Congressional Hearing Highlights Need to Promote Religious Freedom to Counter Extremism
Smith’s bill provides big upgrades to these efforts
Promoting religious freedom must be an integral part of U.S. diplomacy to protect against the spread of religious extremism and terrorism, expert witnesses stated at a hearing on “Advancing Human Rights to Combat Extremism” on Wednesday, held by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.
“Advancing freedom of religion, both as an end in of itself and as means to achieve peace, stability and human flourishing, should be a core objective of U.S. foreign policy,” Chairman Smith stated at the hearing.
“Religious liberty is opposed, however, by extremists who seek to impose their vision of an ideal society upon all,” Smith said. “This clash manifests itself in numerous parts of the world, in varying degrees of intensity, but is particularly acute in certain Muslim-dominated regions, where groups such as ISIS, al-Nusra, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab seek to bring all under their sway.
“To combat these extremists, the ideological battlefield is just as important as the territorial one. By emphasizing human rights principles, we counter extremist messaging, support moderate voices and promote the popular aspirations of people around the world who simply want to live in peace and freedom,” Smith said.
The hearing highlighted strategies for advancing human rights and religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy as a means to counter violent extremism.
“For almost twenty years U.S. religious freedom diplomacy has been led by smart men and women, and staffed by some of the best minds in our diplomatic service. But they have been hamstrung by a lack of imagination and vision within the State Department,” said Dr. Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute and director of the Religious Freedom Research Project at Georgetown University. “Fortunately, that deficit has begun to diminish, in large part because of the work of the current staff and the most recent Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein.”
Former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback was nominated for the position of Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom in July, but the Senate has yet to confirm him. This confirmation must be made immediately, Farr said.
“People around the world are suffering vile religious persecution. Religion-related terror is spreading. We need Ambassador Brownback on the job,” Farr said.
Smith’s bill, The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which was signed into law in December of 2016, upgraded this ambassador position within the State Department, along with providing specific tools and resources for the agency to implement religious freedom into U.S. diplomacy and all aspects of foreign policy, helping to counter violent extremism abroad. That law built upon existing law, the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
The 2016 law required religious freedom training for all Foreign Service Officers; allowed the President to designate “violent non-state actors” for particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and sanction individuals for those abuses; strengthened the investigations into and monitoring of religious persecution; created a “Designated Persons List” for violators of religious freedom who have been sanctioned for their abuses; strengthened the Special Advisor for religious freedom position at the National Security Council; set up a comprehensive religious prisoners list of persons detained, imprisoned, tortured, and subject to forced renunciation of faith; required that the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom report directly to the Secretary of State; elevated the position of ambassador within the department; and set up a “Special Watch List” in the existing “Countries of Particular Concern” list.
The original legislation was key to the struggle to promote religious freedom abroad, Sayyid M. Syeed, senior advisor to the Islamic Society of North America, stated to members of the subcommittee at Wednesday’s hearing.
“This past October marked the 19th anniversary of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which upholds religious freedom as a core American value and a universal human right,” Syeed said. “This institutional landmark Act is very important not just for us as Americans but for us as humanity. Nearly two decades after the law’s passage, freedom of religion or belief is unfortunately an unrealized ideal in too many parts of the world.”
The U.S must invest more in understanding the ideological nature of extremism, rather than only fighting it militarily, Dr. John Lenczowski, founder and President of The Institute of World Politics, stated.
“The United States has spent trillions of dollars mostly fighting two wars to destroy terrorism-supporting regimes, seeking out terrorists, and killing them. In doing so we have treated terrorism as principally a military and intelligence problem with little reference to what inspires it in the first place,” Lenczowski said.
“This is not principally a military matter, but a problem of politics, propaganda, ideology, culture, and religious doctrines. What we are up against is a totalitarian effort to establish a temporal state (the Caliphate) by mobilizing Jihadists via an extremist interpretation of the Islamic religion,” he said. “To solve this problem necessitates fighting a war of ideas. The problem is that we have virtually no ideological warriors in this war.”