Limited use and unintended consequences

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The US Report on Religious Freedom in the World often generates undesirable consequences and remains devoid of facts. Image courtesy of Manop/Wikimedia Commons

Each year, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom publishes a report on the state of religious freedom in hundreds of countries. If it’s for use by the US government to formulate and implement the country’s foreign policy, that’s understandable.

However, the report is made public worldwide and it has several unintended consequences. Those who prepare the report do so by adopting a meticulous research methodology. But it is true that there is no analysis or opinion from the Commission. It is a bland compilation of data from governmental and non-governmental sources of the respective countries. Without any examination of this data and verification of its reliability and motivation, if any, the reports somehow disparage other companies. It also judges the state of religious freedom using the American standard rather than based on local history, customs, traditions, and religious beliefs.

And when the State Department accepts the report in its current form and bases its policies or responds to religious practices in other countries, it creates misunderstanding between the United States and its allies and partners; and political confrontation between the United States and its adversaries.

In recent years, US reports on religious freedom in India, for example, have created some animosity between New Delhi and Washington. The Indian government has reacted strongly to allegations by State Department officials of religious freedom violations in India based on USCIRF reports. When Secretary of State Anthony Blinken remarked in early June 2022 that there were growing attacks on religious freedom in India and said that minorities in India were “at risk due to increased attacks on places of worship”, India’s reaction was strong. Worse still, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain accused some officials in India of “ignoring and even supporting the growing attacks on people and places of worship.”

The Department of External Affairs responded by saying the comments by senior State Department officials were a direct attack and were “misinformed” and urged to “avoid assessments based on reasoned input and biased opinions.”

India reminded the United States of the gun violence, racism and hate crimes in American society, simultaneously pointing out the incredible religious tolerance that Indians have practiced for centuries.

Publication of such reports, including Department of State human rights reports for academic purposes or even some basic contributions to policy deliberations, is acceptable, but when senior government officials use in the conduct of bilateral relations, its result is invariably negative.

It is important to note that the Religious Freedom Report is based on input provided by senior U.S. Embassy officials and staff, who in turn interact with local government officials, NGOs, the civil society, the media, etc. to collect information. Bare facts without basic knowledge of the local environment and social, economic and political practices cannot be considered the definitive truth.

One wonders if the United States would allow embassies of all countries in Washington to engage in similar activities and comment on the state of religious freedom in the United States. The United States is an open society and scholars from other countries have access to all kinds of information in this country. It’s really commendable. But will the US government allow embassies of other countries to do so officially? Will the United States, for example, allow the Chinese government to use its embassy in Washington to prepare a report on religious freedom, and then advise the United States on how to protect religious freedom?

In fact, international reports on religious freedom and human rights reports published by the US State Department are very patronizing and increasingly frowned upon by the international community.

It should also be noted that these reports do not include the state of human rights practices in the United States or even the state of religious freedom exercised by minority groups in American society. Religious freedom is one of the most important parts of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. And, one of the essential components of this is the separation between State and Church. If so, why should the US State Department prepare a report on religious freedom in other countries? If so, why not also include a chapter on its national human rights and religious freedom practices?

It is widely reported in the US media that “right-wing Christians” have filed “religious freedom” cases in court that may give them leeway to “discriminate against members of the LGBT+ community.” What would Ambassador Hussain say about such attempts to weaponize “religious freedom”?

According to one study, religion contributes about $1.2 trillion a year to the socioeconomic value of the US economy. Another report, released in 2019, highlighted how faith-based volunteer support groups that seek to address addiction and recovery have contributed more than $300 billion to the economy. There are concerns in the United States about the decline of religion and more and more people giving up their religious identity and how that would cause mental health issues. Why then politicize “religion” in other countries?

And when it comes to the state of religious freedom, the United States should practice at home before promoting it abroad. As Rick Plasterer pointed out, “The United States has become the only country in the world to have a Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, with all U.S. embassies required to report on the state of religious freedom in their countries, with recommendations for improvement. Such a commitment to religious freedom at the international level is only possible with a culture of religious freedom at the national level, which must be maintained against erosion and attack. And a report, published in the Christian Post, points out that most states in the United States have “inadequate religious freedom protections.”

It may be in the best interest of the strategic partnership between India and the United States that senior US State Department officials refrain from commenting publicly on the state of religious freedom in India. There should be a two-way dialogue on this issue where American and Indian interlocutors can clarify “religious freedom” issues in their respective countries. This can avoid further politicization of this issue and prevent disruptions in bilateral political relations.

Such reports, in the final analysis, have limited utility, but the unintended consequences of such reports create obstacles in the friendly relations between nations.

The author is editor of the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, founder and honorary president of the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies and a former professor at JNU. The opinions expressed are personal.

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