SHOULD Western democracies make the defence of religious freedom around the world a separate, fenced-off part of their foreign policy? Or is it better simply to subsume that concern under the general heading of human rights? In an age when blasphemy laws are horribly abused in many countries, and regimes like those of China, Iran and Turkmenistan deal brutally with dissent in metaphysical matters, that is not just a question for bureaucrats. It’s a real dilemma both for individual countries and for clubs of nations like the European Union, which see themselves as a force for good in the world.
Very often, discussion about how best to promote freedom of belief internationally, or at least to protest effectively over appalling violations, gets snarled up with domestic arguments about religious freedom. These are always highly contentious: arguments about whether teachers can wear face-veils, or what schools should teach about the meaning and origin of life, and so on. In America, for example, religious-freedom advocates are upset with the Obama administration for its unwillingness to describe the travails of Middle Eastern Christians as genocide; some insist that the administration is making life a bit uncomfortable for American Christians too, and see the two questions as linked.
The latest country to have a debate about religion and diplomacy is Canada. People are watching closely to see what the newish Liberal government, headed by Justin Trudeau (pictured), decides about the Office of Religious Freedom, created in 2013 by its Conservative predecessors. In recent days, the government gave a short extension to the term of Andrew Bennett, an ambassador who heads the office, but the mandate for the office itself runs out at the end of next month and there have been clear hints that it will be axed.
Stéphane Dion, the global affairs minister, told the Senate this week that “[human] rights are indivisible, interlinked, interdependent…that is the approach we want to develop.” After all, he noted, Prime Minister Trudeau had strong feelings on equality between the sexes but that did not imply that a special government bureau had to be established to work uniquely on that issue. And in another recent speech, Mr Dion asked rhetorically: “How can you enjoy freedom of religion if you don’t have freedom of conscience? Freedom of speech? Freedom of mobility?” The implication was that freedom to engage in non-religious speech or activity, or simply to speak contentiously about matters which have nothing to do about religion, is no less important than the right to pray or to sing hymns.
What taints the office in the eyes of Liberals (as well as Canada’s centre-leftists, the New Democratic Party) is its political origin. In other words, the fact that it’s a brainchild of Conservatives who often seemed to play the religious card in domestic affairs. Evangelical Christians were an important electoral constituency for Stephen Harper, the Conservative ex-prime minister, whose staunchly pro-Israel views were rooted in Christian belief. Before last year’s elections, his government enacted a law entitled the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Practices Act” which reinforced existing legislation on polygamy, forced marriage and honour killings; for example, it barred people who had contracted polygamous unions in other countries from entering Canada. The Liberals, then in opposition, went along with the law but they were queasy about the title.
In general, anything the Conservatives did in the field of religion is a bit suspect among Liberals. But in fairness to the Office, nobody has questioned the competence of Ambassador Bennett, and its supporters are not confined to Christians: Jewish, Sikh and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups have made a joint appeal to keep it going.
Mr Trudeau’s government, with its impressive mix of races, generations and genders, has inspired citizens of other democracies to follow Canada more closely than they usually do; the country is cool at the moment. It has also gained kudos as the country that has offered hospitality to the wife and family of Raif Badawi, the Saudi dissident who has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for his liberal-minded blog. Many people will therefore be interested to see how the Liberals handle this question.
Ideally, the defence of religious freedom around the world should rise above party politics, as it does to some extent in the United States. No democracy is likely to match the large and impressive bureaucratic apparatus which monitors global religious freedom on behalf of the American government. But other countries might have something to learn from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is jointly appointed by Congress and the White House. The Commission has a powerful legal mandate but maintains an arm’s-length relationship with the administration, which it frequently criticises.
It would also be a good idea if government agencies or departments working in this area made clear their determination to defend the rights of non-religious dissidents, including atheists and humanists. The USCIRF does raise the matter from time to time but it might do so more often; Canadian humanists have lobbied Ambassador Bennett to look after their interests and come away more or less satisfied. As Mr Dion says, freedom is indivisible.