In March 2006, Abdul Rahman was being tried in an Afghan court and faced certain execution. His crime: offending Islam by leaving it. Initially the U.S. State Department merely called for “transparency” in the trial, but soon President Bush expressed concern and Foggy Bottom changed its tune. Within weeks Rahman was released and fled the country in fear of his life.
This was not the Taliban’s Afghanistan where brutal executions were commonplace. It was a “democracy” whose 2004 constitution, brokered by the U.S., purported to guarantee “a civil society free of oppression, atrocity, discrimination and violence, [and] . . . protection of human rights, and dignity.” The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan had praised the “broad religious freedom” provided in the constitution.
After Rahman’s release the senior U.S. official responsible for promoting international religious freedom said the United States had demonstrated to the world how important this issue was.
But what issue? The release of victims so they may flee their own countries in the dark of night? Or promoting the habits and institutions of religious freedom?
Press reports last week confirmed that Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl arrested last year in Pakistan for blasphemy, has been settled with her family in Canada since March. The 13-year-old had been charged with offending Islam by burning a Koran she found in a garbage heap.
The charges were ultimately dropped, but Pakistan’s Muslim population does not tolerate blasphemy. Two political figures were murdered in 2011 for opposing anti-blasphemy laws, and mob violence against those thought to have offended Islam is common. The Masih family knew it could not remain in Pakistan, and the Canadian government decided to help.
Clearly the global tragedy of religious persecution merits our attention for humanitarian reasons. According to the Pew Research Center, millions are subject to persecution because of their religious beliefs or those of their tormentors.
But springing targets of religious violence from their own countries cannot be the primary content of our religious-freedom policy. It does nothing to address the structures of persecution that ensure a steady supply of victims and, at the same time, threaten U.S. national security. So long as Muslim publics believe that violence is the proper response when someone offends their religion, then violent religious extremism will continue to flourish, as it does in too many countries of the Muslim-majority world.
The hard reality is that, while the U.S. (and Canada) should be lauded for helping those in harm’s way, the United States has done virtually nothing to convince Muslim societies that moving toward religious freedom will work to their advantage — by helping to consolidate democracy (think Egypt), undermine violent religious extremism (think Afghanistan), and increase economic development (take your pick).
Until we become more effective in advancing religious freedom abroad, our own security will remain at risk. And the Rimsha Masihs of the world will have no choice but to suffer or to flee.
— Thomas F. Farr is the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center.