Religion is largely ignored from foreign policy and from literature about how foreign policy should be determined. Religious freedom is likewise for the most part ignored and sidelined. Most countries where religion is a factor in foreign policy are promoting a particular religion rather than religious freedom. Those counties that don’t promote a particular religion lump religious freedom in with all other kinds of human rights and religious freedom even within human rights is often considered behind issues such as freedom from repression and freedom of speech. It is bolted on to speeches and initiatives, the White House has mentioned freedom of religion several hundred times over the last decade, about freedom generally but never considered important in its own right.
Religion and religious freedom have however been moving up the international affairs agenda in large part as a result of the attacks on 9/11. Even before the attack on the world trade center religion was becoming a factor in conflicts around the world. In his well-known book ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ Samuel Huntingdon divided the world into nine civilizations that are in large part defined by their religion, particularly notable in his use of Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic to name four of the civilizations. Equally however Latin American might be defined by Catholicism, Japanese by its Shinto/Buddhist hybrid and Sinic by Confucianism. When Huntingdon was writing conflict over religion was already a major factor in numerous conflicts, most notably in the former Yugoslavia. So the question is whether states should move religion, and particularly religious freedom, to the centre of their foreign policies from the margins.
William Inboden defines religious freedom violations as “coercive restrictions on the liberty of individuals and communities to believe and practice their chosen faith.” And highlights that we are not just looking at states but “In practice, a vast range of entities and regime types restrict religious freedom, including national and local governments, majority religious groups, and nonstate actors such as terrorist organizations.” This in itself provides problems as foreign relations are often considered to be simply state to state and any attempt to influence groups within a state is a violation of sovereignty.
 Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations, The Free Press, 2002, pp.27, 45-7
There is a strong correlation between states that are religiously intolerant and those that are a threat to other states and the international order. In 1999 Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan were designated as countries of particular concern with regards to religious freedom. Also the Taliban and Serbia were also included and Saudi Arabia and North Korea were countries where “religious freedoms may be suppressed”. All of these are countries are countries which over the next decade were to one way or another become major security concerns and several of them involved in conflicts with the United States and other countries. As William Inboden notes “Those actors with the most egregious religious-freedom violations are remarkably consonant with those that pose a potential threat to the United States and its interests... Stated simply: There is not a single nation in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States.” Religious freedom therefore should be much higher up the priority list in terms of foreign policy.
 Statement, Robert A. Seiple, Ambassador-at-Large for International Freedom, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, regarding religious freedom, U.S. Department of State, 6 October 1999, (near the end)
These countries are not specifically religiously intolerant they are simply intolerant full stop. Usually it is not religion that is particularly singled out for intolerance but all possible forms of organised opposition. This is the case in Burma where monks lead marches against the Junta but the political opposition was treated in the same way with beatings and arrests, it was the act of opposition the regime was opposed to not its religious affiliation. In China today it is the organisation that matters – the state is concerned with large organisations like the Catholic Church or Fulan Gong but is happy for its citizens to be Christian, atheist, or Confucian so long as they are not part of a large organisation. With dictatorial regimes the primary concern is the survival of the regime, organised religion is a threat to this, so religion is suppressed and instead a personality cult manufactured. This is only not the case when the existing dominant religion can be coopted to buttress the state which often leads to repression of religious minorities because they become the ones that are a threat.
While there are often worries about allowing too much religious freedom in pluralistic countries and concern about the extremist agitation this sometimes allows in practice restricting religious freedoms leads to much more conflict than openness and tolerance. Brian J. Grimm and Roger Finke show that from 2000 to 2007 of 143 countries with populations over 2 million 123 countries (86%) have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced because of religious persecution. With more than 10,000 affected in 25 countries. This is because countries with higher levels of government favouritism of religion have a much higher level of social hostilities. It is notable that the propensity for civil war is very high where there is very little religious freedom, for example Afghanistan or Mali, and similarly terrorist groups predominantly come from the same countries. While conflict in other countries may not be considered a problem for other countries in practice when a country falls into civil war, as Libya did in 2011 and Syria in 2012, they become the major foreign policy issues requiring reaction even from powers that are distant from the conflict.
 ‘Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion’, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 20 September 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/Government/Rising-Tide-of-Restrictions-on-Religion-findings.aspx http://www.pewforum.org/Government/Rising-Tide-of-Restrictions-on-Religion-methodology.aspx
It is certainly true that restrictions on religious freedoms create internal conflict. It is however much more tenuous to argue this translates onto the international stage in such a way that countries need to tailor their foreign policy to respond to it.
If we go through the list of countries mentioned as states of concern in 1999 how many of their conflicts are the result of religious intolerance? Disagreements with China are over trade and general human rights and the same with Burma. With North Korea the conflict is a civil war that is a remnant of the cold war not a religious divide within Korea. The US did not invade Iraq because the Shiite or Christians were being persecuted but because of WMD officially or other reasons such as oil and democracy. In Iran similarly nuclear weapons are at the heat of the conflict and religious intolerance only enters into worries that these weapons may be used to destroy Israel. In Sudan the state was as brutal to Muslims in Darfur as the Christians in the South and it was the former conflict that generated most attention from the west. In the Kosovo conflict there was certainly a religious element as that was part of the reason for Serbia attacking the Kosovars but it was more general human rights concerns that prompted NATO intervention – if Serbia had only been denying the right to practice Islam there would have been no intervention.
This leaves the Taliban and Saudi Arabia with the conflict as a result of 9/11 where religious intolerance can be said to be the primary cause. Should general policy hinge on religious tolerance based upon one conflict?
Democratic peace theory is the proposition that democratic states do not fight interstate wars against each other. And so far the empirical evidence is strong. It has been suggested that ‘democratic peace’ is really liberal peace that relies less on simply having democracy (although that is likely to be a part) but upon liberal values such as rule of law, human rights, and free markets. Inboden argues that this should include religious freedom creating a ‘religious-freedom peace’. Essentially states that share these liberal values will be unwilling to go to war with each other precisely because they are tolerant of difference; if they are tolerant of difference internally then external tolerance with other countries that are tolerant even if they as a majority are a totally different religion. Tolerance means that religion can no longer be a point of anything more serious than diplomatic conflict.
Religious pluralism is part of more general pluralism and tolerance. Where one occurs so it is likely that other forms of tolerance will also occur with the most religiously tolerant states being pluralistic democracies. The reason democratic peace has gained in popularity is the difficulty of finding conflicts where two democracies have fought each other. This is less difficult when considering two religiously tolerant societies. One difficulty would be working out when a society is tolerant when the UK and Argentina fought over the Falklands Argentina was certainly not a democracy but was it particularly intolerant?
It is notable that Europe’s most tolerant period of history prior to the second half of the 20th century was the late 18th century when the enlightenment spread religious tolerance as far as Russia but the French Revolution’s declaration “No one should be disturbed for his opinions, even in religion, provided that their manifestation does not trouble public order as established by law” certainly did not usher in an era of peace.
Finally while the spread of democracy can explain the increase in interstate peace in the modern era it does not have a long history through which it can fall down. However religious tolerance has often been a norm before the idea of an exclusive god came along; Buddhism merged with Shinto and Daoism in Japan and China, the Roman empire regularly added gods from its conquests, and some of the world’s greatest conquerors such as Akbar in India have been open to all religions.
Religion is very rarely a motivation in foreign policy, it is unusual for it even to be a supporting factor and this is true even of countries that are domestically very religious. Instead foreign policy is primarily motivated by realist concerns about what is best for the country’s security (so preventing conflict, trying to make sure you have allies abroad etc), and its power in the form of a healthy economy.
Nations do promote their own values in areas such as human rights but this is because they believe the end point of these values is beneficial – democracies believe that if other states become democracies not only will they not fight but there will be more trade and it will be economically good all round. It is notable that when these kind of issues conflict with security and issues of power then human rights don’t affect policy. This has been particularly notable recently in conflicts in Libya and Syria, there is just as much humanitarian cause for intervention in Syria as there was in Libya yet because Syria is ‘complex’ and other countries like Russia have opposing interests there will not be any intervention almost no matter how much killing by Syria’s Bashar al Assad.
With religion an even more marginal influence in foreign policy than broad human rights concerns for most nations it is difficult to see why a nation should make religious freedom a priority.
That other nations foreign policies are not motivated either by religion or freedom of religion does not mean that ours should not be. Moreover our policy does not need to be motivated by religious freedom for us to recognise it as a worthwhile objective. The motivation for reaching the objective would be national security as is the case elsewhere. It would simply be based on the recognition that our security is best secured by having other countries that are equally tolerant towards all faiths with the attendant peaceful relations and cooperation this brings in their international relations.
Once a pluralistic religiously free society is created there may be less conflict, but how do we get to that stage? Promoting religious freedom itself creates diplomatic conflict between states because domestic religion is considered to be an area where states are sovereign so dislike interference.
Promoting religious tolerance is not as well received by the people as the promotion of political rights. This is because often the dominant religion is favoured while minorities are those who are not tolerated. Countries trying to promote religious freedom are therefore not likely to find as much support from civil society as would be the case when advocating that citizens be allowed to vote in free and fair elections. The country promoting this freedom is pushing an agenda that is often contrary to centuries of ingrained habits and prejudices. It should not be surprising that even as the Arab spring was occurring there were attacks on Coptic churches, while the communities may have been united by a desire for political change in the form of the overthrow of Mubarak such unity will only come very slowly when it comes to religious divides.
An objective being difficult does not mean it is not worthwhile pursuing it. In the case of Egypt it may now be a democracy but it is certainly not a tolerant society – it would therefore be wrong for supporters to say job done and stop supporting change. Yes there will be times when a dominant group objects to having to present their religious case in a free market place of ideas and so resort to violence but without such tolerance the country in question will never be a truly stable country that works for the benefit of all its citizens and plays a constructive role in global politics.
Of course religious freedom must be respected and democratic nations must try to encourage it but this is simply a part of much more general promotion of human rights rather than a priority in and of itself. It would be hypocritical to be highlighting the plight of the Copts in Egypt while ignoring gender equality in Saudi Arabia or the lack of political freedoms in Belarus. All of these things are a part of the same agenda of encouraging human rights.
Moreover why should promoting religious freedom in Saudi Arabia be placed above promoting gender rights or political rights? Are the Shiites of the country somehow more worthy than the women? Currently the promotion of religious freedom is within human rights, so for example The Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department is a part of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Having religious freedom within promotion of human rights is the right approach to take as it means whichever human rights are most at risk can be promoted and aided in any given country and it encourages the linking of religious freedom with other freedoms. Egyptians may not be very receptive to religious freedom but obviously are to political freedom so religious freedom needs to be linked as a part of having political freedom.
It is not about the worth of promoting one thing rather than another. Resources are finite and no country can promote all its values, everywhere, and all the time. Choices need to be made and priorities in foreign policy set. That focus should be on promoting religious freedom. Promoting political rights has often resulted in regimes becoming less cooperative even when the policy is a success. For example the transition in Egypt has changed the country from being a key ally of the United States to a nation that is increasingly Islamist and potentially a threat to another key ally, Israel. Now 77% of Egyptians say "The peace treaty with Israel is no longer useful and should be dissolved."
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