Interview with Elliott Abrams: "Religious Freedom is More Important Today"
by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson
The Commission on International Religious Freedom
Middle East Quarterly: The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is described as an arm of the Federal government that was created in 1998 "to monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the president, the secretary of state, and Congress on how best to promote it." What does this in fact mean?
Elliott Abrams: The commission was created by Congress to elevate the subject of religious freedom and require the United States government to give it more attention. I should note that, in addition to the commission, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 also mandated the creation of an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department and the publication of an annual report by the State Department giving country by country analyses of the condition of religious freedom in every country in the world.
MEQ: Why was this done?
Abrams: Because Congress felt that the foreign policy establishment was not giving religious freedom enough attention. The State Department, the media, and the lobbies were very interested in things like freedom of the press, independent judiciaries, fair trials, and free elections, but much less interested than they should be in freedom of religion. Many members of Congress felt that this was because too many people in the foreign policy establishment were pretty secular themselves.
MEQ: What is your mandate?
Abrams: To keep jabbing the State Department and the administration to pay more attention to this issue. We do that by holding hearings, meeting with executive branch officials, writing letters, and so on. We seem to be writing constantly to the secretary of state and the president about trips they're taking or visitors they're receiving or events that are happening in some foreign country.
MEQ: Has the commission made a difference?
Abrams: Yes, we've had an effect. For example, on Sudan, we helped elevate the issue of religious persecution in southern Sudan, and for that matter in northern Sudan, to get it more attention from the president and the National Security Council and the secretary of state and make it a larger item in U.S. foreign policy. We have an impact, for example, when the president goes to a country such as Nigeria, pushing him to elevate the importance of religious freedom, which would have been on his agenda anyway. The issue of religious freedom is more important in American foreign policy today than it was a couple of years ago, and I attribute this change largely to the 1998 act.
MEQ: The other provisions of the act also have had an impact?
Abrams: The requirement to publish an annual report on religious freedom was very smart bureaucratically, because it means that in every embassy there is now an officer responsible for following this issue. He has to keep a newspaper clippings file up to date, to meet with representatives of minority religions all the time, and try to master the subject. It's very shrewd and it works.
Justifying the Promotion of Religious Freedom
MEQ: What constitutes religious persecution?
Abrams: It's not a trivial matter. The 1998 act is careful to say, and we are careful in our work to say, that the issue is egregious religious persecution; we are not talking about different styles of religious freedom. We're talking about serious religious persecution that makes it extremely difficult, even dangerous, to practice your religion. Norway has a state church, as does England, and we don't; that they do does not amount to the persecution of minority religions.
MEQ: On what basis does the U.S. government have a right to monitor and promote "religious freedom in other countries"?
Abrams: On two bases. Our view is we have the moral right and a moral responsibility in the eyes of the American people, and the right under international treaties to speak up about this.
The greater one is that the American people are a religious people. They value religious freedom, take advantage of it, and, at least in the view of Congress, do not want an amoral foreign policy that ignores these values. They do not want a foreign policy that is indifferent to religious persecution.
The lesser one is that the countries we're talking about have promised to do just this, being members of the United Nations who at least theoretically have accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are bound by it. Virtually all of them are also signatories of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They have promised, not simply to allow, but to guarantee full religious freedom: freedom of belief and of practice. So we're not imposing our standards on them. We're being good world citizens when we say, "You signed this treaty, you made this promise, now keep it."
MEQ: Who appointed the United States to enforce this international obligation?
Abrams: No one did. To the extent that we're simply saying what we think of another country's practices, every state is free to do that. To the extent that we're talking about U.S. foreign aid, it is certainly our right to direct aid in a way that American taxpayers would want, and never to help oppressors in their oppression or help persecutors in their persecution.
I hope we won't be alone in passing judgments. Indeed, it would be terrible were we the only country doing this - and we're not. For example, a lot of governments just voted against a Security Council seat for Sudan, in part because the Sudanese are persecutors, and they are a government that prevents religious freedom. I think you'll see others take up this role; it's been gratifying that a number of European countries have said to us in the last year, "Explain how the International Religious Freedom Act works, because we too would like to be more active in this area."
MEQ: How do you reply to the criticism that what you are doing constitutes American arrogance?
Abrams: Two ways. First, most countries, virtually every country, have made these pledges. They didn't have to; if they would like to resign now from the U.N. and renounce the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, they're free to do that. Or they can announce that they are not bound by these documents. It is not arrogance on our part to say, if you sign a treaty that says you're not going to throw sewage in the river or hunt tuna, then you shouldn't do it. Likewise, if you sign a treaty that says you do not jail people for opening a church, or a mosque, or a Buddhist temple, you must not do that either.
Secondly, we're not talking about sending in the Marines here, but rather of publicly stating the truth, reducing diplomatic representation, or re-directing U.S. foreign aid. Saying that we're appalled by what's going on in a country, or that's the last cent you'll see of our money, or we won't support World Bank money going to a country that is murdering people who are attempting to practice their religion—that is not arrogance.
MEQ: "We're not talking about sending in the Marines," you say; that means you cannot imagine any circumstances in which force would be used to contain religious persecution?
Abrams: The International Religious Freedom Act does not contemplate that but I could see it in the context of mass murder, or what's known in Washington these days as the "genocide exception." The key there is not so much the motivation of the killer but the amount of the killing. There are people, Henry Kissinger, for example, who say now it was wrong not to have intervened in Rwanda in 1994. That was not a conflict about religion but one can imagine cases where religious persecution ends up in genocide: the Holocaust, Hitler's murder of European Jews, is one example. Some argue that the Sudan today might be another example. So it's possible to resort to force, but the key here is not motive but the amount of killing.
The Middle East
MEQ: Are some political systems more problematic from the point of view of religious persecution? If so, which?
Abrams: The countries that have been designated under the 1998 statute as "countries of particular concern" by the secretary of state are especially problematic. A good number of them are Communist countries, including China, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea. There are a number of Muslim countries where religious persecution is a significant problem, although there are others where it is not.
MEQ: Are some regions of the world more problematic than others?
Abrams: Yes, one is Southeast Asia—China, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Another is the Middle East.
MEQ: Along these lines, the State Department's first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which came out in September 1999, took a very negative look at the Middle East, finding it the region of the world which most often tells people how to pray and live. The second report, which came out a year later, took a much gentler line. Did things improve markedly over the course of a year?
Abrams: I certainly do not think that there was improvement on the ground in the two areas we generally consider: problems resulting from government policy and those that well up from below because of real prejudice against neighbors of a different religion. The Copts of Egypt would not tell you that things are a lot better now than they were twelve months ago, nor would religious groups in Saudi Arabia, or the Jews in Iran. Country by country it is very hard to make a case for improvement. Maybe there is some hope in Syria that the change in leadership will lead to improvements, but these have not yet materialized. Iraq remains as awful as ever. I would have to say that I have not noticed that general trend, so I do not agree that there is an improvement in the situation of religious freedom in the Middle East.
MEQ: Let's look more closely at a number of countries in the Middle East, starting with Egypt.
Abrams: In Egypt, the commission has focused mostly on the Copts. We found a significant government role in the failure to provide justice or adequate police protection, and the failure to punish both officials and private citizens who engaged in acts of persecution against Copts. This remains a very serious issue and one in which there is significant interest on the Hill.
Abrams: No country has attracted more attention from us than Sudan. I went to Sudan in January 2000 and found a horrendous situation. The best estimates are that over the last fifteen years there have been four million displaced persons and up to two million dead. There were some changes in the government this year in Khartoum, but these seem not to have had an impact on the ground in the south, where the war is taking place.
MEQ: Some people argue that the Sudanese problem derives from southern separatism, not a Christian desire for freedom of religion.
Abrams: Some do argue that, but the explanation for this tragedy is otherwise: the Khartoum government wants to be part of the Arab world and does not want to rule a country that is half Arab Muslim and half Christian; the war in the south, therefore, significantly turns on religious differences.
The commission pushed the U.S. government very hard on this issue, and it is fair to say that many people in the Clinton administration were very sympathetic to our concerns. I commend them for their successful efforts to prevent Sudan getting a seat on the United Nations Security Council. We pushed pretty hard on the aid question, too, getting the administration to move more U.S. aid out of the hands of the United Nations into the hands of private NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. (Aid that goes through the World Food Program, a U.N. body, is subject to the wishes of the Sudan government, which can block aid shipments and keep them out of areas that for whatever reason it wants to keep them out of.) We want to see more of this.
Abrams: We have not paid much attention to Israel because we have mostly taken the view that while there may be cases of discrimination, there have not been cases of persecution regarding minority religions in Israel. The commission has never voted on anything with respect to Israel; we have to decide at our next meeting whether to say anything about the current crisis.
MEQ: The Palestinian Authority?
Abrams: Same thing. We have not voted on it.
MEQ: Saudi Arabia?
Abrams: Saudi Arabia was not selected as a "country of particular concern" by Secretary of State Albright last year. This year we wrote her a letter saying that she must add Saudi Arabia to the list, as the State Department's own report flatly states that "freedom of religion does not exist" there.
MEQ: Making it only one of two countries in the whole world so described - North Korea being the other one.
Abrams: Right. Our letter said this is ipso facto a clear case. It is obviously politics that prevents the administration from pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia, and we are disappointed that it is not willing to take that step. Certainly it has been proven again in the last year; any public display of Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion is prohibited, and there are cases where even the private practice of Christianity is punished. That is why we urged the administration to name it as a "country of particular concern," and I hope that next year we'll have better luck.
MEQ: Clearly oil leaves American policymakers feeling they lack the levers of influence. Are they right?
Abrams: Not necessarily. Yes, we have such an important economic and political relationship with Saudi Arabia, it is argued, that one cannot expect U.S. influence to be exercised in this direct way. But one can flip this around and say that the Saudi dependence on us for security permits us to make certain minimal demands about the practice of religion by Americans. It is shocking that American soldiers who were in Saudi Arabia ten years ago, protecting the country as a part of Operation Desert Storm, had all sorts of restrictions placed on their normal religious practices—for example, a ban on the display of a cross around one's neck.
Abrams: In a number of countries the lack of religious freedom is part of a wider pattern of a complete lack of human rights. China is one example of this; Iraq is another.
MEQ: Surely you can't compare Iraq to China?
Abrams: You mean China is much better?
Abrams: Okay, but you can compare them in this way: in each case, the government seeks total control of the society, and one of the things it seeks control over is religion. The human rights situation in Iraq is one of the worst in the world, as the State Department has acknowledged. It will continue to be as long as Saddam Husayn is running the country.
MEQ: Is religious persecution a distinct concern in Iraq?
Abrams: There is no freedom of religion in Iraq anymore than there is freedom of the press, or freedom of speech. In particular, there is repression of the majority Shi'a—not least a pretty bloody campaign against Shi'a religious leaders—and discrimination against the small Christian community.
MEQ: Finally, Iran?
Abrams: A battle is presently underway within the Iranian government, and in the society, between those forces that have dominated since the revolution of 1979 and more liberal elements. The latter had more hope a year ago than they do today. In terms of religious freedom, the main development has been the prosecution of a group of Jews in Shiraz. That none of them got off points to the likely continuing dominance of a very repressive viewpoint - not just vis-à-vis Jews but for any Muslim who takes a view of Islam different from that of the ruling ayatollahs.
The Washington Scene
MEQ: Could you assess the politics of this issue in Washington—especially in the Congress?
Abrams: The politics are new in two ways. First, an Evangelical network now exists—there are lots of Evangelical staff people, and they know each other. It didn't exist twenty years ago, when I worked on the Jackson-Vanik amendment dealing with freedom for Soviet Jewry. They care about this because they care a lot about religion, and in some cases because they know people who have gone off to work in the Third World. Second, a coalition of Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews coalesced on this issue, making possible the passage of the act in 1998. Another point: this is not a particularly partisan issue in the sense that Democrats and Republicans do not have markedly different views.
MEQ: What about the executive and legislative branches; is there some tension between them on the issue of religious freedom?
Abrams: Sure – as always. The executive wants to be left alone to conduct foreign policy, but the Congress wants its share of power. In this case, much of the impetus came from the Hill, and especially from certain committees. This is still the case. If the commission gets the run-around from the executive branch, we can often get a congressional chairman to write a letter or hold a hearing.
MEQ: You've worked both sides of the divide; is that tension inevitable?
Abrams: Pretty much. The administration is busy balancing proliferation, terrorism, trade, human rights, and a variety of other matters. We on the commission don't balance; we have not only a top priority, but a single priority, and that is freedom of religion. At any given moment, Congress may push that priority as well. At other times, of course, it might ignore our issue – China being a case in point.
MEQ: Religious freedom is more of a nuisance to the executive branch, more of interest to the legislative branch?
Abrams: No, that's not quite fair. On any given day, the administration – any administration - may want to go ahead with some action, and it finds the human rights lobby in the way. And on the next day, it is promoting human rights. For example, we have been very critical of the Clinton administration for not doing more about Sudan, but they really ran with the issue of keeping Sudan off the U.N. Security Council. I don't think it is fair to say that any administration only sees religious freedom and human rights as a nuisance; they see it intermittently as a nuisance and intermittently as a noble cause.
MEQ: Should the United States be the place of refuge for the Middle East's Christians?
Abrams: I certainly don't think that the United States should announce that, given the dire situation in a country, that any religious minority—Christian, Baha'i, or other—should get on boats and planes to come here. That said, this country got started in part to serve as a refuge for people fleeing religious persecution, and this remains important not only to religious freedom around the world but to the future of our own society. That is how we view America and our laws reflect this; show that you are being persecuted on religious grounds and you can get asylum in the United States. There will always be controversy about how many foreigners we allow to immigrate to the United States, but the law says if you can show a well-founded fear of persecution, you're in. So this shouldn't be all that controversial.
MEQ: How does one recognize true religious persecution?
Abrams: In the International Religious Freedom Act, Congress quite rightly told the commission to tend to the training of consular officers so that when they get religious persecution cases they have some sense of what's at stake. We've met with people from the State Department, Foreign Service Institute, and Immigration Service to help them get better information to judge these cases.
MEQ: How do you reply to critics who say that your commission and other steps in recent years have the effect of privileging victims of religious persecution over other victims?
Abrams: The commission was created—and these other steps were taken—precisely because Congress felt that religious freedom was underprivileged; that is why it passed the International Religious Freedom Act. Freedom of the press and of speech and free elections had all the attention. Look at our work, that of the Human Rights Bureau at the State Department, the National Security Council, and a myriad of NGOs, and you'll see it simply isn't true that we have now put religious freedom on a special plane, slighting other freedoms.
MEQ: Does freedom of religion in any way have a special place for Americans?
Abrams: Many members of Congress also believe that the Founders put religious freedom in the First Amendment for a reason, which is that no form of oppression is more horrifying than religious repression. Most people find it worse to be told they cannot practice their religion and teach it to their children, than to be told they cannot run for office or publish what they want in a newspaper. Saying that freedom of religion is critically important just reflects an understanding of the way most people really live their lives.
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