Is Religious Freedom a Matter a National Security?
By Arielle Del Turco
As thousands of desperate Afghans hope to make their way onto airplanes headed anywhere outside the country, millions more are devastated to see their country revert to strict Sharia law brutally enforced by the Taliban. This feeling of devastation isn’t limited to the Afghan people. For Americans, especially those who care about religious freedom, the Taliban takeover is heartbreaking.
Religious freedom—the ability to choose, change, and live out one’s faith—directly conflicts with the Taliban’s radical Islamist agenda. Much more than a localized human rights concern, Afghanistan’s vanishing religious freedom at the hands of the Taliban should also trouble America’s foreign policy and national security officials.
William Imboden, formerly of the U.S. State Department and National Security Council, notes that by the end of the 20th century, the countries that violated religious freedom “overwhelmingly coincide[d] with those [nations] the United States was already at war with or would soon go to war with, or that would emerge as first-order national security concerns.” In fact, “entities engaging in religious persecution—both states and nonstates—are more likely to pose a security threat to the U.S.” Imboden declares, “[t]here is not a single nation in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States.”
Furthermore, Dr. Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, has observed a correlation between robust religious freedom protections and lower levels of corruption and increased economic growth, things that contribute to peace and stability.
One of the painful lessons that the September 11, 2001 attacks taught the United States is that a terrorist group far from home could greatly impact our country. Our foreign policy and national security officials should not brush aside violence in other countries fomented by inter-religious tensions. If they do, it could prove very much to our detriment.
Nigeria serves as an urgent contemporary example of a place where blatant violations of religious freedom threaten security. In recent years, Boko Haram, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani militants have destroyed villages, kidnapped people for ransom, and killed many. More than 11,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria just since 2015. A radical Islamist ideology has motivated this violence and cost countless lives and livelihoods.
Violence against Christians and others in Nigeria is not something that will only affect Nigerians. Former Congressman Frank Wolf and other experts believe there is reason to fear that instability caused by the increasing violence in Nigeria will spark a refugee crisis in the region and send vulnerable Nigerians fleeing into Europe. Others worry that the terrorist groups operating in Nigeria will turn their sights elsewhere and plot against the West. In addition to being a pressing humanitarian crisis, religious persecution in Nigeria could have regional security implications and national security implications for the United States.
The Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom, signed by President Donald Trump in June 2020, declares that “Religious freedom, America’s first freedom, is a moral and national security imperative.” Building upon this sentiment, the Biden administration should seek to fully implement this executive order and take additional steps to prioritize religious freedom.
A recent publication from Family Research Council highlights several simple ways the Biden administration can rightly acknowledge the importance of international religious freedom. To prioritize religious freedom in foreign policy, the U.S. government should include religious freedom concerns in bilateral relations with other countries. In accordance with Executive Order 13926, all agencies that send staff members overseas should take additional measures to ensure that training incorporates information on religious freedom.
Critically, the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy should outline specific ways that the United States will advance international religious freedom. Every National Security Strategy Report since 1998 (with one exception) has featured a commitment to defending religious freedom around the globe. This commitment must be articulated once again, and it should include creative solutions for integrating the promotion of religious freedom into our overall approach to national security.
The connection between religious freedom and national security is far too important for the United States to get wrong. American foreign policy professionals cannot afford to ignore religion’s role in much of the world, especially the Middle East. By proactively promoting religious freedom protection abroad, the United States can invest in a better national security situation in the long term.
Arielle Del Turco serves as Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, where she is responsible for international religious freedom policy and advocacy efforts.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.