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“Religious Freedom, Terrorism, and National Security” Given to the Second Session of the Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom, Brussels

by Joseph K. Grieboski

Religious freedom is a principal reason for the success of the American republic. It is the "first freedom" of the American Bill of Rights, the first sixteen words of which – by guaranteeing free exercise and banning establishment – were designed to encourage the religious enterprise. The first amendment is based on the conviction that believers can and will do good things for themselves, their co-religionists, and their country, and that they should be encouraged to do so. Most important, however, the first amendment also protects the rights of those who choose not to believe. The American Founding Founders did not see religion as a "private matter" with no relationship to public policy. Rather, they saw religion and religious people as the cornerstone of democracy and representative of American vitality as a nation.

Religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right. It is, therefore, a liberty that should not be confined to the private sphere only. The famous American clergyman John Witherspoon – the only cleric to sign the Declaration of Independence – stated in a May 1776 sermon what may be considered a philosophy of religious purpose in America: "It is in the man of piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier. God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both." By the same token, American foreign policy has always drawn on the impulses provided by the first amendment. Promoting religious freedom as a core element of our foreign policy is not only "being true to our character as a people," but also deeply rooted in America's security interests.

In Central Asia, China, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and elsewhere, the state's repressive actions empower radicals by criminalizing non-threatening behavior. For this reason, it is vitally important that governments around the world nurture environments of free expression so that moderate views may predominate.

Democracy and Security

Promoting freedom of religion and belief globally is vital to national and international security in two ways. First, it promotes democracy and therefore strengthens internal and regional stability, and encourages economic prosperity. Second, it helps fight the war on religion-based terrorism. I am not aware of a single regime in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the U.S. or any other state.

A government's guarantee of freedom of religion indicates acceptance of the premise of democracy: that every individual has value and worth, and that the state is constituted to serve society, not vice versa. It is in this sense that freedom of religion serves as the cornerstone of democracy.

A guarantee of religious freedom also supports the other fundamental rights necessary to democracy: because it is grounded in the universal dignity of the human person, religious freedom encourages other related rights. A government that denies the right to freedom of religion and belief is far more likely to deny other rights central to human dignity, such as freedom from torture or murder. The reverse is also true. Freedom of religion and belief is also closely connected to other civil and political rights necessary to democracy. Without freedom of conscience, there is no freedom of speech, as believers cannot communicate among themselves about their most fundamental beliefs; there is no freedom of assembly, as like-minded believers cannot meet to share their beliefs and worship their Creator; and there is no freedom of the press, as believers cannot print and share their beliefs with others. Religious individuals and groups need and deserve freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to be secure in their homes from unwarranted government intrusion.

In many countries with religious minorities, the most that is thought to be achievable is a commitment to religious tolerance. True religious freedom, however, is more than mere tolerance. It constitutes an embracing of universal human dignity because of – rather than in spite of – one's religious convictions.

The great project of the 21st century is to encourage and empower religious communities – especially Muslims – who have this view, i.e., that adapting to non-Muslim religions within Islamic societies is not a compromise of Islam but a deepening and clarifying of it. Islam wields a sword. Shall it be only the sword that thrusts outward to cut off the ears of its perceived enemies, or the sword that pierces inward to cut out that which tears at the truth of Islam?

The great tragedy is that the torch of sacrifice and truth in Islam – and I dare say all faiths – has been snatched from the hands of those who should bear it aloft, and is instead carried high by the enemies of truth and freedom. The so-to-say "fires of apostolic zeal" alive and well in all faiths has been stolen from the altars of God and now burn as an inferno in those who grind the altars into dust. We are in fact destined for another war, but not the clash of civilizations to which is so often incorrectly referred. We are destined for a war against false freedoms – civil and religious – which endanger our true and divine freedom.

This cannot, however, be limited exclusively to Islam, as other religious traditions are susceptible to the kinds of intolerance that lead to violence. We see this, for example, in the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, and growing religious tensions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Religious freedom policy should be at the forefront of this project. Where freedom of religion and belief is protected by governments and valued by citizens, religion-based terrorism will not take root. It may take advantage of an open society, but sustained support will not emerge. In this sense, freedom of religion is an antidote to terrorism, especially religion-based terrorism, because it encourages a theological and political awareness of the need to accept the "other." To discriminate against religious beliefs, or to discredit religious practice, is exclusion contrary to respect for fundamental human dignity that will eventually destabilize society by creating a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition, and suspicion not conducive to social peace.

It is indeed a fine and fragile balance that needs to be maintained between a state's secular nature and the positive role of believers in public life. To avoid such a twist is as necessary as it is to prevent the misuse of the concept of freedom. This corresponds, among other things, to the demands of a healthy pluralism and contributes to the building up of authentic democracy.

As Pope John Paul II recently stated, "When States are disciplined and balanced in the expression of their secular nature, dialogue between the different social sectors is fostered and, consequently, transparent and frequent cooperation between civil and religious society is promoted, which benefits the common good."

A systematic and systemic discrimination and persecution of any minority, particularly a religious minority, create security, economic, and social consequences for itself, its neighbors, and the international community. The estrangement of one sector of a state’s population by the government or by another segment of the population with the government’s active or passive support establishes resentment and alienation among those groups.

Religion-based discrimination and persecution by a government, actively or passively, serve to create a security dilemma for said state among its neighbors, and may escalate to raise the attention of other interested states and international organizations. Social and political tensions and conflicts created by feelings of inadequacy potentially lead to coercive measures and imposition of tougher laws. One such law is now in place in France, and is under consideration in Germany, Belgium, and other states as well. There could be no real power in laws that so many religious believers will resent or will try to circumvent. Alienating people and making them feel unwelcome is not the solution. The government has a responsibility for the common good, social peace and coexistence within the state. Consequently, it has the duty and responsibility to guarantee these rights and benefits by respecting pluralism.

Such feelings of isolation, separation, and inadequacy – created by inequitable social, economic, educational and other standards based solely on differences in religion – in addition to actual incidents of state-sponsored or supported persecution, are cause for entire migrations of targeted peoples. Such migrations create internal displacement and potential refugee issues for neighboring states.

Mass movements of populations across borders potentially become a security threat to states neighboring a religiously repressive state. This can grow to be a true security dilemma if the religiously repressive regime chooses to use force against religious minorities. While the situation in North Korea is horrific all the way around, the treatment of North Korean refugees by Chinese authorities provides an adequate example of concern for such an issue.

The security dilemma caused by a lack of religious freedom is amplified when religious repression and lack of religious freedom serve as an impetus for acts of violence and even terrorism by targeted religious minorities. These acts against the government are not and can never be justified, but may seem to the perpetrators as the only recourse to a regime that represses their fundamental rights. Denial of the fundamental right of religious freedom can indeed directly impact the state’s own security. The respect of every expression of religious freedom is, therefore, an effective means for guaranteeing security and stability within a state.

It is very important to emphasize that freedom of religion must not be confused with freedom from religion. A policy of secularism should not be promoted in any way as a cover for unintentional intolerance and atheism as a state policy.

Current Concerns

We see before us an ongoing regression and devolution of religious rights globally. Most dangerously, we are sadly observing many former havens of freedom and religious expression becoming new and subtle arenas for religious discrimination. The bill passed by the French National Assembly to ban the wearing of religious garb is an example of this new and potentially dangerous trend.

Similarly, the creation of blacklists of minority religious and spiritual movements by the French and Belgian parliaments severely restricts the rights of members of such groups and all religious communities, since such lists – no matter how misconceived and steeped in misinformation – have been and continue to be considered authoritative by both government and private sector bodies.

European democracies such as France, Belgium and Germany ought and must be models for states seeking to develop into full-fledged democracies; instead we find China citing France's actions against minority faiths as a justification for its own treatment of the Falun Gong and Christian and other groups. Germany, in the wake of 9/11, has enacted amendments to its Association Law that give the government full discretion to simply shut down religious organizations that it considers a threat to national security without due process. Governmental actions of this kind by European democracies limits and restricts the rights of all people from practicing their beliefs according to the dictates of their consciences, and serves as a dangerous model for other states worldwide. The exercise of the right of religious freedom cannot be considered a dispensation granted by the state to its citizens or residents. Additionally, the assurance of this right cannot be deemed an exception. Therefore, it is atypical that more limiting legal or administrative procedures should be implemented with regard to religious beliefs and institutions than those for which the juridical system provides its organization in general. In areas of the world where American influence is most direct and pervasive, religious freedom may be lost. The establishment of a secular system with respect for and equal treatment of all religious faiths under the law is a fundamental imperative of any democracy and should certainly be desired for Iraq and Afghanistan. The time has come for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq to enjoy the same benefits and vitality that freedom of religious pluralism and practice promote and ensure. On the contrary, the creation of an Islamic system in these countries inevitably leads to conflict over authority to interpret Islam and oversight of its enforcement by the state. The constitutions must not permit the use of language that could be interpreted as establishing an Islamic state. Almost five years ago, the United States led NATO into a war to liberate the peoples of Kosovo-Metohija from the oppression of Slobodan Milosevic's regime. Five years later, Kosovo's Serbian Orthodox have become second-class citizens in their own country, deprived of their basic human rights. Under the eye of tens of thousands of NATO troops, including Americans, over 115 churches and monasteries have been leveled – more than half dating back to the Middle Ages; priceless frescos and icons have been desecrated; monks and priests have been attacked as they walk the streets of now-ethnically pure Albanian cities and towns.

The situation is intolerable and it is happening under Western watch. Two-thirds of the pre-war Kosovo Serbian Orthodox population has been cleansed from the province, their homes burnt to the ground. And thousands have been murdered. Those Orthodox who remain live in ghettos, segregated from the mainstream of Kosovo society. No one has been held responsible for this human rights catastrophe.

Kosovo's Serbian Orthodox feel that America is permitting all this destruction and violence to take place. They see that Albanians hang our flag everywhere, and they see those same Albanians continue to attack them and their religious heritage. We must pressure Kosovo's Albanian leadership to prosecute those in their midst who commit these atrocities. Inaction on our part makes us moral accomplices to these crimes. Ignoring the horrors in today's Kosovo empowers those who oppose democratic values of religious freedom in places like Afghanistan and Iraq to stand up to us, and this we cannot allow.

On the brighter side, there do exist around the globe models of developing, secular, predominantly Muslim states that respect, protect, and promote religious freedom. Morocco is a tremendously important model as an Arab Muslim state that recognizes the integrity and importance of religious freedom as a national policy. The promotion and advancement of the religious rights of all religious minorities by the Moroccan government distinguish it as a unique paradigm in the Arab Muslim world. While the King of Morocco also serves as head of religion, no one is persecuted or denied their rights because of their religious beliefs. No discrimination or privileges based on affiliation or rejection of affiliation to a religion is acceptable to the King or the Government.

Morocco is taking steps to eradicate the pockets of extremism within its borders. The kingdom’s already stellar law-enforcement and intelligence gathering resources are being improved with Western training. Another step being taken is the establishment of an Ulema Council, designed to oversee Moroccan Islamic schooling and to eliminate an Islamist ideology that is nothing more than terror recruitment and indoctrination. Morocco understands that this is in its national interest, for it too has been a target of terrorists. On May 16, 2003, Morocco suffered a terrorist attack at the hands of religious extremists that suddenly raised awareness about the dangers of Islamist extremist groups. Even the Islamic parties found themselves losing support and members after the attacks, demonstrating the Moroccan people’s abhorrence for terrorism in the name of religion. Morocco, in other words, is worlds away from Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt, in its attitude toward the West.

Last October, in an effort to provide equality for all of Morocco’s citizens, King Mohammed VI introduced a Family Law, which aims to place men and women on equal footing in Morocco. Parliamentarians unanimously approved King Mohammed’s proposal, recognizing that the Family Law codified in law the reality which existed on the ground: "How could women truly be subject to men in law when women were their superiors in professional positions?"

The King interpreted Islamic law to advance universal concepts, as each clause of the Family Law is introduced by a quote from the Qu’ran or the Hadith. In essence, the King has demonstrated in law that equal rights for women are Islamic values taught in Islam’s holiest books.

The reforms put in place by the young monarch have moved Morocco forward as a potential model of a modern Muslim Arab state that in many ways protects and promotes fundamental rights. While the reform process is not yet complete, Morocco has taken some remarkable steps that deserve to be encouraged further. Morocco has figured out a formula for reform that combines the needs of any system to remain stable with the needs of any populace to be able to choose its own destiny.

Kazakhstan as a predominantly Muslim, non-Arab state should be recognized for its contributions to the discussion of respect for religious rights. The Kazakh Government under President Nursultan Nazarbayev has promoted the global inter-religious dialogue and cooperation as a means to combat religious intolerance and violence. Further, the Kazakh Government has taken steps to improve human rights standards and practices in Kazakhstan itself. All citizens and residents are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of their rights, thanks to the establishment of a human rights ombudsman, standards of civic governance, and other measures. The government respects the equality and rights of all religious believers before the law and all are entitled without discrimination to equal protection of the law.

It is vitally important that the United States encourage and advance such states as alternative models to those of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Iran, whose suppression of religious rights and pluralism are pervasive.


In recent years, the United States Government has increased its advocacy on behalf of religious freedom worldwide. However, these efforts are too often uncoordinated, inefficient, and marginalized from the rest of U.S. foreign policy. Some important steps need to be taken to integrate more fully freedom of religion into overall U.S. foreign policy.

The United States Government must accept its awesome responsibility of both protecting American vital interests and promoting American values in its bilateral relationships and discussions, as well as in multilateral fora.

The U.S. Government must remind the international community of its commitments regarding freedom of conscience and protection of minority rights. The United States must have a flexible foreign policy that allows it to hold its allies to the same human rights and freedom of religion, belief, and conscience criteria and levels to which it holds its opponents.

In today’s world, where terrorism is the new evil empire and religious extremism the threatening political ideology, these words of President Ronald Reagan hold as true as they did when he spoke them in his March 8, 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals: "The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith….the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material but spiritual, and because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man."

delivered August 7, 2004

Joseph K. Grieboski is Founder and President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Washington, D.C.

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