The global rise in religious discrimination and oppression risks creating new cycles of violence. USIP’s Jason Klocek says we must “rethink … some of the conventional wisdom we have about religious freedom and its relationship to peace and development” if we want to reverse this trend and prevent conflict.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Yesterday, the United States Institute of Peace hosted a Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue, as they called it, they were discussing the issue of religious freedom internationally, and how it affects a lot of the things that happen in this country, while it has to do with international security because of stabilizing some unstable regimes and issues like that to the participants. Representative John Moolenaar is a Republican from Michigan. Representative Tom Suozzi, he's a Democrat from New York. [They] are honorary co-chairs of the National Prayer Breakfast. What did they find out? What did they learn? What can we learn now today? let's bring in Jason Klocek, who's senior researcher of religion and inclusive societies program at the United States Institute of Peace, tweeting at @jaklocek. Jason, welcome. Thank you for being on POTUS today.

Jason Klocek: Great to be with you this morning.

Tim Farley: I wonder, so the idea behind this is to talk about, first of all, the religious discrimination and the cost. And it's not just a moral cost, correct?

Jason Klocek: That's right. There are real material and security interests at stake here, that not only is the persecution of religious minorities been on the rise for over the last couple decades, but that's come at a real consequence for political stability as well.

Tim Farley: Is there a sense of why it's on the rise?

Jason Klocek: That's the sort of question that keeps me up at night and a lot of my colleagues at USIP and other places. It's something that is relatively recently being addressed, both amongst academics and policymakers. But we're trying to figure that out, and part of our efforts to do so is a new initiative here at the United States Institute of Peace called the Closing the Gap project, in which we're spending an entire year trying to answer just that question.

Tim Farley: In fact, we've seen heard and heard recently much about the Uyghurs in China. We hear about, for example, the government in Turkey cracking down on non-Muslim groups just because they would like to consolidate their power in that country. I know that in India, this has become an issue and it sounds like the idea is like, well, let's make sure that we make the other the enemy of the state.

Jason Klocek: Yeah, that's right. That's a trend. Again, we've seen the rise over the last few decades and one way to think about it is that there are short-term and long-term costs to these strategies. So, one answer for why it might be on the rise as well as the government sometimes prioritize the long-term benefits over the short-term costs. So, in China, for example, the regime justifies its repression of the Uyghurs based on its national security interests, but both there and in other contexts, we've seen that that repression can actually lead to or exacerbate grievances that already exists and then lead to new cycles of violence.

Tim Farley: Admittedly, India is the world's largest democracy, but it does seem that your concerns are maybe disproportionate to what we've been hearing reported in the news about the challenges in India. What should we know about India?

Jason Klocek: India is an incredibly important case, just as you mentioned, because it's the world's largest democracy. And we do tend to think about religious freedom violations in authoritarian countries or non-democracies, but they're not restricted to those contexts. In Germany, for example, in 2018, the region of Bavaria passed a law that requires crosses to be placed on the entrances to public buildings. So, we need to think about what's going on both democracies and non-democracies. India's particularly in the headlines today because of the Citizenship Amendment Act that was passed just before the new year, and the cycle of violence, it seems to have sparked again, in which both Muslim citizens, but also Indian citizens, have protested against this piece of legislation which discriminates based on religious affiliation.

Tim Farley: Jason Klocek with us from the United States Institute of Peace. Why should American citizens be concerned? What does this do to national security and our posture internationally?

Jason Klocek: I think that's the burning question, really burning question. And there are a number of reasons we should care in terms of national security, particularly during the global pandemic. We're seeing that this spike in persecution of religious minorities and the targeting of religious minorities has increased only further over the last six to seven months. And this has real repercussions both on how we think about security across the globe and dealing with the pandemic. So, minority groups have been scapegoated for spreading the disease, that actually exacerbates the problem in those countries. Those minority groups have been imprisoned in places like Iran, where they're actually more likely to get the virus at that point. It also sort of takes the focus off of other ways the virus is spreading. And then more broadly, as I mentioned, religious persecution can often lead to new cycles of repression. It's not always the cause for civil wars in these countries, but it certainly intensifies divisions between majority and minority groups that might be divided along social, political and economic lines. But this only adds additional fuel to the fire and can lead to further unrest in parts of the world that we have strategic interest in.

Tim Farley: Has this been focused mostly on state-sponsored discrimination? I asked that question in part because there have been some concerns about the rise of certain religious discrimination concerns in this country, in the United States of America. And I wonder if this is mostly looking at states cracking down or discriminating against religious groups.

Jason Klocek: So those of us that spend a lot of time thinking about these issues and focusing on them, we often look at religious freedom violations that are conducted not just by the government, but what is broadly thought of the societal discrimination or hostilities against religious groups by non-governmental actors. So, we're looking at that in the USIP project. And the Pew Research Center also has looked at that for over a decade now, that also has been on the rise. And you sometimes see these not rising together. So, in the Middle East, for example, we've seen since the Arab uprisings that government restrictions against religion have not necessarily increased, but sectarian violence or social hostilities have. So cops, for example, in Egypt have faced more threats from the majority Muslim population than they have before the uprisings. So, we can think of both of these types of discrimination as arising across the past few decades.

Tim Farley: Finally, this project, Closing the Gap? Discuss that because I think it's what, about another year to go in this?

Jason Klocek: That's right, it will run at least through the end of this calendar year. And there has been, as I mentioned, an increased interest in religious freedom around the globe over the last few decades. And while that's led to, and that's led to a lot of new data collection efforts. And so, what we're trying to do is use some of the most recently collected data by scholars and policy institutes to rethink or at least analyze some of the conventional wisdom we have about religious freedom and its relationship to peace and development. And just as a bit of a preview or a teaser, what will we find oftentimes, is there some support for what we, for example, the link between religious freedom and democratization. Democracies do have higher levels of religious freedom, but it's not always a straightforward of a relationship between religious freedom and socioeconomic development. For example, a lot of countries in the Middle East are have high levels of GDP per capita but also high levels of religious freedom. So, we're trying to think about are the conditions under which the just freedom does or does not lead to these sociopolitical outcomes, and then also work with our USAID aid partners to think about how they can include religious freedom pragmatically in their program cycle.

Tim Farley: We will look forward to updates as we go along through this project. And thanks for the update today. Jason, I appreciate you being on POTUS today.

Jason Klocek: Appreciate being with you. Thank you.

Tim Farley: Jason Klosek is senior researcher of religion and inclusive societies program at the United States Institute of Peace. He's also a research fellow at the University of Notre Dame's Center for the Study of Religion and Society. The issue of this problem with the crackdown on religions and discrimination in different countries around the world, how that actually hurts us for national security. There's a moral issue, obviously, a component to this, but there is a practical concern as he just laid out for you. And if you want to know more, you can just go to their website, the United States Institute of Peace, and there's also a YouTube video, that I guess I should probably tweet it out for you if you want to see it. You can find Jason on twitter at @jaklocek.

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