Religious freedom, like other human rights, is strongly correlated with political stability — and repression of religion or belief can serve as a major driver of conflict and violence. Around the world today, we see discrimination against or targeting of religious minorities associated with rising social tensions, intercommunal strife, violence and even mass atrocities. Muslims in India, Rohingya in Myanmar, Uyghurs in China, Yazidis in Iraq, and Christians in Pakistan: all are subject to forms of violence that have corollary effects on broader prospects for peace and stability in their respective contexts. When marginalized religious groups respond, it often leads to higher levels of religious restriction from governments or non-state actors — leading to a vicious cycle of declining stability.

Rohingya men pray in Bayeun, Indonesia, May 25, 2015. Amid a global rise in repression religious minorities like the Rohingya, continued U.S. leadership is vital to advancing international religious freedom. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Rohingya men pray in Bayeun, Indonesia, May 25, 2015. Amid a global rise in repression religious minorities like the Rohingya, continued U.S. leadership is vital to advancing international religious freedom. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

In this era of violent religious persecution abroad, there is a growing need for consistent and effective U.S. leadership to advance religious freedom internationally. At the same time, increasing polarization at home could threaten to undermine long-running bipartisan consensus on the issue's importance.

Questions and debates about the best way to promote international religious freedom (IRF) are not new. While they are essential questions to keep discussing, if domestic politics adds complications in answering them, that could hinder collaboration and diminish the effectiveness of policy implementation — which, to date, has been admirably nonpartisan in nature. Such an outcome would be to the detriment of U.S. interests and values and to those around the world harassed, persecuted or subjected to violence because of their beliefs.

Toward Common Ground

To better understand and address this challenge, USIP created a Working Group on International Religious Freedom that included experts and former officials from across the religious and political spectrum. Our new USIP report, “Maintaining International Religious Freedom as a Central Tenet of U.S. National Security,” draws on insights from this diverse working group, and their discussions informed our recommendations on how to protect IRF from political polarization and how to build bipartisan consensus around IRF's importance. 

One clear consensus among participants was that political polarization in the United States could pose risks to the longstanding bipartisan consensus on IRF policy, to the detriment of U.S. interests and values, and those suffering for their beliefs or practices. Domestic debates influence how issues surrounding IRF promotion — the nature of the challenge itself and appropriate steps forward — are seen and interpreted. In addition, several saw diverging understandings of "religion" and "freedom" as creating new cleavages, making the intense debates about race, gender, sexuality, immigration and public health more challenging to address. 

Participants also agreed that the collective biases of different political groups, often grounded in historical tensions, influence and shape each side's engagement with religious freedom as well as interpretations of international norms and approaches to IRF promotion. Further, working group members identified persistent patterns in these perceived biases, such as the perception that some lack interest or dedication to the cause, contrasted against a second where others instrumentalize IRF to pursue political agendas or to proselytize. While examples abound that debunk these impressions, IRF advocates should be aware of how different groups in this space often perceive each other so the issue does not succumb to trends that lead to further differences. Otherwise, today's turbulent political landscape could exacerbate differences surrounding the promotion of international religious freedom, impacting what should ideally be nonpartisan work.

Recommendations for a Nonpartisan Approach

We conclude that international religious freedom "will only remain a central pillar of U.S. foreign and security policy if it receives bipartisan support." However, if IRF promotion is threatened by polarization, the United States will lose the advantage of common agreement at home, to the detriment of national security and human rights.

Our report makes several recommendations to advancing a nonpartisan approach to international religious freedom.

  1. Recognize key differences between domestic debates and repression abroad and assert IRF as a core American value and central pillar of U.S. foreign and security policy.
  2. Ground and explain IRF with broadly shared, cross-partisan policy priorities connected to advancing peace, stability and national security.
  3. Explore common challenges and needs of diverse at-risk communities to enable broader cooperation across advocacy agendas.
  4. Use IRF policy tools (e.g., the Country of Particular Concern and Special Watch List mechanisms) to strengthen democracies across the globe committed to human rights, the rule of law and political pluralism.
  5. Balance the use of sanctions with community-level efforts to cultivate mutual respect and pluralism.
  6. Integrate the work of the IRF office and ambassador-at-large with core State Department functions, particularly those bureaus and offices whose missions overlap with IRF.
  7. Continue strategic religious engagement as a core function with its own office within the State Department.
  8. Continue to support the religious freedom ministerial meetings and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
  9. Make a concerted effort to model bipartisanship within the relatively small community of IRF officials, advocates and practitioners.

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