MbS made USCIRF smile: Gatekeepers and Norm Erosion

9 October 2018, 0830 EDT

For many, Saudi Arabia finally went too far. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; reports suggest he may be dead. Pundits who gave Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, also known as MbS—a chance to prove his reformist credentials have become critical. In the midst of all this, a commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom—(USCIRF) a government-affiliated human rights watchdog—announced…that Saudi Arabia is making great progress on protecting religious freedom? At first glance, this is confusing, but it may be an indication of the powerful role of strategic framing and policy gatekeepers in eroding international norms.

In “Bono made Jesse Helms cry,” international relations scholar (and permanent Duck of Minerva contributor) Joshua Busby discussed the dynamics through which activists can influence states’ foreign policy; his article also inspired the title for this post. Activists can intensify the appeal of their moral arguments by strategically framing their campaigns to match the cultural value of targets. And when they specifically target “policy gatekeepers,” who provide direct access to the relevant policymaking tools, their appeals can change states’ behavior.

Most assume this dynamic is a positive one, a way for activists to spread altruistic ideas and get states to adopt them. But what if it could be used by states themselves to undermine human rights norms?

That may be what’s happening with the Trump Administration. Donald Trump has attracted widespread support among white evangelical Christians. As a result, he has given this community impressive access to his Administration.

One of white evangelicals’ top issues is religious freedom. Much of their concern involves domestic religious freedom debates. But they also care about international religious freedom. US evangelicals were part of the interfaith coalition that established US international religious freedom efforts. And while they tend to express concern about persecuted Christians, this can spill over into advocacy for non-Christians as well, as is happening with activism on Myanmar. The Trump Administration has accordingly promised international religious freedom would be a priority. This is apparent in events like its high-level international religious freedom Ministerial.

Trump has given evangelicals access to US religious freedom policy by appointing several evangelical leaders to USCIRF. One of these appointees was Johnnie Moore, an evangelical public relations executive who has been coordinating evangelical input into the Trump Administration.

Moore recently returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia. He praised Saudi Arabia’s progress on religious freedom under MbS, specifically his social reforms and support for “moderate Muslim rule.” To be fair, Moore probably did not know about Khashoggi’s disappearance when he made these statements. But given Saudi Arabia’s poor religious freedom record—one of the most repressive states in the world, according to the Pew Research Center—one would expect a more cautious tone.

This wasn’t the first time high-profile evangelical Christians met with and praised a repressive Middle Eastern leader. In November 2017, a delegation of evangelical leaders—including Moore—met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who came to power in a military coup). The evangelicals were impressed, with Moore even saying “it was like we were best friends our whole life,” and others pointing to al-Sisi’s protection of Egyptian Christians. Trump’s evangelical advisors met with al-Sisi again this September, before the UN General Assembly sessions. Based on the Pew study—which, full disclosure, I used to run—Egypt is just as repressive as Saudi Arabia.

What is going on here? We may be seeing actors using gatekeepers not to spread norms, but to erode them.

To use constructivist language, the norm of international religious freedom drives US evangelicals’ foreign policy priorities, as I discussed above.

Additionally, their participation in the practice of championing persecuted peoples enhances advocacy effectiveness. Evangelical cooperation with progressive groups on international human rights grants campaigns a bipartisan appeal. Also–even though they have been inconsistent in their pressure on Trump’s foreign policy–evangelical influence has likely led to more emphasis on human rights in this Administration than we would have otherwise seen. There are serious concerns about evangelical advocacy on domestic political issues. And even their international advocacy may be suspect; some see it as smokescreen for spreading their beliefs. But they do contribute to efforts to protect international religious freedom.

Moreover, these groups serve specifically as policy gatekeepers on this issue in the Trump Administration. Pro-Trump evangelicals wield a lot of influence over policies, as Trump is hoping to maintain their support. Pressure on him to keep backing al-Sisi, for example, could yield results. And USCIRF’s annual reports are an important record of religious repression around the world. If Moore and others believe Saudi Arabia is improving on religious freedom, USCIRF may downplay the seriousness of Saudi rights violations.

Thus, if evangelicals were to soften or even abandon criticism of religious freedom violators, it could seriously undermine advocacy on this issue.

That may be what Saudi Arabia and Egypt are trying to accomplish: strategic framing in reverse. These governments are trying to convince US evangelicals that they are not serious violators of religious freedom. They are doing so by framing their appeals in culturally-resonant language, emphasizing protection of Christians and the promotion of “moderate Islam.”

And because evangelical leaders function as “policy gatekeepers” on the Trump Administration’s international religious freedom efforts, these efforts may be effective. Moreover, this framing may actually change the definition of international religious freedom; excusing Saudi repression by pointing to its counterextremism efforts (i.e. “moderate Islam”) undermines the norm of an indivisible and equal religious freedom.

From a policy perspective, international religious freedom advocates should be worried about these incidents; conservative allies of these evangelical leaders may want to reach out and have a chat. From an academic perspective, this suggests both the power of ideas in international relations and—as I’ve tried to note—the fact that their impact may be negative as often as it is positive.