The International Religious Freedom Campaign: A Cautionary Tale

16 January 2019, 0900 EST

There was some interesting/concerning information hidden at the end of the New York Times coverage of Secretary of State Pompeo’s Cairo speech. After criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and calling for action on Iran, Pompeo mentioned the progress Egyptian President al-Sisi had apparently made on religious freedom, specifically protecting Christians.

Some may dismiss this as cynicism or a sign of role Pompeo’s faith plays in his policies, but I think it’s more than that. It represents the worrying state of the international religious freedom (IRF) campaign, a robust, if low-key, international human rights campaign that used to pride itself on its nonpartisan nature. While progressives assume this campaign is a conservative cause and conservatives aren’t interested in hearing critiques, both should care deeply about what’s happened to it.

Here’s the text that caught my eye:

After the speech, Mr. Pompeo drove 30 miles east of Cairo to the new administrative capital, where he visited two new places of a worship, a soaring Coptic cathedral and a sweeping mosque. “President Sisi has permitted these kinds of freedoms,” he said.

As anyone who remotely follows Egypt should know, the al-Sisi government is hardly a champion of human rights. But al-Sisi has tried to present himself as the defender of religious minorities—particularly Christians—against religious extremism, primarily ISIL. Most react warily to such claims, but prominent US evangelical Christians seem to be buying them. There have been a few high-profile meetings between evangelical leaders and al-Sisi, in which the former came away praising the latter’s dedication to protecting Christians.

So some of Pompeo’s Middle East speech was connected to Trump Administration outreach to evangelical Christians. That’s a little worrisome, but even more concerning are signs that the IRF community is backing al-Sisi.

This community, which grew out of the campaign for the international religious freedom act in the 1990s, has been ecumenical and nonpartisan. It has called for greater attention to religious freedom violations around the world, arguing that defense of religious freedom should get greater weight than economic ties or security concerns (I’ve done some work in defense of this argument). So the IRF community should be highly critical of al-Sisi, and Pompeo’s praise of him.

All I’ve seen in response to this speech, however, is this op-ed by Trump evangelical adviser Johnnie Moore praising al-Sisi. Moore is also a commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government-funded watchdog agency. And he’s done this before; as I wrote about on this site, he similarly praised Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman for his progress on religious freedom.

Now, you could argue this is just one guy. But the IRF community has been strangely silent in the face of the Trump Administration’s downplaying of human rights and anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric. I’ve expressed exasperation about this via Twitter, with little response from the community. This is especially confusing since the community was aggressively critical of the Obama Administration.

So we’re in a situation in which a supposedly nonpartisan human rights campaign is silent in the face of policies they have opposed under previous administrations (i.e. downplaying rights abuses by US allies). The only reactions, by a prominent member of the movement, have been to cheer the Administration’s praise for a human rights abuser . It’s hard not to see the IRF community as a partisan supporter of the Trump Administration at this point.

Some may not be surprised; critics of this campaign have always maintained it’s a smokescreen for conservative Christian interests. But for people like me, who—though well to the left of many members of this community—worked with them for years (when I was with the Pew Research Center), it’s disturbing. I sincerely believe this movement was nonpartisan, and is being led astray.

What happened, then? It’d take a longer article for me to really explain it (and I may expand this in a different format), but I think it was the combination of two processes:

Defining goals in terms of institutional access: When I worked with the IRF community, their primary goals were to get high-level representation in the government. They wanted an ambassador at large who was able to influence State Department policy and include the community’s voices; under Obama and Bush they were mostly frustrated. But under Trump they have gained immense access. I suspect their goal now is to ensure that access continues, even if it means staying quiet on policies they would normally oppose.

Sectarian drift: The Trump Administration has talked up its IRF activities, but their real focus is defending Middle East Christians. There’s nothing wrong with that—and I have written on the need to defend this group for the Center for American Progress. But there’s a risk of religious freedom (which includes people of all faiths and none) being reduced to one group, persecuted Christians. And this may progress to calls to defend Christians at the expense of other’s freedoms. So we have Moore praising al-Sisi and Mohammed bin Salman for their supposed defense of Christians while both are repressing Muslims.

Again, most liberals/progressives don’t really seem to care about the state of the IRF campaign, assuming it’s already a conservative movement. And conservatives may read this as just another unfair attack from the Left. But this was an issue that could potentially unite right and left, and bring together people of different religious backgrounds to advocate for the oppressed. Whether the community is prizing institutional access above all else or focusing on one group at the expense of others, its decline will be a sad loss for anyone worried about human rights.