Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Freedom (which recently issued a report on religious oppression and discrimination), in an interesting interview explains what has escaped the grasp of Obama:
Promoting the freedom of religion or belief promotes stability and security by reducing resentment, tension, hostility, and extremism. Countries that discriminate against and harass religious minorities, and that enforce blasphemy and other repressive laws, tend to embolden extremists who seek to impose their own orthodoxy. Countries that look the other way when religious minorities are being attacked by private individuals foster a climate of impunity, which similarly creates space for extremism. And, countries that crack down on peaceable religious practices of non-majority faiths create feelings of resentment on the part of oppressed minorities, which in turn can drive young men in those minority faiths to separatist movements and terrorist training camps.
Leo is emphatic that “the U.S. government must do more to make the promotion of freedom of religion a more central feature or objective of our foreign-policy agenda” but diplomatically declines to compare the Obama administration with the Bush team.
He does note, however, that it would be a good idea to fill the position of ambassador for International Religious Freedom. And he focuses on countries whose lack of religious freedom has gone unaddressed by Obama: “The impunity of Nigeria and Egypt, the use of religion to stoke civil war in places like Sudan, the imposition in countries such as Pakistan of blasphemy laws that result in public punishment of and private violence against dissenters and minorities — these are among the chilling reminders of how fragile human dignity is elsewhere in the world.”
Most telling is the administration’s reaction to the commission’s report: “There hasn’t been much of a response yet.” That’s par for the course. It is not a topic that interests Obama; indeed the calls from religious and political human-rights activists for Obama to step up to the plate in defense of those fighting political and religious oppression (in Iran, China, Sudan, Burma, Egypt, and elsewhere) are no doubt an annoyance to a president whose foreign policy is built on ingratiating himself with despots. Leo advises:
The administration should make freedom of religion an integral part of the negotiations that are taking place with countries such as China, Iran, and North Korea. And, in the close bilateral relations we have with countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, we must send the message that we expect more and better from them. All too often, freedom-of-religion issues either are ignored altogether or are not linked into a broader strategic dialogue respecting stability, security, development, and peace.
Don’t expect this to change until there is a new president.