Leonard Leo is chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which late last month issued its annual report on the state of religious freedom in the world. With recommendations to Congress, they singled out Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam as countries of “particular concern” because of their treatment of human rights. From Indonesia, Leo talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the report, the mission of the commission, the state of religious liberty in the world, and why it should matter here.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How is religious freedom a national-security issue?
LEONARD LEO: 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.
LOPEZ: What’s the most important point coming out of your report?
LEO: 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.
LOPEZ: Is the Obama administration worse than the Bush administration?
LEO: That’s not the commission’s metric. We’ve made it clear in this year’s annual report that the Obama administration has missed the mark in a number of important respects, and that it has to do a better job of making clear to other countries what they must do to fulfill their international human-rights obligations. Unfortunately, in certain respects, we had similar criticisms of the Bush administration, and the Clinton administration before that.
LOPEZ: Why is the International Religious Freedom ambassador position important?
LEO: That position, if properly structured and filled, can provide focus to the State Department’s work. The IRF ambassador is the in-house advocate for ensuring that the various bureaus and country desks don’t brush religious freedom under the rug in an effort to smooth over our bilateral relations with other nations. The IRF ambassador can help to draw connections between promotion of religious freedom and the achievement of key national-security, economic-development, and foreign-affairs objectives.
LOPEZ: Who are the greatest offenders we can and should influence?
LEO: Our 13 countries of particular concern, of course. Though, over the past year we’ve been placing special emphasis on China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, North Korea, and Vietnam.
LOPEZ: Isn’t religious freedom, to some extent, each country’s own business?
LEO: When countries enter into binding international agreements, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, they need to observe the provisions contained therein that are directed at protecting religious freedom. What’s more, when mapping out our strategic partnerships with various countries that are mutually beneficial, it is not wrong — indeed, it is right and just — for us to expect compliance with international human rights standards. Enjoying the benefits of strategic partnerships and alliances on the world stage ought to come with the fulfillment of basic obligations to uphold the individual worth and dignity of every human person.
LOPEZ: How are we doing domestically on the matter of religious freedom?
LEO: The commission has no mandate to evaluate our domestic situation, so I’d have to leave that to others to assess.
LOPEZ: Are there lessons abroad for us?
LEO: That’s a tough question. One thing I think I’ve learned is that, if a nation protects the freedoms of its most unpopular and underrepresented minorities, then there’s a far greater chance that everybody’s safer from government oppression and overreaching. Also, we need to remember how fortunate we are in this country to enjoy an unparalleled degree of religious freedom. 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, and how well our constitutional system and democracy have worked here.
LOPEZ: Is the Bush administration to blame for the current state of Christians in Iraq?
LEO: Of course, blame goes primarily to the lawless extremists and terrorists who are killing their fellow man. They have driven many Christians out of the country, and the Christian and other religious minorities in the north face extinction. Unfortunately, the U.S. government did contribute to the problem, and the Iraqi government is not doing enough either, at present. More resources and attention should have been directed to the specific protection and preservation of these vulnerable communities.
LOPEZ: What do you make of the administration’s response to your report?
LEO: There hasn’t been much of a response yet. The White House says it is committed to promoting freedom of religion abroad. Hopefully, that will be manifested by the administration’s quickly designating as countries of particular concern the nations we’ve identified, imposing some stand-alone sanctions for religious-freedom violations, and better integrating religious-freedom concerns into various strategic bilateral discussions.
LOPEZ: The commission has been criticized, too. Are there fair criticisms? Are there unfair ones?
LEO: USCIRF is doing its job. We are pressing hard for the U.S. government to make freedom of religion abroad a more central priority in the foreign-policy arena. We are serving as an echo chamber for civil-society groups and religious leaders who share that goal. And we are representing the interests and concerns of all religions. But we are an advisory body, and, as such, our success is necessarily tied to the extent to which Congress and the executive branch share our concerns and are prepared to take action.
LOPEZ: What exactly is the commission anyway and why is it important? Does a government entity really need to exist to do what it does?
LEO: USCIRF is an independent agency of the federal government that is charged with making recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress about how to better improve freedom of religion abroad through our foreign policy. Congress created the commission because it believed that there needed to be an independent watchdog to press our government to pay more attention to freedom of religion amongst the myriad of issues that compete for attention in the foreign-policy space.
LOPEZ: Are you and the commission, generally speaking, enemies of Islam?
LEO: On the contrary. We have been staunch defenders of religious freedom for individuals of all faiths. We’ve pressed for the rights of Baha’is in Iran and Egypt, Amadiyas in Pakistan and Indonesia, Shias in Iraq, and Uighur Muslims in China and Central Asia. Not to mention Christians, Hindus, Protestants, and Buddhists all around the world.
LOPEZ: What is your view of Islam and its relationship to religious freedom and U.S. foreign policy?
LEO: We must protect the rights of Muslims to peaceably practice their faith and to be free from discrimination, harassment, and oppression on account of their religion. U.S. foreign policy — to the extent it seeks to promote freedom of religion for all — can help to advance stability, security, and economic growth.
LOPEZ: How can the Obama administration do better? Are there relatively non-dramatic recommendations one might make?
LEO: 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.
LOPEZ: Is there anything Congress should be doing that it isn’t?
LEO: There should be greater oversight of the State Department in terms of its efforts to address international religious freedom.
LOPEZ: You’re currently in Indonesia? Is this a religious-freedom mission?
LEO: Yes, I’m presently leading a delegation to Indonesia, a country that’s been on our watch list since the violence in Ambon in 2003. Indonesia has problems that need to be addressed, including a failure on the part of police to hold accountable individuals who harass and intimidate people of faith and who have been responsible for closing or destroying churches and mosques. Also, Indonesia should revoke its blasphemy law, its criminal-code provision punishing “deviant” religious practices, and its presidential decree that restricts the freedom of Amadiya to worship freely.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.