University Press (“World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security”), the Director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, Thomas Farr, highlighted how the bureaucratic machine stopped any and all initiatives, and how State Department officials felt that protecting religious freedom was not part of their mission. Farr speaks of a “cognitive block” of the ministerial elite, who was often Liberal and with a weak religious affiliation. They had difficulty understanding the relevance of such a right for many people around the world. If one thinks of the world only in terms of power struggles and does not understand the importance of faith, then of course it will be difficult to commit to actions aimed at protecting religious freedom.
As a matter of fact, since 1998 the situation of religious freedom around the world has certainly worsened. Every year, the reports issued by the Pew Forum stress the increase in limitations and social hostility towards worshippers of almost all religions in many parts of the world. In recent years, the indicators analyzed in those reports have spiked in countries where groups linked to Islamic extremism have carried out their activities. While some Western countries, under the directions of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, tried to create initiatives to react to persecution, the debate among experts continued until achieving results not imaginable in 1998.
There was no shortage of controversy. Well-informed people speak of when Lady Ashton, at the time High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs & Security, refused to have the European Council approve a text that explicitly mentioned only Christian minorities, without taking into account persecutions against other religious minorities. But if in 1998 the United States were essentially unanimous on how to act towards persecution, today the very need to have specific actions to support religious freedom is called into question. Some authors highlight the need to move past this. “Beyond Religious Freedom” is the title of a recent book published by Princeton University Press and written by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, professor at Chicago’s prestigious Northwestern University. According to Shakman Hurd, and to those who agree with her arguments, we could do without the very category of religion (and therefore of the concept of religious freedom) because this notion is deeply influenced by western experience, and it does not help to understand what is happening in countries where religion, politics and culture are intertwined into an unintelligible and inseparable political melting pot. The Obama administration seems to have embraced some of these arguments. After a long battle, the funds for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom were reduced. The importance of religious freedom in its foreign policy agenda was overshadowed starting from 2011 when, during a famous speech at the UN Human Rights Council, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed the central role of the rights of LGBT people.
[**Video_box_2**]Promoting individualism and the concept of autonomy are the guiding principle of the advancement of human rights in the framework of US foreign policy. Politicization, and the à-la-carte menu, has not spared this action either. Often one raises one's voice with small states, while turning a blind eye to allies to preserve commercial interests. What seems to have permanently changed is the cornerstone of the American projection in its narrative on rights around the world. The White House lights up with rainbow colors in the day of the Supreme Court ruling that recognizes the right to gay marriage. There is a decline in action for religious freedom, a right that refers to groups and individuals, while a vision linked to individualism and the principle of personal autonomy is on the rise, and the rights of LGBTI people are probably the clearest example of that.
We are in the midst of what Thomas Kuhn would have called a paradigm shift. In June, Foreign Policy magazine wondered: “Can Gay Marriage Defeat the Islamic State?” The action for religious freedom did not seem to succeed in that. We can only wait a while and try to answer the question.
Pasquale Annicchino is Research Fellow - Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute