Guest contributor: ELIZABETH SHAKMAN HURD, Associate Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University.

In the United States, religious freedom is described as the ‘first freedom’: a fundamental human right and a sine qua non of democratic politics. Americans, we are told, invented and perfected religious freedom. It’s ready for export, and exporting it we are. The U.S. has promoted religious freedom abroad for 14 years. Today, actors and institutions across the political spectrum, both secular and religious, have taken up the cause. Legal guarantees of religious freedom are embedded as riders in trade agreements, in aid packages, and in humanitarian projects.

Foreign policy establishments beyond U.S. borders are also formalizing the promotion of religious freedom—with Canada’s proposed Office of Religious Freedom being a recent example. The EU is promoting religious freedom in its external affairs, training diplomats and adding clauses to agreements with trading partners in North Africa and Central Asia. The UN is in its third decade of promoting religious freedom. When the Moroccan Justice and Development Party won recent parliamentary elections, party leader Mustafa Ramid observed: “We have a progressive approach to Islam. The Islamicization of Morocco will be achieved only by re-establishing justice, and religious freedom.”

“A more complex and less self-congratulatory story is waiting to be told—and it is important to tell this story in Canada right now as Canadians debate public initiatives in this area.”

In all of the excitement surrounding religious freedom—and who can be against religious freedom?—it is easy to forget that these are political projects situated in history, implemented by powerful state and international authorities. It is easy to be swept up in the common-sense assumption that guaranteeing religious freedom is what keeps at bay tyrannical forms of religious authority that leave women and minorities in the dust. Positioned as the only alternative to unappealing options, it is hardly surprising that religious freedom has gathered the political momentum it now enjoys.

Yet it is important to step back from the excitement and anxiety surrounding these initiatives in order to ask: what is being made and done in the name of religious freedom? What alternative possibilities for negotiating across lines of social and religious difference are foreclosed by a singular focus on securing religious freedom at any costs? Is the world created by religious freedom a world that we want to live in? Is there an alternative? Such questions are vital because the promotion of religious freedom is not simply about the globalization of a universal norm or legal standard. Projects carried out in its name effectively define what it means to be religious and to be free in the modern world. In short, they shape political realities and religious possibilities on the ground.

Take the situation in Syria, where there has been much talk about persecuted minorities in the wake of the uprisings. These are serious concerns. Christian Solidarity International has lobbied in favor of a genocide warning for Christians across the region. Howard Berman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee says the treatment of Christians and other minorities is a “‘red line’ that will affect future aid.” USA Today reports that “Christians in Syria, where Muslims have risen up against President Bashar Assad, have been subjected to murder, rape and kidnappings in Damascus and rebellious towns.”

The apparent logic of the story is clear: when ‘Muslims rise up against Assad’, the result is Christian persecution. But the problem is that this civil war is not about ‘Muslims rising up against Assad’; that’s the story advanced by the Assad regime. For decades, the Assads have relied on the threat of sectarian anarchy to justify autocratic rule. Depicting the revolt as an armed sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against Alawites and their Shiite allies (rather than a popular uprising against a secular autocracy) hardens lines of religious difference. It makes sectarian violence more likely by energizing sectarian divides (Christian, Alawite and Sunni) that might not otherwise define the conflict.

Syrians, like people everywhere, hold multiple allegiances, celebrate diverse traditions, are often of mixed backgrounds, and do not all fit into the rubrics of religious identity demanded by the sectarian assumptions of religious freedom advocates. Left out in the cold, these ‘in-between’ individuals find themselves in the impossible situation of having either to make political claims on religious grounds or having no grounds from which to speak.

Religious freedom is not merely about enforcing a universal norm (as liberal internationalists would have it). The promotion of religious freedom helps create individuals and faith communities for whom choosing and believing in religion are seen as the defining characteristics of what it is to be a modern subject, and for whom the right to choose to believe (or not) is the essence of what it means to be free. These projects enact particular forms of political and religious authority. They draw lines that demarcate religion from non-religion; divide believer from non-believer; and differentiate religious communities from each other, both horizontally and hierarchically. They empower religious leaders at the expense of dissenters, doubters, and those on the margins.

They may also undermine democracy. This is not because democracy is necessarily secular, but because hierarchical, institutionalized religion—which is defended by American bishops, the U.S. State Department, Open Doors, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Christian Solidarity International, and now, perhaps, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade—heavily regulates, and may shut down, spaces in which non-established, diverse and democratic forms of religion have a chance to flourish.

Perhaps religious freedom is not something that can be defined and enforced by a state, church, international organization, or any other centralized authority. If this is the case, then what are all of these religious and political authorities promoting? In whose name do they speak? Religious freedom needs to be re-imagined as a site of resistance against such authorities, rather than a form of religious and political discipline imposed by them.

Canadians who recognize this dilemma should push back against these programs and policies in the name of alternate ways of being religious and being human (options that are now sidelined, ironically, by the hegemony of religious freedom). A more complex and less self-congratulatory story is waiting to be told—and it is important to tell this story in Canada right now as Canadians debate public initiatives in this area.

For information on Elizabeth Hurd’s lecture at the University of Ottawa on October 18, see the CIPS event page.

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