Religious Freedom Remains a Thorny Issue

Chris Seiple, Ph.D. - June 8, 2009

A new beginning begins. The right man at the right moment delivers a message that he embodies. For a continuing moment now -- with little precedent to encourage it -- there is the feeling that America is ready to engage Muslims worldwide with respect, celebrating not tolerating them. America, seemingly, is ready to recognize that men and women of devout faith (and none) can participate as partners in common purpose. This is good.

The speech has deserving critiques. It failed to cite the example of Egyptian President Sadat in the 30th year since his remarkable peacemaking efforts with Israel; it suggested a moral equivalency between the U.S. as a country whose democratic process and free press has called to account incidents of torture and those authoritarian countries that have institutionalized torture; it did not mention the humanitarian efforts of American NGOs that serve Muslims around the world, let alone the U.S. military interventions that saved Muslims when no one else would (e.g., Kuwait, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc); and, most critically, it did not cite the sections of the Holy Quran and Hadith that demonstrates the tangible teachings of respect for the other (e.g., the Medina Charter or the story of Negus).

More Jewish, Christian, Muslim perspectives on Obama's Speech


Some have critiqued the speech because it was too tough on Israel; it did not address Iran in a meaningful manner; and it did not include more specific details about next steps. I understand but don't accept these arguments. The Muslim-majority world needed to hear of America's "unbreakable" bond with Israel, and that we can have constructive conversations without being called anti-Semitic. It was wise to say less about Iran and let Iranians, their economy, and their ayatollahs judge their president on 12 June. Finally, providing too many details about next steps twice defeats the purpose of the speech. If we have the answers, then why have a conversation? Second, by providing a visionary framework of interrelated pieces, it gives people around the world, especially policy-makers, a chance to consider and debate the speech, generating new ideas that might be of use in the weeks and months to come.

Indeed, the most fascinating dimension of the speech was its emphasis on religious freedom. That the son of a Muslim father chose Christianity, was now president, and could speak about religious freedom in Cairo (and mention the Copts) might be the most radically hopeful element of the speech. Yet, the speech and its organization, however, demonstrate the ongoing difficulty all of us have in promoting religious freedom worldwide. For example, the organization of the speech clearly treats religious freedom as a separate and distinct element. On the other hand, if one understands religious freedom to mean both the right to choose/change/share/reject faith AND the call to respect and be reconciled with the other -- as we do at the Institute for Global Engagement -- then the speech was infused with religious freedom.

It is this definition and approach to religious freedom that serves as the foundation for a civil, stable, and prosperous society. It is this definition that preempts extremism when religious freedom is implemented at the intersection of culture and the rule of law (sensitive to the former, consistent with the latter). It is this definition, I believe, that is embodied in President Obama's biography, diction, and approach. Yet, the speech compartmentalized religious freedom to the fifth of seven elements, just as U.S. foreign policy and the national security establishment compartmentalizes this foundational human right to one small office at the State Department.

For example, the Obama administration has not named a U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, let alone given him/her the mandate (per the 1998 legislation) to integrate religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy, as the Cairo speech de facto does. Such an understanding of religious freedom would also form and inform a coherent and consistent approach to political Islam worldwide -- as coordinated, in part, with the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and the new Global Engagement Directorate at the National Security Council -- beginning with a concerted attempt to understand and then engage local Islam and its understanding of justice. Our strategic and micro communications strategies, as well as our counterinsurgency doctrine, must begin here.

Next steps like these must come quickly, otherwise this speech of great expectations could result in great violence as hopes are dashed and stereotypes continue. We must pray for this president and his courage to begin a new beginning. But it will take all of us to live out the best of our faiths and values if this speech is to be truly transformational.

Chris Seiple, Ph.D., is the President of the Institute for Global Engagement, a "think-tank with legs" that promotes sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.