Keeping the Faith: Religion, Freedom, and International Affairs

By Marshall, Paul | USA TODAY, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Keeping the Faith: Religion, Freedom, and International Affairs


Marshall, Paul, USA TODAY


"Religious rights must be at the forefront of any sound human rights policy."

AT THE END OF 1997, former New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal confessed: "I realized hat in decades of reporting, writing, or assigning stories on human rights, I rarely touched on one of the most important. Political human rights, legal, civil, and press rights, emphatically often; but the right to worship where and how God or conscience leads, almost never."

The habit of ignoring religious persecution is all too common in the West. On Aug. 22, 1998, for example, seven leaders of underground churches in China released an unprecedented joint statement calling for dialogue with the communist government. The U.S. media virtually ignored the statement, despite the fact that these leaders represent the only nationwide group in China not under government control. Their membership of 15,000,000 is several times larger than the population of Tibet and hundreds of times larger than the number of China's democracy and human rights activists. Nevertheless, the press just wasn't interested.

Nor is it interested in religious persecution in Sudan, the largest country in Africa, which still practices crucifixion. After enduring more than 40 years of civil war, the predominantly Christian population in southern Sudan is subject to torture, rape, and starvation for its refusal to convert to Islam. Christian children routinely are sold into slavery. Muslims who dare to convert to Christianity are faced with the death penalty.

In the last 15 years, Sudan's death toll of more than 1,900,000 is greater than Rwanda's, Bosnia's, and Kosovo's combined. The United Nations' special rapporteur on Sudan, Gaspar Biro, produced five official reports documenting the carnage, declaring that "abuses are past proving ... these are the facts." He resigned when his reports were consistently ignored.

Not a week goes by that Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom does not learn of major stories of religious persecution abroad. Christians are usually the victims, but so are many others, such as Buddhists in Vietnam, Baha'is in Iran, and Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan. These stories rarely make headlines or penetrate the consciousness of journalists and foreign policy professionals.

One main cause for this ignorance is what I call "secular myopia"--an introverted, parochial inability even to see, much less understand, the role of religion in human life. It is a condition that mainly afflicts the "chattering classes," which include diplomats, journalists, political commentators, and policy analysts. As strategic theorist Edward Luttwak has observed, the chattering classes are eager to examine economic causes, social differentiations, and political affiliations, but they generally disregard the impact of faith upon the lives of individuals and nations.

Secular myopia can have painful consequences. Remember how little the U.S. knew about the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers in Iran during the late 1970s? Luttwak notes that there was just one proposal for the CIA to examine "the attitudes and activities of the more prominent religious leaders" and that this proposal was vetoed as an irrelevant exercise in sociology.

As the Shah's regime was collapsing, U.S. political analysts kept insisting that everything was fine. True to their training, they focused on economic variables, class structure, and the military, and they concluded that, since businessmen, the upper classes, and the military supported the Shah, he was safe. There were, of course, many mullahs (religious teachers and leaders) arousing Islamic sentiment, but the analysts believed that religious movements drew merely on folk memories, were destined to disappear with "modernization," and were irrelevant to the real forces and institutions of political power.

Consequently, the U.S. did not clear its embassy of important documents or staff. …

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