“Religious freedom” and Its Critics

ReligionTFScott Appleby in The Immanent Frame:

During his landmark address to the world, delivered in Cairo last June, President Obama proposed to open a new era of engagement with “Muslim communities”—engagement, that is, not just with Muslim states or regimes, but also with other economically and politically influential social sectors, including religious groups, educational institutions, civic organizations, health care institutions, and youth affiliations.

In the hopes of accelerating the process of rethinking America’s attitude toward the Muslim word, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has issued a Task Force Report (TFR), entitled “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” As co-chair of the task force (with Richard Cizik), which has been convening since the fall of 2008, I welcomed the president’s shrewd remarks about Islam, and I was pleased to work with the dozens of leaders in business, higher education, government, and media who signed the report, which was released today. Our hope is to build on the president’s ideas and explain why they apply not only to Islamic communities, but to religious communities more generally.

Three aspects of the approach sketched by Obama in Cairo are new, or at least newly placed front-and-center in American foreign policy. First is the administration’s willingness to see Islam (and, by extension, all transnational, globalizing religions) as a no-longer-ignorable “player of impact,” for both good and ill, in setting national and international agendas, ranging from the provision of health care to economic development and environmental sustainability to women’s rights, conflict resolution, and democratization. Second is the “for good” part of that formula. Even before 9/11, the agency of religious actors abroad has been perceived and framed primarily in terms of counterterrorism policy: how do we defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban? But this is just one part of the security and prosperity puzzle. The enormous constructive—or potentially constructive—roles of religious actors beyond our shores, while never formally denied by past administrations, have rarely been viewed as an asset to be developed. Oddly, for a religious nation such as ours, believers elsewhere have been seen as adversaries or obstacles, and not as partners.

How to build on this new awareness of religion? The TFR outlines the major elements of a comprehensive policy of constructive engagement with religions and religious actors abroad, indicating whom to engage, how to help them succeed, what vocabulary to use, and what the limits of such engagement are.