At the end of the 20th century, if one wanted to predict what security threats would preoccupy the United States over the coming decade, a good place to start would have been a little-noticed congressional testimony by a relatively obscure State Department official. On October 6, 1999, Robert Seiple, the first ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, testified before the House International Relations Committee on the State Department’s inaugural “International Religious Freedom Report.” Seiple’s remarks also unintentionally anticipated the conflicts and security threats that would confront the United States in the ensuing decade. Looking back, the regimes that he identified for severe violations of religious freedom overwhelmingly coincide with those the United States was already at war with or would soon go to war with, or that would emerge as first-order national security concerns.
In his testimony, Seiple announced the designation of Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan as “Countries of Particular Concern” subject to sanction for severe violations of religious freedom. He also noted that “the secretary also intends to identify the Taliban in Afghanistan, which we do not recognize as a government, and Serbia, which is not a country, as particularly severe violators of religious freedom.” Seiple then cited Saudi Arabia and North Korea as two other countries that likely merited designation as severe violators. The State Department eventually did so designate both of them, adding North Korea to the list in 2001 and Saudi Arabia in 2004.
With the sole exception of Burma, every single one of the countries cited by Seiple were or were to become major national security concerns if not outright targets of military action. (The recent diplomatic opening with Burma might make it the exception that proves the rule, if Burma’s inchoate reforms include religious freedom and eventually induce more pacific behavior and distance from North Korea and China). At the time of Seiple’s testimony, the U.S. had only months earlier concluded its participation in the nato war on Serbian forces in Kosovo, and would maintain a troop presence in Kosovo and Bosnia for years hence. The U.S. had also the prior year launched strikes on Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Just two years later would come the September 11 attacks planned by al Qaeda from its base in Afghanistan, with fifteen of the nineteen hijackers citizens of Saudi Arabia. Within months, a U.S.-led force responded by toppling the Taliban. The year 2001 also witnessed the tense confrontation between the U.S. and China over the Hainan Island ep-3 spy plane capture, anticipating the growing concerns over the next decade about China’s assertive military expansion and challenge to American interests in the Indo-Pacific. In 2002 North Korea admitted to its advanced nuclear weapons program, and Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts came to light as well, which only added to concerns about Iran’s longstanding sponsorship of terrorism. And in 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
This correlation between religious persecution and national security threats is not just a 21st-century phenomenon of post–Cold War dislocations, but also holds true over the past century. Including World War II, every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom. Such was the case with Nazi Germany, North Korea, North Vietnam, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This characterized other conflicts as well. The Cold War standoff with Soviet communism featured an opponent that engaged in systemic religious persecution. Numerous smaller-scale military interventions, such as Lebanon in 1983, Libya in 1986 and 2011, Somalia in 1993, Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo in 1999, were also targeted against actors that embraced religious intolerance.
These various enemies were religiously and ideologically diverse, from the Nazi Reich cult, to atheistic communism, to Serbian Orthodox nationalism, to Arab Baathism, to Islamist theocracy, to militant jihadism as practiced by Hezbollah or al Qaeda. They ranged from superpowers, to fragile states, to global ideological movements, to transnational terrorist organizations. Yet one of the very few characteristics that all shared was an abiding hostility to religious freedom. In short, tormenting the sacred often also amounts to profaning the international order — and suggests that the purportedly spiritual concerns of religious liberty activists and the secular concerns of security professionals might not be such separate realms.
Religious-freedom violations can take many forms. For this article, they will be defined as coercive restrictions on the liberty of individuals and communities to believe and practice their chosen faith. Such coercion can sometimes involve violence, and sometimes emanate from a categorical hostility to any form of independent religious belief, while other times it means privileging an exclusive version of one religion while repressing any deviations from that version. In practice, a vast range of entities and regime types restrict religious freedom, including national and local governments, majority religious groups, and nonstate actors such as terrorist organizations. Here it is important to clarify that in some cases, such as Saudi Arabia or Mexico, the government itself may actually be a partner of the U.S., but the internal conditions within the country — such as intolerant Wahhabism or violent narco-trafficking — may produce sub-state actors who promote religious intolerance and constitute a security concern.
Those actors with the most egregious religious-freedom violations are remarkably consonant with those that pose a potential threat to the United States and its interests. This suggests that there might be more of a relationship between these two issues than is commonly appreciated. Stated simply: There is not a single nation in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States.
Yet as robust as this correlation might be between religious persecution and national security, it appears to be completely absent from the American government and strategic community. The promotion of religious freedom itself has made some progress in recent years, particularly after the 1998 passage of the International Religious Freedom Act created the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department (irf Office). However, as its former director Tom Farr has written, the irf Office and religious-freedom policy at the State Department have been “effectively quarantined.” In the minds of many at the State Department, international religious freedom remains at best a boutique curiosity and at worst an annoying irrelevance, and the irf Office remains mired in the bureaucratic margins at Foggy Bottom. The issue of religious freedom simply is not taken seriously as a policy issue by the broader national security community.
This neglect is especially paradoxical given the United States’ own history and religious diversity. As the Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have observed, “one of America’s oddest failures in recent years is its inability to draw any global lessons from its unique success in dealing with religion at home. It is a mystery why a country so rooted in pluralism has made so little of religious freedom.”
The trends are not all negative. Religious freedom is inseparable from religion, and the latter has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years as a subject of serious analytical interest to policymakers and foreign policy scholars. A proliferation of recent books, articles, task forces, and conferences have all elevated religion as a significant factor — for good and for ill — in international relations. This renewed attention seems to be following a renewal of religion itself. Monica Duffy Toft, Timothy Samuel Shah, and Daniel Philpott argue in their new book God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics that “a dramatic and worldwide increase in the political influence of religion has occurred in roughly the past forty years.” Yet while religion is now being treated more seriously as an analytic category, religious freedom is still neglected as a policy priority. This oversight is all the more troubling in light of the scale of the problem. As a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study found, nearly 70 percent of the global population lives under high restrictions on religious freedom.
A few qualifications should be noted. First, correlation is not causation, and just because a country might happen to be designated by the State Department as a religious persecutor and the Pentagon for attack does not necessarily prove that one caused the other. Second, the question of how the United States defines a security threat can be highly contested, with the recent Iraq and Libya interventions being two obvious examples. This article does not argue that nations engaging in religious persecution automatically present security threats to the U.S., but rather that entities engaging in religious persecution — both states and nonstates — are on balance more likely to pose a security threat to the U.S. Third, religious freedom may in some ways function as a proxy for the larger basket of democratic rights and institutions, and its relationship with security threats might approximate the insights of the “democratic peace” theory. Yet this goes only so far. For example, democratic peace theory applies only to relations between nation-states, while some of the security threats discussed here come from nonstate actors such as jihadi terrorists. Additionally, some scholars argue that the democratic peace is really a “liberal peace,” meaning that pacific conditions between countries depend not on procedural democracy but on the mutual embrace of liberal values and liberal institutions. Because religious freedom stands as one of the cornerstones of classical liberalism, does the fact that no religious-freedom-respecting nations pose a threat to the U.S. suggest that the liberal peace might even be a “religious-freedom peace”?
The possibility of a religious-freedom peace also helps address another question: Why single out religious freedom when similar claims might plausibly be made on behalf of other human rights in relation to national security? This argument does not seek to diminish other human rights, but rather highlights some of the characteristics of religious freedom that make it uniquely salient for national security, more so than other important rights such as freedom of press or speech.
Because it is inseparable from religion itself, religious freedom implicates humanity’s aspirations for transcendence. For religious believers — who make up the vast majority of the global population — the liberty to believe, act, and worship according to the imperatives of their faith is inseparable from their very identity and sense of place in the world. Religious liberty has both an individual and a communal component, as the obligations of a particular confession apply to individual and corporate body alike. Related to this, religion is often a determining feature of ethnic or national identity, whether Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu nationalism in India, Judaism and Israel, Russian Orthodoxy, or Turkish Islam.
Just as it often correlates with ethno-nationalism, religion also connects with the eternal. Its eschatological dimension is often most compelling for believers yet most inscrutable for nonbelievers. It is this very eschatological dimension that, for good or for ill, often inspires some of the most notable religious actions, whether the jihadist’s belief in eternal rewards and Allah’s approval, or the Hindu pacifist’s belief in reincarnation, or the Christian martyr’s belief in the blessed hope of heaven.
Finally, religion informs the most consequential matters even here on earth. Many religious believers hold that their ultimate loyalties lie not to a particular government or nation-state but to the divine reality as they understand it. In this sense, religious liberty is often described as the “first freedom” that undergirds other democratic freedoms because, as Peter Berger has observed, “religion most emphatically proposes that there are limits to the legitimate power of the state.”
Or for another vantage point showing how religious freedom is not merely a proxy for other civil liberties but a foundational issue in its own right, consider the perspective of the oppressor. In the cases of actors such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iranian regime, and Saudi Arabia, religious intolerance is intrinsic to their own self-definition. Their entire existence is predicated on a religious narrative that is coercive, exclusive, and deeply hostile to any manner of religious dissent or diversity — and that often justifies, even mandates, violence. This contrasts with other democratic rights such as media freedom, which the Taliban, for example, certainly oppose but by which they do not define themselves.
Recent scholarship has begun to explore the empirical connection between religious persecution and security concerns. A new book by Brian Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, conducts a robust statistical analysis of religious-freedom conditions and incidents of conflict in 143 countries and concludes that “to the extent that governments and societies restrict religious freedoms, physical persecution and conflict increase.” As intuitive as this might be, Grim and Finke provide substantial data to reinforce it. Controlling for related factors like democratic institutions and respect for other human rights and civil liberties, they find that religious-freedom restrictions play a distinctive role in fomenting conflict. This holds across multiple geographies, regime types, and religious demographics. In short, whether a nation is communist or nationalist, Islamic or Orthodox or secular, religious-freedom restrictions cause instability. Admittedly, the fact of conflict and instability within other nations does not intrinsically constitute a security concern for the U.S. But they can often be a leading indicator, and sometimes cause, of a potential security threat.
A theoretical model developed by Daniel Philpott helps distil the relationship between regime type and propensity for political violence. The two most salient factors are the level of differentiation between religion and state, and the political theology of the majority religion. In Philpott’s words, “Religious communities are prone to violence when they hold a political theology that interprets their scriptures, traditions, and divine commands so as to favor an integrationist state, one that both makes its religion official and suppresses other faiths. They also tend toward belligerence when they are faced with laws and institutions — either secular or sponsored by another faith — that suppress their own practice and expression. Either cause may operate alone, but the two may also interact, reinforcing each other.” “Integrationist” states — those that permit little or no independence for religious communities — include theocracies that use the state to advance the majority religion and authoritarian regimes that bring religion under the tight control or suppression of the state. Conversely, states with high levels of differentiation between religion and the government rarely display a propensity for political violence.
Religious persecution: Who does it?
Broadly construed, religious persecution as a factor in national security seems to manifest in three categories of actors: jihadist terrorism, theocratic regimes, and authoritarian powers.
Jihadist terrorism. While much analysis has been undertaken over the past decade on jihadist ideology and terrorist groups, surprisingly less attention has been paid to the religious intolerance that defines these organizations. Al Qaeda in its different iterations may be the most visible and extensive, but other groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Haqqani Network share similar antipathies towards religious freedom. While each organization has its own particular concerns, methods, and areas of operation, a common pillar that unites jihadist ideology is an aversion to religious pluralism and a commitment to their intolerant interpretations of Islamic law, with the ultimate goal being a strict Islamist political order. In turn this means the prohibition, and often persecution, of other religious belief and activity — whether by Christians, Jews, or other Muslims who do not share the jihadists’ political theology.
In the instances where jihadist groups have gained political control over a particular area, they have attempted to implement this vision. Hamas in governing the Gaza Strip has, in the words of the State Department, used “its security apparatus to arrest or detain Muslims in Gaza who did not abide by Hamas’s strict interpretation of Islam.” In a similar vein, targeting religious pluralism is a favored tactic to help assert political control. For example, al Qaeda in Iraq’s (aqi) preferred targets included any manifestations of religious diversity. Most notorious was the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shia Islam’s two holiest sites. While rightly understood as a vicious attempt to incite sectarian war within Iraq, the attack was also a direct assault on religious freedom. The Sunni jihadists of al-Qaeda believe Shia Muslims to be kaffirs, or infidels, and thus legitimate targets. Also among aqi’s declared enemies are Iraqi Christians, which aqi statements have dismissed as “idolaters.” In the aftermath of its October 31, 2010, massacre at a Baghdad church that left 58 Iraqi Christians dead, aqi declared that “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahideen.” This religious intolerance is also a distinguishing factor in the places that jihadist groups seek out as operational bases. Consider where al Qaeda operatives have sought safe haven over the past two decades, such as Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen — all characterized by governments either unable or unwilling to protect religious liberty.
Theocratic regimes. Though sharing some common tenets of political theology with jihadist groups, theocratic regimes are distinguished by a government with effective sovereignty over a nation-state, and which adopts a particular religious ideology. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two most prominent examples. Theocratic regimes are inherently inimical to religious freedom, as they define the state’s legitimacy by the propagation of their religious ideology in all dimensions of social and political life — including the suppression of both minority faiths and adherents of the majority faith who dissent from the regime’s doctrine. Hence Iran significantly restricts, and sometimes persecutes, its religious minorities such as Bahais, Jews, and Christians, as well as dissident Muslims. Saudi Arabia notoriously prohibits any public worship by non-Muslims and does not allow a single non-Muslim house of worship in the entire country, despite the presence of literally millions of non-Muslim residents, predominantly Hindus and Christians, among the many expatriates living and laboring in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s restrictions also apply to Saudi Muslims who do not follow the Kingdom’s officially sanctioned Wahhabi Islam, such as the Shia or the Sunni reformers who have challenged the Kingdom’s chokehold on Islamic orthodoxy.
The security challenges posed by Iran are well known, from Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorism to its attacks on American forces on Iraq to its nuclear weapons program. Less appreciated, though, is how the Iranian government’s religious intolerance directly shapes this security threat. Since the 1979 revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s institution of the Velayat-e faqih system of rule by Islamic jurists, the supreme leader and the Council of Guardians have defined the religious nature of the Iranian state in opposition to any entities seen as resistant to the divine mandate. Two principles of this system stand out. First, it restricts the rights of non-Shia Muslims such as Sufis and Sunnis as well as non-Muslims such as Christians, Bahai’s, and Jews. Second, it endorses violence as an instrument against those defined as its opponents, whether non-Shia religious minorities or external nations such as the United States and Israel. Moreover, because both of these principles stem from Velayat-e faqih, the regime believes they carry divine sanction. In the most serious cases, dissenters against the regime, including Shia, have been executed under the capital offense of moharebeh, or “waging war against God.”
Saudi Arabia shows that the government of a theocratic regime might not necessarily define itself as an opponent of the United States, since the House of Saud has been an American strategic partner since the beginning of the Cold War. Yet the intolerant version of Islam that the regime cultivates at home and exports abroad continues to pose a security concern. The most acute demonstration of this came on September 11, when fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi citizens whose formative years had included inculcation in Wahhabi ideology from Saudi mosques. This ideology included teachings that Christians, Jews, and Shia Muslims were subhuman and that fidelity to Islam meant participation in violent jihad. The wonder is not that so many Saudi citizens raised in this environment took up the mantle of terrorism, but that so few did. After al-Qaeda’s May 12, 2003, attacks on the residential compounds of expatriates living in Riyadh, the Saudi government awoke to its internal problem and embarked on a fierce and thus far largely successful effort to kill, arrest, or reform Saudis who had embraced jihadism.
Yet as Reuel Marc Gerecht has observed, even after Osama bin Laden’s death
Saudi Arabia . . . may well remain the big incubator of Islamic terrorism in the Sunni world, for the simple reason that the Saudi state perpetuates an unbridgeable contradiction. The Wahhabi creed is virulently intolerant of non-Muslims and Muslims who don’t practice with the requisite rigor. It’s no accident that so many of al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers have come out of Saudi Arabia — the distance between the official creed and the ethos of those who become holy warriors, or admire them enough to support them financially, isn’t great.
Equally worrisome are states that are not theocratic regimes but face internal pressures in that direction. Pakistan is a prominent example. On March 2, 2011, a Muslim extremist assassinated Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian minister, for Bhatti’s criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. This brought to international attention an issue that has preoccupied religious-freedom advocates for two decades. While ostensibly a democracy, Pakistan embodies many contradictions, including a blasphemy law that dictates the death penalty for “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name” of the prophet Muhammad. The law symbolizes Pakistan’s deeper religious fissures, yet it is more than merely symbolic. In practice it exacerbates religious extremism, provides a rallying point for Pakistan’s Islamists, and serves as a disturbingly effective weapon against religious minorities in Pakistan such as Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, not to mention progressive Muslims such as Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, also assassinated for his criticism of the blasphemy law. Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to repeal the blasphemy law indicates its vulnerability to jihadist influences and continuing appeal to terrorists. Many of the same Islamist elements within the Pakistani security establishment, particularly the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, that support the blasphemy law also maintain close ties with Pakistani militant groups such as the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen that appear to have helped shelter Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound.
Authoritarian powers. Not all authoritarian states violate religious freedom, but those that do are more likely to pose a security threat. Such regimes often also foment nationalism among their citizens and seek to bring any independent expressions of civil society under state control. Russia in the Putin/Medvedev era has increasingly adopted this model, as the state promotes the Russian Orthodox Church to sacralize Russian identity while restricting the practice of other faiths. So has China, as the Chinese Communist Party has embraced authoritarian capitalism with a nationalist edge. North Korea stands as an illustrative, albeit extreme, model with the Kim regime’s personality cult, promulgation of its Juche version of communist ideology, and fierce persecution of religious believers. Particularities and differences notwithstanding, in all of these cases the authoritarian regime places the primacy of the state over any independent religious activity, and make the perpetuation of the state’s authority a transcendent goal.
In these regimes, the state’s monopoly on political power regards independent religious activity as an intrinsic threat, to be controlled or suppressed. The important qualification is “independent.” Often authoritarian regimes permit or even encourage religious activity that is subservient to the state, since religion properly controlled can serve to legitimate the state and bolster nationalism, or at a minimum help pacify citizens. Thus Putin has increased state support for the Russian Orthodox Church, and China permits religious observance only in registered outlets by its five recognized religions while subjecting independent religious groups to restriction or persecution. As Tom Farr has noted of China, “the Communist government fears religion so vehemently that it admits capitalists into the Communist party but not religious believers.”
Authoritarian regimes also attempt to derive legitimacy from increasing their own power and projecting it abroad, particularly against perceived enemies or threats. Aaron Friedberg has observed that in China, “the party’s desire to retain power shapes every aspect of national policy. When it comes to external affairs, it means that Beijing’s ultimate aim is to ‘make the world safe for authoritarianism,’ or at least for continued one-party rule in China.” In a not-unrelated link, authoritarian governments also often disparage independent religious groups in their countries as “agents of the West” or “American pawns.” Moreover, because the United States occasionally advocates for religious liberty abroad, such advocacy sometimes increases the threat perception of authoritarian regimes that look suspiciously at such U.S. efforts. These regimes believe that religious groups contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain and dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe, and are determined not to make the same mistake by allowing religious liberty.
In Russia, trends of religious intolerance have mutually reinforced trends of political regression and the deterioration in Russia-U.S. relations. For example, the 1997 passage of a restrictive religion law heralded an upsurge in nationalism and backlash against pluralism prompted in part by the Russian Orthodox Church’s fears about losing its religious monopoly. This law should have served as an early warning of the erosion of Russian democracy. Upon attaining the presidency three years later, Vladimir Putin shrewdly capitalized on this trend to consolidate his power and curtail any inchoate democratic institutions. Religious liberty has continued to deteriorate in Russia over the past decade, as minority faiths such as Pentecostals, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons have been denied permission to meet and occasionally find their leaders imprisoned. Muslims have also faced growing discrimination and restrictions. Not coincidentally, Russia — while not an explicit enemy of the U.S. — has come to regard the U.S. warily as a strategic competitor. And while China does not inevitably present a threat to the U.S., the Chinese government sees the U.S. as its most likely adversary, and its ongoing military modernization program includes considerable efforts to counter U.S. force projection and capabilities, particularly in the western Pacific.
Implications for religious-freedom policy
If religious-freedom violations potentially lead to national security concerns, there are at least three ways that religious freedom can be better integrated with security policy. First, religious-freedom violations can serve as a diagnostic or leading indicator of a potential security threat. Second, religious-freedom promotion can function as a mitigating factor in ameliorating existing security threats. Third, improvements in religious freedom can also prevent the emergence of new security threats.
Diagnostic. The United States devotes considerable resources — billions of dollars, thousands of analysts, countless man-hours — across the national security community to identifying potential security threats. Policymakers and analysts should add religious-freedom conditions to the set of indicators they use to identify and track possible security threats. Moreover, as Grim and Finke have found, violent religious persecution also helps cause social conflict and instability, and can be a leading indicator of a failing state or looming civil war. This is not to say that an increase in religious persecution automatically indicates a security concern, but that deteriorations in religious freedom increases the odds of instability and possible security threats.
Consider Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks. While generally relegated by international policymakers to the back burner of priorities, Afghanistan occasionally lurched into international attention when the Taliban would engage in particularly egregious displays of religious intolerance. This included the destruction of the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in March 2001, or the imprisonment of two American women missionaries that same year. And those who consistently suffered the most under Taliban rule were Afghan Muslims who did not share the Taliban’s Islamist predilections.
Internationally, before September 11 the Taliban’s depredations provoked the ire of religious-freedom advocates and women’s rights advocates but were otherwise largely dismissed by foreign policy professionals as unfortunate but irrelevant to national security concerns. Yet the very same conditions of religious intolerance that were appalling to human rights advocates were appealing to al Qaeda. This is by no means to say that a more vigorous push for religious freedom would have prevented the September 11 attacks. But at a minimum, more attention to the Taliban’s religious persecution might have also helped reveal the potential terrorist threat.
Religious-freedom violations can also be a leading indicator of authoritarianism. As Peter Berger has observed of China as Beijing increases its repression of independent religious groups, “modern authoritarian rulers have understood instinctively that uncontrolled religion can be a threat. By the same token, violations of religious freedom frequently foreshadow other measures of tyranny. Thus Chinese Christians today may resemble canaries in a coalmine, their fate sending out an alarm.”
Ameliorative. The promotion of religious-freedom protections may in some cases help ameliorate potential security threats. Consider the case of Pakistan. If the blasphemy laws were to be taken off the books, Islamists would lose a favored instrument for targeting religious minorities, intimidating moderate Muslims, and enhacing the Islamist reach in government and society. Pakistan’s maladies are legion, so the end of the blasphemy laws would hardly be a blanket palliative. But it could serve as one ameliorating measure to undermine extremist elements. In a related vein, American support for religious-freedom protections for peaceful Muslims in divided, fragile societies such as Afghanistan or Yemen would also aid counterterrorism efforts by building trust among the populace and increasing their confidence in sharing intelligence tips.
Religious-freedom promotion can also help mitigate some of the enabling factors behind authoritarian security threats. Independent religious groups can often serve as bulwarks against the pretensions of the state to exert control over all aspects of the society. In the case of China, a substantial step for the Chinese government would be to allow its millions of unregistered house-church Christians to worship legally and regularize their role in Chinese society. Their newfound liberties would enable these Christians — many of whom occupy important roles in China’s intellectual and commercial classes — to shape Chinese society in a more pacific direction while eroding the bellicose nationalism that the Chinese Communist Party relies on in part for its legitimacy.
Preventive. Ensuring religious-freedom protections can also play a constructive role in states that do not now pose a security threat but are at a crucible in their development and identity. Promoting religious freedom can help prevent a future security threat and destabilization from emerging. In Grim and Finke’s words, “the higher the degree to which governments and societies ensure religious freedoms for all, the less violent religious persecution and conflict along religious lines there will be.” The troubled stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are instructive. While each country’s new constitution offers some hortatory commitment to religious freedom, other clauses undermine this by privileging Islamic law. And in practice the conditions for religious minorities are precarious, as evidenced by the recent imprisonment and horrific treatment of an Afghan citizen for converting to Christianity. While religious-freedom protections alone will not guarantee the emergence of stable and self-governing states in Afghanistan and Iraq, their absence will make failure more likely. Egypt faces a similar reality in its ongoing political transition. While it faces manifest challenges in institution-building, economic growth, and democratic processes, one key determinant of Egypt’s democratic transition will be religious freedom. Specifically, Egypt will need to ensure robust legal protections for the rights of its Coptic Christian minority as well as the rights of moderate and progressive Muslims who do not share the Islamist agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
Both the bush and Obama administrations have demonstrated at least a rhetorical appreciation for the relationship between religious freedom and broader security equities. For example, the Bush administration’s 2006 “National Security Strategy” declared that “against a terrorist enemy that is defined by religious intolerance, we defend the First Freedom: the right of people to believe and worship according to the dictates of their own conscience, free from the coercion of the state, the coercion of the majority, or the coercion of a minority that wants to dictate what others must believe.” While the Obama administration’s “National Security Strategy” does not address religious freedom, President Obama highlighted it in his 2009 Cairo speech as one of the key issues facing the Islamic world: “People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul . . . Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.”
Yet in operational terms, the U.S. government has consistently treated religious-freedom promotion as at best a tertiary priority. While religious freedom exists as a normative good in its own right, its potential contributions to stability and security have been less explored, let alone appreciated. Understanding religious freedom’s relationship with national security would mean moving it from the periphery towards the center of American policy. Designing effective implementation policies will remain a challenge — yet a challenge worth embracing not only for American ideals, but for American