Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: Religious Freedom and U.S. National Security

Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Nathan Chute/REUTERS

Senior Advisor, Religion and Inclusive Societies, United States Institute of Peace

Visiting Expert, United States Institute of Peace


Secretary General, Religions for Peace International

Religion and Foreign Policy Webinars and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Peter Mandaville, senior advisor for the religion and inclusive societies program at United States Institute of Peace, and Knox Thames, visiting expert at United States Institute of Peace, discuss their recent report, “Maintaining International Religious Freedom as a Central Tenet of US National Security.” Azza Karam, secretary general at Religions for Peace International, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. This webinar series convenes religious and faith-based leaders in cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations.

Today’s session is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Azza Karam with us to moderate today’s discussion on religious freedom and U.S. national security. Dr. Azza Karam is secretary general of Religions for Peace International, and professor of religion and development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Previously, she served as a senior advisor on culture at the United Nations Population Fund, coordinator and chair of the United Nations Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development, and president of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations.

And before I turn it over to Azza to moderate this conversation, I want to thank her and Peter Mandaville, who is one of our speakers, for serving on CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Advisory Committee. We appreciate all of their guidance over the past several years to help us with our programming and activities. So with that, Azza, over to you to introduce Peter and Knox.

KARAM: Thank you very much, indeed. It is a true privilege for me and a real pleasure to be able to moderate this session with two scholars and practitioners who have done a great deal not only in the space of religious freedom, but actually assessing and looking at the nexus of freedoms, democracy, human rights, and religions writ large—which, as we all know, is a very topical and temporal issue. But we also know that religious freedom is a very critical aspect of—increasingly a critical aspect not only for the United States’ foreign policy, but as it intersects with foreign policy and domestic policies of many countries around the world, and certainly with the engagement of religious organizations and interreligious actors in many places and spaces.

So we’re in a good moment, so to speak, to discuss religious freedom. But we’re also in a very appropriate space at the Council on Foreign Relations to be able to assess and understand together from two leading experts in this space on precisely how and why international religious freedom should be a main tenet of U.S. foreign policy. And I am quoting their singular report, which was very recently issued after a great deal of debate and research, within and under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace.

I have the privilege to introduce these two giants of this space.

Peter Mandaville is a senior advisor for the Religion and Inclusive Societies team at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He has twenty-five years of academic think tank and government experience, focusing on the intersection of religion, international affairs, and the Muslim-majority world. At USIP, Dr. Mandaville leads an initiative focused on the security and peacebuilding implications of religion in the external relations of great powers. He’s also a professor of international affairs, and director of the AbuSulayman Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University, and a fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Previously, Dr. Mandaville was a member of the United States State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, where he was involved in shaping the U.S. response to the Arab Spring, and a senior advisor in the Office of the Secretary of State. He is the author of many publications, amongst which Islam and Politics and Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma.

Knox Thames is a visiting expert with the Middle East and Religion and Inclusive Societies team at the United States Institute of Peace. He joined USIP after twenty years of government service, including at the U.S. State Department, and two different U.S. government foreign policy commissions. Most recently, Mr. Thames served across two administrations as the special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State. In addition to his work at USIP, he is a senior fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement. Previously, Mr. Thames served on the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, AmeriCorps, and is an adjunct research professor at the U.S. Army War College.

Welcome to both of you. And I would like, before any detailed questions come up, I’d like very much to give the floor to each of you, starting with Peter, to describe a little bit the background to this incredible report, and what prompted it. How did you go about such a report? We understand you, in other conversations, have mentioned the word “bipartisan effort” repeatedly. Tell us a little bit, Peter, about this—the process of this report, and what you actually, in an ideal context, want to see achieved with it and by it?

MANDAVILLE: Yes, great. Absolutely. Thank you very much, Azza. And let me just greet everyone who is joining us today, and to thank Irina and CFR for hosting us, and particularly to you, Azza, for moderating and navigating us through this discussion today. We’re honored and privileged to have someone who, as many of our participants will know, is herself as a towering figure, and someone who’s really shaped the way that many of us do this work, think about it, both in scholarship and in practice. So thank you, Azza.

The origins of this report date back to a conversation that Knox and I had several—almost four years ago now, I think. He and I have known and worked together for two decades now. And while we have always had certain differences in terms of how each of us thinks about the question of religious freedom and appropriate approaches to it in U.S. foreign policy, I think it’s also fair to say that we’ve always deeply respected each other and the way that we go about the work that we do respectively.

And in that conversation, we both registered some concern about the ways in which intense political polarization in U.S. domestic politics appear to be leaking into the way that we think about and work on questions of international religious freedom around the world. And so we agreed that it would be helpful to try and create a process and a space in which we could have and convene conversations about ways of finding common ground in this work, regardless of where one sits on an ideological spectrum. Are there certain aspects of international religious freedom promotion in U.S. foreign policy that we can all agree on?

In late 2020, we both found ourselves taking up new affiliations at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and courtesy of an invitation from the former director of the Religion and Inclusive Societies team at USIP, Susie Hayward, and someone who I’m sure is known to many in the audience today. Susie encouraged us to move forward to create an experts working group focused on these questions. And so we were able to bring together about twenty leading figures on questions of international religious freedom. They represented a variety of sectors and professional backgrounds—some former government officials, some civil society practitioners and activists, and with them thought leaders and scholars on international religious freedom. They represented a wide range of political and ideological orientations.

And we sat together with them. This was during the height of COVID, so much of the group’s interaction and discussion was virtual. But we convened this working group in a series of small group consultations to talk through a number of sort of essential questions, looking into how people view the politicization and political polarization in international religious freedom, and their ideas about how we might minimize it and find that common ground. We were, I want to add, supported invaluably in this work by USIP Research Assistant Emily Scolaro, who’s currently in the PhD program at UNC Chapel Hill. Her contributions and helping to manage, move this work forward, were incredibly important.

We were also able to benefit, I think very importantly, from the participation, the active participation and endorsement of the work, from the two most recent past ambassadors-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback and David Saperstein. Obviously, individuals who served in two very different administrations, but who I think in their interaction with each other, in the way that they helped to shape the conversation space, modeled the very kind of bipartisanship and the sort of spirit that we were hoping would characterize their conversations, even when at times we began to talk very openly and frankly about partisan differences in terms of how people on different sides of the political aisle perceive the issue of religious freedom abroad, and how they perceive each other in their efforts and commitments to advance this work.

The remarkable diversity that I just mentioned that characterized the group might suggest that we would have difficulty reaching consensus on a lot of issues, and certainly on any policy recommendations that we might want to put forward. And indeed, there were a couple of issues that came up where there were simply very respectfully articulated differences of opinion that meant that we were not able to come up with a recommendation that people were able to express comfort with.

For example, one of the issues that came up, and one that will be familiar to many who work in this space, is the question of whether promoting religious freedom should be a function that stands on its own within the portfolio of U.S. foreign policy, or whether promoting religious freedom should be approached as a right that is nested within a broader approach to international human rights. And we just had a wide variety of opinions on that issue.

That said, we were able to come up with eight or nine quite concrete recommendations that the vast majority of our working group members from—again, from a diverse range of ideological and political perspectives, felt comfortable with and were willing to endorse. And we’re looking forward to having the opportunity to talk through some of those with all of you today. Thanks.

KARAM: Thank you very much, Peter. I think you’ve, indeed, painted the picture, and the aspiration, and the actors very, very nicely and succinctly.

Knox, did you want to add anything to what Peter described in terms of the process of getting this, and putting this together as a report, and your own sort of aspiration there too? Go ahead.

THAMES: I’d just add my thanks to you, Azza, and Irina, and CFR for hosting this. And also thank USIP for supporting the working group. These recommendations are recommendations from Peter and myself based on the input from the working group. They’re not working group recommendations, but they were certainly informed by the process and the vigorous debate that Peter referenced. When we were starting this, our—as any American knows, or any observer of U.S. politics knows, our domestic political space is really supercharged. It’s about how do you find the wedge issue that can rally the base. It’s about disagreement.

And we were concerned that this issue of international religious freedom would be a partisan football in the way—or wedge issue—in the way that domestic religious liberty debates have become. We wanted to find, where are the areas that we agree, right left and center, drawing from experts from academia, former government appointees and civil servants, people of all faiths and none. I’m proud of what we were able to put together. And we’re hopeful that the recommendations we outlined will begin a new conversation and try to solidify a safe space where we can continue to think about ways to advance this fundamental human right that doesn’t jeopardize the work for future administrations and advocates.

KARAM: One of the things that you’ve both spoken to is the extent to which there seems to be an understanding that is accepted on all sides, in spite of the polarization, that international religious freedom matters, it is important, and it should be an aspect of U.S. foreign policy. So it sounds as if there wasn’t much agreement necessarily on the what, but perhaps more of a different nuancing and perhaps open disagreement on the how this could or should be undertaken. Is that a correct understanding? And if so, what—in addition to the example that Peter raised, were there other issues where you felt there was not necessarily a common understanding on the how too?

MANDAVILLE: I think we all went into this discussion with the awareness that promoting international religious freedom is something that the United States would continue to do. It is, after all, a matter of law. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 mandates that the U.S. Department of State undertake this work. So it’s not as if we could make recommendations to, say, a particular secretary of state, that they decide to stand down from advancing U.S. religious freedom abroad. It is a value that the United States Congress has committed the executive branch of the United States to carry forward. And so our question was more, what are the most effective ways of doing this? And how can we do this in ways that generates the broadest swath of support from the widest range of champions and advocates for this work?

So certainly, that question of whether promoting religious freedom should be a stand-alone function, with its own specific structures, whether that’s the most effective approach in advancing this cause, or whether it’s most effectively approached as a broader—as one aspect of a broader U.S. commitment to human rights, which has tended to be the approach that many of our international partners, particularly in Europe, have taken. Although, there has been a notable trend in recent years of even our close European partners also creating their own dedicated special envoys and positions focused on freedom of religion or belief.

And so that right there I think starts to point towards another area where there’s debate and discussion. Which is the distinctly American framing of religious freedom or religious liberty—something that I think is in part a function of the American story and American history—versus an international commitment, as enshrined in, for example, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to promoting freedom of religion or belief, FoRB as it’s commonly called. And these are terms that imply different kinds of framings and different understandings of the scope and breadth of what we’re talking about and what we’re championing. So I think that’s another concrete example of some of the terrain that we wandered across.

THAMES: I would add, you’d also see in the recommendations we—the question of how does the United States accomplish this goal through foreign policy? And we have two different recommendations that talk about two different approach vectors. One is using the power of the United States to sanction, to penalize through the country of particular concern status, which the State Department and Secretary Blinken just released their designations on Friday. Versus a softer approach that’s looking to work at a community level to build capacity, to build space for, and appreciation for, diversity and tolerance. Sort of a step removed from the pure human rights advocacy approach.

I think, unlike the “is it a holistic or an individual approach to the issue,” which the report couldn’t really—didn’t speak to, because we couldn’t really find a common approach to that question. There was a sense that we can do both, which due to the pure human rights advocacy to leverage the power the influence of the United States to be that force for good, to be the voice for the oppressed, while also using our resources to develop space for diversity of thought, appreciation for pluralism, which is a key building block to respect for human rights.

KARAM: Just curious, because I’m not sure—I hope that everybody who’s listening in has managed to read the whole report. But for those who may not have had a chance to read it in full, what would you say are some of the key recommendations you want to make sure that everybody listening knows you made, that you feel are very important? What would you highlight or nuance?

MANDAVILLE: Yeah, sure. Thanks for asking that, Azza. And I believe that there’s a link—or, will be a link to the report in the chat box, so that those who are joining us today who haven’t had the opportunity to download the report will be able to do so. There’s also a sort of tl;dr, too long; didn’t read, blog post version of it that is a very efficient 750 words, but kind of hits on our greatest hits in terms of the recommendations.

So there are a couple that I would want to highlight briefly. One is a recommendation we have that is about expanding the range of partners and advocates within international religious freedom constituencies more broadly. There is certainly already, particularly in Washington, DC, a very well developed infrastructure for—within civil society, within political structures—for advocating for, funding, and supporting international religious freedom work. And I know that, for example, the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom—Knox, of course, has worked at both— relies enormously on this community to support their work.

But this is a community that tends to be focused on the idea of religious freedom as a value, as a right, that should be advanced unto itself. And that makes sense. Religious freedom, freedom of religion and belief, is a key constituent element of international human rights commitments. But I think there are also opportunities—and we argue that there are opportunities for expanding the range of partners and champions for international religious freedom, by drawing attention to the ways in which discrimination against certain populations and communities on the basis of religion, the oppression and suppression of those communities, can at times in certain settings be immediate sources of instability and violence.

In other words, there is a national security rationale. There’s a relationship between dynamics of stability and instability, and international religious freedom. And we can point to any number of conflicts around the world—in South and Southcentral Asia, in the Middle East, in sub-Saharan Africa, where those kinds of dynamics are at work. And so we are encouraging our colleagues who work in the broader national security community to understand that in addition to being a core human rights issue, advancing religious freedom, advancing and protecting the rights of religious minorities, for example, can be directly related to efforts to generate greater stability and to foster positive peacebuilding, and enduring peacebuilding outcomes, in a number of settings around the world.

A second recommendation that we focus on—and I’ll register this as actually a bit of a surprise for me, in terms of where our discussion with the group came out. We at one point in the discussion took up the question of the relationship between promoting international religious freedom as a foreign policy function and engaging with religious actors more broadly as a foreign policy function. Those of you who are familiar with the bureaucratics, the ambient bureaucratics around this question in U.S. foreign policy, will know that in 2013 under former Secretary of State John Kerry, the State Department created a new office called the Office of Religion in Global Affairs, that understood itself to be working on the broader effort to raise awareness among American diplomats of the importance of religion as a force in societies around the world.

And to increase the capacity of American diplomats to engage routinely with religious actors as they go about pursuing whatever their diplomatic objectives might be, and to make the point that that kind of work is separate and distinct from promoting religious freedom, which is tied to a particular normative commitment. It’s a values-based effort. And so we wanted to say that these are two complementary, and to some extent related, but also quite separate functions. The Trump administration made the decision to take that Office of Religion in Global Affairs and to put it under the existing Office of International Religious Freedom. And so it became what is today known as the Strategic Religious Engagement Unit within the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

We found broad support—and this is a point that Knox and I also both agree on—on the idea that it would be better to take the strategic religious engagement function out of the Office of International Religious Freedom, in order to give it more space to forge its own unique working relationships with other relevant offices and bureaus at the State Department. And for these two functions to proceed in parallel, in cooperation, and working together in the many occasions when it would be appropriate to do that, but also to have their own space to pursue their own distinct roles.

THAMES: And I would add that there are a few that resonate with me. One is sort of obvious but needs to be said. Organizations and individuals who work to promote international religious freedom should avoid the temptation to politicize it. That they need to just have a rock-solid commitment to advancing this issue, and leaving politics at home, here at home, and not trying to muddy the waters by throwing stones at advocates from a different political party. So just don’t do it.

But two other ones I’ll speak a bit more about. One is just recognizing the difference between the debates here at home, which are important, and situations internationally, which are generally life and death. We know that the cases before the Supreme Court stir great passions. They’re very important. But they’re generally about the finer nuances of how to prefect the protection of religious liberty here at home. The issues confronting advocates and religious communities regarding international religious freedom are about violence, they’re about the lack of justice, they’re about persecution, death, even genocide, as we’re seeing in places like China and Myanmar.

So we need to keep that perspective. So don’t politicize it. Don’t blur terminology with what we’re doing—what’s happening here at home, with the situation that’s drastically different overseas. And then, lastly, we talk about there is a community of suffering. Different belief groups that are being persecuted for trying to pursue as their conscience leads. They’re converts, members who are of the humanist community, atheists and agnostics. But then also, members of sexual and gender minorities, the LGBT community. They’re often facing many of the same social and legal challenges that can lead to severe persecution. But those communities aren’t in conversation with each other.

So we talk about how to address this pandemic of persecution that we see confronting so many parts of the world, building new alliances between unusual or unconventional allies can start to elevate the issue in new ways, and hopefully bring about results. Because if we can improve the conditions for one community, it’ll often have positive reverberations for others. It’s not that we’re asking them to endorse issues that they would disagree with, but rather a common commitment, a common belief in just the dignity of the human person. And on that ground alone, we should be advocating for the fundamental human rights of every individual. And that’s a possibility that I think has yet to be fully explored.

KARAM: I’m glad you said that, because not to preempt what I’m sure will be some very pertinent and important questions from the audience, but just to raise a couple of issues for your consideration that perhaps may also help you pull up other recommendations and nuances from your report. The first issue, to me, is you mentioned China. And I’m thinking, OK, working with civil societies, the U.S. to work with civil society, or impose sanctions. And I’m thinking, I don’t see that happening exactly in the context of a country like China, which is oppressing, or at least is on the record for having, oppressing, certain religious minorities.

So in cases where it’s beyond arguing about politicizing, it is being politicized. It is a political issue. (Laughs.) It is very much politicized. So how then would you, speaking to your fellow colleagues in the State Department and others, what would your advice be, given that particular country dynamic, and the relationship that exists at the moment between the United States, China, and Russia? What then would your report actually say as a recommendation for promoting international religious freedom in that context? That’s one question. So please just let me know your thoughts.

THAMES: We specifically elevate what’s happening in China as evidence of an opportunity to build a broader coalition around a very dire situation. Of course, from the religious freedom advocacy perspective, China is one of the worst countries of the world for the genocide against the Uighurs, the cultural genocide and physical repression of the Tibetan Buddhists, the limitations on Christianity, Falun Gong, the list goes on. But we know, as we’ve seen China start to flex its economic muscles internationally to promote a global system that I think is antithetical to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also other core strategic interests, it presents an opportunity to build that broader tent.

To where it’s not just religious freedom advocates raising concerns about China, but it’s also folks who want a free and fair-trade relationship, organizations that are concerned about Taiwan and its independence. It’s an interesting opportunity to build that broader tent. But also, I would say, just having worked in the State Department advocating for human rights as an American diplomat is hard. You’re constantly confronted with all the different challenges a superpower faces. So of course, we carry our values into these conversations. I’m proud that our country does that. But it’s also we balance them with security, energy, trade, counterterrorism. So it’s hard work as well. And there’s always the risk of hypocrisy.

So part of our—and this isn’t so much covered in the report. This would be more my own personal view is challenging our country to make sure that we’re a consistent advocate for our values, and that we’re consistently carrying those into every conversation, and they don’t get shifted down to the third or fourth talking point, and thus never raised.

MANDAVILLE: And I’ll add to that, and I’ll also be going beyond the boundaries of our report here, but also touching on some work that I’m doing here at USIP as well as in my academic perches. I think that there is a broader kind of new geopolitics of religion that we are all confronting right now. It has very much to do with the ways in which we see in operation today transnational networks grounded, at least in part, in religion, in which some of the major strategic rivals of the United States—certainly Russia, China less so, but countries like India, certain domestic groups even here in the United States as well—are all looped into this.

And a lot of it has to do with a struggle between inclusivists versus exclusivist understandings of religion and religious identities in ways that have fairly intense human rights implications. So it’s not just a set of individual cases and a matter of U.S. bilateral relations. I think there’s a broader transnational geopolitical construct of religion working behind a lot of today’s geopolitics. We’re finding it expressed through multilateral spaces, such as the G20. We’re finding it expressed through, for example, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, that the United States has had some level of, at times, direct representation through a special envoy.

But there are countries—there are emerging powers in Asia, such as China, that have identified the OIC, usually a neglected multilateral space in the eyes of the United States, as a useful platform for advancing certain agendas. And so I think it’s important for us to be aware of these dynamics and to engaged with them. And I think that the kind of combined space of religious engagement and international religious freedom are part and parcel of how we do that.

KARAM: Thank you. You both answered this very, very well. And in a way, it kind of begs the concern, the question which is also a concern, that it is already a politicized domain. I mean, geopolitics of religion is a reality that we are living in the midst of today. So trying to keep politics out of it may well be much easier said than done.

And in that case, I think one of your recommendations that you make becomes particularly important to understand and appreciate, which is keep the international religious freedom space, office, and engagement—separate from engagement with broader religious issues. Because, in a way, you’re also trying to reduce the politicization dynamics that already exist. And you stand a better chance, perhaps, of pushing for international religious freedom if you’re trying to keep it outside of the—of the contentiousness of the political and geopolitical debates.

And perhaps—I’m actually begging the questions that you raised, in addition to also, in a sense, asking us to be very understanding of the complexities that are already in action. And I think—I think one of the many advantages of your report is that you’ve looked at it from a myriad of different angles, and you’ve presented something that even though it is fundamentally about positioning international religious freedom as a main tenet of U.S. foreign policy, you’ve also made the case very critically for how the United States foreign policy can continue to support and protect human rights as a whole. And I want to make sure that that gets underlined and understood.

Because you could have—it could have been exclusively about international religious freedom. But one of the many advantages, and I think very wise things, that your report does is you show that intersectionality with broad human rights issues. And you underline the commitment of the United States to the defense of human rights, which in and of itself is a strategic move that you have made with the report. So I want to commend you both on that.

Very, very quickly, I just want us to—want your opinion, your read, on the aspect of civil society, the role of civil society in the promotion of this. Because we tend, all of us, to presume that civil society is sort of monolithic space. And you know better than anyone else how fraught civil society is, and how sometimes civil society mirrors the challenges within a government structure, or an administration itself. So what were your thoughts on that when you were putting forward one of the soft approaches of engaging civil society? But what if civil society itself is torn about this issue? What then?

THAMES: We highlight some emerging networks of civil society activists that I think are very positive, as someone who’s been in this space for a couple of decades now. The movements of international religious freedom, the roundtables, the networks of parliamentarians, and now governments. But the roundtables, bringing together people of all faiths and none, you go to these events, and you see Baptists sitting next to atheists next to Muslims next to Buddhists.

These are gatherings that just weren’t happening twenty years ago. And it, I think, adds strength to the issue, to show that it’s not just about one group advocating for their own. It’s about all groups recognizing this issue’s important for everyone. If one group doesn’t have religious freedom in a certain environment, does anyone really have it? So that’s a positive step. And we elevate them as an example of—to be emulated and to be expanded upon.

But I think when you’re looking at communities in the broken countries, where there is persecution, there’s often a fracturing that makes it very difficult to know how to engage, how to advocate. You see this in numerable country contexts, that I’m sure we’re both familiar with. Many are coming to mind. And there’s no quick solution to that, unfortunately, because we know that the oppressor—the oppressive governments often play upon those divisions as well to lessen the impact of their voice.

MANDAVILLE: And I’ll add just this briefly, if I may, Azza. You’re absolutely right, of course, that civil society organizations that work in this space, many of whom receive funding from governmental sources and therefore have baked into the DNA of their work some of the contradictions and tensions that are present in government policy approaches. Civil society is, of course, also reflective of broader society, which means that some of that polarization, some of those political biases and orientations are present in civil society as well. I think a recognition of that reality is precisely the pretext for this report.

I have often joked with Knox when we looked at the recommendations at the end that, wow, this is really boring stuff. (Laughter.) Like there is nothing particularly interesting and intriguing and profound here. This is all pretty commonsensical stuff. But our idea was that we had just come out of a period of particularly intense political polarization as we started the process. I have no reason to believe that we are not likely to go through another round of that in another couple of years. These sorts of differences of opinion politically, and with respect to this work more specifically, have always been part of its story and always will be.

So what we wanted to create was a reference point, a safe harbor, if you will, such that when those polarizing winds begin to blow, and blow strongly again, there’s a reference point that we can turn to remind ourselves of certain core things that we do all agree upon, no matter where we sit politically around these issues.

KARAM: Beautifully put. And I just want to now make sure to give a chance to our audience, who I’m sure you’ve provoked and enthused enough for questions. But just one small point to that last point, to both of you, to take into consideration perhaps if you were to do a follow up or maybe the other 750 word postscript to this report. Which is to continue to harness the experiences of working multi-religiously to defend religious freedom as a community of diverse religious leaders.

And some of those experiences go underground and are not necessarily noted, when in fact I think, Knox, you were also already mentioning you see varied people coming around the table. But when religious leaders from different religious currents are actually sitting together in defense of one another, not of their own respective community, there is a very potent strategic and almost spiritual strength in that, that I think even not having—this doesn’t have to serve as part of the U.S. foreign policy, but U.S. foreign policy needs to be respectful of that particular dynamic, and fully aware and conscious of it. And I think that is an important footnote to what you’re both trying very eloquently and powerfully to articulate.

THAMES: That’s more than a footnote. That should be the headline. Yes, that’s an important point.

KARAM: Great. So I’m not sure whether it’s—this is a good now time for me to inquire of our colleagues in the CFR, Irina and colleagues, to perhaps let us know what the Q&A situation is like?

OPERATOR: Yes. Absolutely. Thank you, Azza.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Sarah Shabbir at the U.S. Department of State. Please accept the “unmute now” prompt. Looks as though we are having technical difficulties.

So we will take our next written question from Guthrie Grave-Fitzsimmons from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who says: Do you believe Christians face religious freedom threats in the United States? Because this is such a big issue in the news, do you think the idea of Christian persecution in the United States is possibly making progressives conditioned to be wary of international religious freedom, when they should be natural allies of human rights concerns?

THAMES: That is a great question, and one that was a context in which all of the discussions took place. And we had an interesting conversation that didn’t make it into the final version of the report between sort of different sides of the issues about framing, about terminology, and how the superheated domestic debate can turn people off from the international work because there’s sort of a lot of assumptions that come along with it when there are people who are not following what’s happening overseas as closely as those of us on this call are.

We notice a difference in terminology. A lot of times Republicans or conservatives are very interested in international religious freedom. Democrats or liberals are more interested in religious minorities. Those different approach vectors sort of end at the same point, but the framing matters to folks who are not initiated into the nitty gritty of this work. So, yeah, the domestic context is an issue, a challenge. And how we talk about it is something I’d be very careful with. Again, going back to my—the foundational point is don’t politicize international work. Let’s leave our domestic debates here, have those robust conversations, but remember what’s happening overseas is literally life and death. And it’s just incomparable to what we’re discussing here at home.

 OPERATOR: Great. Our next question comes from Shaarik Zafar.

ZAFAR: Hi, everybody. Azza, it’s amazing to see you. Knox, really amazing to see you. Peter, I guess it’s OK to see you as well. This is Shaarik Zafar, formerly Peter’s intern at the State Department and now at Meta, where I lead our foreign policy and national security engagement. Congratulations on this amazing report. I think it’s very timely and very important.

What do you think the role of the private sector should be, broadly, in supporting religious freedom? Having spent a little bit of time in the private sector now, when we talk about business and human rights it’s often what we traditionally think of as human rights. And religious freedom doesn’t always rise to the same level of importance. Is there a particular role that you’d like to see businesses here in the United States and elsewhere?

THAMES: Thanks, Shaarik. And thanks for tuning in today. I feel like a radio show. I think leveraging the power and influence of the private sector outside of the human rights space is a really unexplored and an area of vast potential. Just looking at the company that you’re working for now, and the whole Metaverse and Facebook and the ability to use social media to promote—to share beliefs, to worship collectively through a digital interface, but also social media is—the problematic aspects of it, to promote hate speech, promote violence. And we’ve seen that happen in a lot of contexts where social media is used to actually abet or instigate severe instances of persecution against religious minorities.

So bringing the private sector alongside as partners, trying to find ways to encourage them to walk with advocates, not out of you better do it or we’re going to sue you, but more of a commonsense approach that freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, all the different components of religious freedom, if they are fully respected and protected, then that’s going to be a better environment for creative thought, for businesses, for academia, for all the different components of society. And that makes a better business environment. So there could be a sort of a long-term monetary incentive that could hopefully bring these companies and institutions alongside this work.

MANDAVILLE: So let me also add, briefly, so, Shaarik, I guess it’s kind of nice to see you too. Shaarik, everyone, you should all know, was the former State Department special representative to Muslim communities. One of the principal political appointees in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs that I had the honor to serve in. And what I really appreciated about the way that Shaarik did his work is that even though his mandate naturally brought him to deal with issues related to Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment around the world, he always engaged that work in ways that really, I think, embodied the spirit of the recommendation that we make in our report, to make sure to do that work as part of a broader effort to champion those who are vulnerable, whether or not they happen to hold the particular religious identity that his position was focused on.

And I know that the technology sector where he hangs his hat now professionally has benefitted enormously from his work. I think what I would add is just that I do think that the tech sector is particularly important here, just because social media and technology platforms, the broader phenomenon of digital hate, is really at the heart of how these dynamics play out today. And so obviously debates and questions we’re having today about the content moderation policies of social media platforms that raise enormous dilemmas that I’ve heard you, Shaarik, speak so eloquently about in public forums. But I think, again, it’s not just the naming and shaming in the sense of finding bad material and pulling it down. I know that social media platforms, of which Meta obviously holds quite a few, Twitter, have the capacity to proactively help to push forward messages of inclusivity.

And so I think if there is an ethical commitment to those kinds of values on the part of these platforms, then the more of that we can get the better. We know that it’s just a matter of the business model sometimes, that the algorithm privileges messages that generate certain kinds of responses. And controversial messages tend to generate those kinds of responses. And so I think helping to counterbalance that by proactively making space at minimal cost for others kinds of messages, I think is a very valuable tool.

KARAM: Can I just quickly interject that I think, to honor a little bit more Shaarik’s question, because I think he mentioned the private sector. And we honed—you zeroed in on the tech space. And the private sector is tech, plus, plus, plus. (Laughs.) So I do believe that it might be valuable to ask for a little bit more of a comparative reflection of how have the private sectors in their diversities in the United States, for instance, contributed to other human rights issues that are part of U.S. foreign policy? And maybe look at that a bit critically, and compare and contrast, before passing any particular judgement on the value-added for international religious freedom. I think it sort of behooves us to maybe want to study that a bit more, and listen to the experiences of people like Shaarik, but also other private sector actors in this space, before we sort of pass a judgement too quickly.

OPERATOR: Great. Our next question comes from Razi Hashmi from the U.S. Department of State.

HASHMI: Hey, Knox and Peter. It’s good to hear and see you. I am a former bag handler to Knox Thames and chai aficionado with Peter.

So in terms of my question, so I work at the Department of State in the Office of International Religious Freedom, where this report is very pertinent. But I’m also a term member, so I care about these issues in multiple reasons.

You had talked about—in your recommendations—about exploring common challenges for at-risk communities. And really, like, broadening the pool of people that are confronted with these issues. Now, one of the common threats in terms of things that we see is the rise of religious and ethnic nationalism. And I’d be curious to hear how you would envision approaching those kind of larger issues, that do connect with those other communities that are at risk. And then the second part of my question is engaging the youth and bringing young progressives that may not be as connected to their religious identity as maybe some other communities. So welcome your thoughts on both those. Thank you.

THAMES: I would say on the first part, Razi, the work of strategic religious engagement becomes—I think, rises to the forefront when you’re dealing with these broader movements that have great relevance for religious minorities or belief minorities, whether minority communities, but not them alone. How do you understand the religious landscape of society? How do we prepare our diplomats to interpret what’s going on, not just between politicians or the leadership of a country, but the broader society that is also influencing how they make decisions, how they position themselves, the voices that are coming to the top of their inbox, so to speak.

And that’s where increasing the religious IQ of our diplomats, our USAID colleagues, our service members, I think is really important. So that we can see the trend lines that are moving a country in a particular direction or not. This gets into religious and ethnic nationalism. Who are the key players? The people of great influence may not be in government. They could be spokespersons or religious leaders. How do we engage them? How do they impact U.S. foreign policy goals for human rights, but also a range of other issues? And this is where I think training becomes really important.

How do we institute a training requirement for all our diplomats, aid workers, and service members so they understand this? They don’t have to get a PhD in comparative religion, but they are equipped with sort of the basic tools to understand these dynamics, and also feel comfortable doing it, that it’s not going to be a violation of the First Amendment, that this is actually a smart way to engage civil society holistically. That religious actors are part of civil society, like any other actor, and smart diplomacy would understand all the different drivers that are moving a country in a particular direction or not.

MANDAVILLE: And I would just add to that—Razi, also, it’s great to have you with us today. It’s, I think, been a challenge in U.S. government engagement with religious actors to kind of move beyond an understandable focus on religious figures who tend to hold certain kinds of formal titles and roles within certain kinds of institutional hierarchies, just because the U.S. government is an institution. It’s used to dealing with entities like it, which means that we naturally gravitate towards those kinds of institutionalized spaces of religion. And they matter, but there are also—there’s a vast ecosystem of religious voices and experiences that are not captured by that institutionalized practice of religion, whether we’re talking about younger religious leaders, whether we’re talking about women as religious leaders, whether we’re talking about indigenous and traditional religions that sometimes disrupt our very concept of what constitutes religion in the first place. And I think the sort of heart of doing the kind of work that you’re asking about really relates to and exists in those kinds of spaces. And so I think finding the capacity to do that kind of work, it’s what we’ve sought to make the hallmark of the religious engagement paradigm that we’ve developed here at the United States Institute of Peace.

What we call inclusive religious engagement is really the answer there, and not least of all because, harking back to that geopolitics of religion that I alluded to earlier, in so many settings those institutionalized manifestations of religions have incredibly complex relationships with state authorities and state structures themselves, which in various ways often make them an extension of that state. And, as we loop back to the point that you raised about religious nationalism, contemporary manifestations of religious nationalism are often not just about seeking to articulate a very specific relationship between a given national identify and a specific religion, but often a particular way of understanding and practicing the religion in question. It seeks to put certain kinds of parameters around what counts as an authentic expression of that specified religion. And for that reason alone, I think this immediately finds itself in the terrain of protecting freedom of religion or belief.  This is why I think these kinds of issues are an integral part of our efforts to address that very real challenge today.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Lawrence Whitney, who writes: How do you see the dramatically changing religious landscape, especially in Western liberal democracies, toward increasing religious unaffiliation impacting the dynamics around international religious freedom?

MANDAVILLE: Yeah. There was the headline about the United Kingdom after some survey work was done or since this work being a Christian-minority country; that more people are identifying as nonreligious, agnostic, or atheist than identify as Christian. And in the context of the work of international religious freedom I thought it’s interesting to compare the situation for nonbelievers in the United Kingdom that survey work was sort of greeted with a general shrug and everyone moved on. No one’s life is impacted by not believing in the Church of England, not being a member of the Church of England. There’s no social or legal ramifications for walking away from faith. But that is not the case for nonbelievers, atheists, and agnostics in many, many other countries. And in some places, they’re even labeled as terrorists for the sin or the crime of walking away from faith.

So for me, it just sort of placed in direct contrast where—the space that’s been developed for a diversity of beliefs in some countries and the incredibly constricted space in many others, and the severe penalties that can fall upon people if they decide to step outside of the very narrow permissible lanes of religious activity. If they challenge that, if they do a different direction, they can be in for a world of hurt.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Adem Carroll from Justice for All, who writes: Though not every religious leader embraces a rights-based framework, how can a focus on justice be fully integrated into the religious freedom and faith community engagement conversations rather than seeing these in the service of social order or business as usual?

MANDAVILLE: It’s a great question, and I think that is one that has endlessly plagued those of us who try to keep questions of social justice at the forefront of the work that we do, understanding that rights-based frameworks have a certain cultural provenance and a background and story of their own, which means that they sometimes don’t travel well. There are any number of challenges that this faces.

For those who want to find ways of having conversations about the rights of LGBTQI people in settings where there are enormous and deeply-wrenching debates going on within society about those kinds of issues, this is something that one comes up to—one comes up against very quickly. And it’s one where simply walking into that context with a copy of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that you then treat as a form of scripture unto itself and reading it at people and expecting, quote/unquote, “compliance” just doesn’t even allow you to start the conversation. You need to find other vocabularies. You need to find other framings.

And I think that there are present and available to us in all religious traditions, including for lack of a better term the most conservative variants of those religions, there are basic concepts about the dignity and inviolability of the person that provides spaces to begin to have these conversations in ways that opens space. Contested space, difficult space to be sure, but allow you to at least begin a conversation.

But we also happen to have with us in this session in the form of Azza literally, I think, one of the world’s foremost experts given her former work at the UN Population Fund, where these kinds of issues and struggles I know were front and center to things you had to deal with, Azza. So I really think you are by far the best-placed among us to answer this question. Please.

KARAM: No, I—thank you. Thank you for that, Peter, but I think expertise is something that we all pool into and all benefit from. So thank you for that—for the wisdom that you’ve shared.

I would say very, very quickly as an answer—before I hand over to Irina to bring us to summary and closure, I would say that some of the most critical agents of this work who—one of them—one constituency has already been named in an earlier question, which is young people—young people, some of whom are part of the far right of the religious spectrum but many of whom are actually in the counter movement. Especially when they’re willing and ready and able to work together across their different religious communities, they stand as awesome champions for one another’s religious freedom against the far right.

But the other agency—actors or agents that we haven’t mentioned at all and that absolutely deserve a mention are women of faith. And we see in this work where so many of the most sensitive issues intersect into political issues—social issues in particular are intersecting this dimension of religious freedom—we see women of faith at the forefront of so much activism in this space, where they stand as champions of one another and of very specific vulnerable communities. It would, honestly, be very critical for us to honor that engagement.

And I can tell you not from UNFP but from Religions for Peace’s five decades of engagement around many of these issues that it is women of faith and youth who are leading so much of this work to realize fundamental human rights and the intersectional human rights simultaneously. And ironically the COVID pandemic actually gave those kinds of movements a boost. So whereas we were complaining that we don’t see much multi-religious engagement in response to the COVID crisis, actually, when we looked at some of the incoming proposals to the multi-religious humanitarian fund at Religions for Peace, we found that it was women and faith and youth—interfaith youth groups who were doing the most remarkable work in that space. And so just to acknowledge that effort and to make sure that we don’t forget that activism. Thank you.

Irina, back to you. Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: Azza, thank you very much. And Peter and Knox, this was a fantastic hour. We really appreciate you and all of the great questions and comments. I regret that we could not get to all of you, but there will be more opportunities.

You know where to find our distinguished speakers and moderator, but you can follow Peter Mandaville’s work on Twitter at @PMandaville, Knox at @KnoxThames, and Azza at @Mansoura1968. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_religion. And write to us at [email protected] with any questions or suggestions.

Again, we will send out the link to the transcript and the video of this discussion, as well as a link to the report that we were discussing. And I just want to say our next Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar on Health-Care Equity and Accessibility Around the World will be on Tuesday, December 20, at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time. We will send out an invitation for that.

So, again, thank you all. Have a great rest of the day.

Top Stories on CFR

South Africa

The provincial and national elections on May 29 come amid waning support for the ruling African National Congress thirty years after South Africa transitioned to democracy.


In his inaugural address, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te signaled broad continuity on cross-strait issues. China, however, is likely to respond with increased pressure. 

Election 2024

The European Union (EU) began implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA) this year, just in time to combat online disinformation and other electoral interference in the dozens of elections taking pl…