The ISIS rampage through Iraq highlights something too often overlooked by U.S. policymakers: the strong likelihood that regimes, groups and systems that trample religious liberty will ultimately threaten U.S. interests.
Let’s start not with today’s headline-grabbing jihadists (ISIS) but yesterday’s. The Taliban of Afghanistan arguably paved the way for al Qaeda and ISIS. What the Taliban did while in power—and continues to do while trying to reclaim power—is the very definition of backward:
• The Taliban banished girls from schools, ordered Hindus to wear special identity labels, destroyed ancient statues of Buddha, beheaded people for dancing, summarily executed those belonging to opposing sects of Islam, depopulated areas controlled by ethnic minority groups, turned soccer stadiums into mass-execution chambers, burned people alive and jailed aid workers.
• The Taliban’s religious police hunted down and imprisoned foreigners who talked about Christianity. The Taliban’s adherents in Pakistan have bombed Christian churches. A 2001 attack on a church killed 15; a 2002 attack killed five and wounded 45; a 2013 bombing killed 81. And it was the Pakistani Taliban that shot Malala Yousafzai, the heroic Pakistani girl who dared speak out against these monsters.
• Thanks to the U.S.-led coalition, some 6 million Afghan children are now in school. About 2 million of them are girls. In response, Taliban militants have launched poison-gas attacks against girls’ schools to terrify their families and teachers back into the darkness. Scores of other schools have been burned down by the Taliban.
In short, no one should have been surprised when the Taliban opened its borders to al Qaeda and allowed bin Laden to wage his global guerilla war against civilization from Afghanistan. September 11 was the natural endpoint for such a reactionary regime—or perhaps we should say “midpoint.” After all, ISIS has pushed the definition of barbarity to new lows, making al Qaeda look tame by comparison. ISIS has been described as “worse than al Qaeda”—and deservedly so:
• ISIS executed 510 Shiite Muslims in Mosul, massacred 1,700 Iraqi soldiers near Tikrit, ordered Iraqi Christians to convert or die, seized Christian churches, torched Christian churches, replaced steeple-top crosses with the black flag of jihad, destroyed ancient Shiite mosques, herded and then trapped 40,000 Yazidis in the barren mountains straddling Syria and Iraq.
• ISIS employs crucifixion and other brutal forms of torture; executes imams, teachers, hospital workers and, as we learned last month, American photographers; forces children into combat; and uses rape as a weapon.
• ISIS leader Bakr al-Baghdadi directs his fighters to eradicate Shiites, “apostate” Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis and Christians. ISIS recently warned Americans, “We will drown all of you in blood.”
This is the enemy America has been fighting for 13 years. But make no mistake: America is not at war with Islam. After all, in the past quarter-century, U.S. forces have rescued Muslims in Kosovo and Kurdistan, Somalia and Sumatra, Kuwait and Kabul. However, the U.S. is at war with those who would force people to submit to Islam. In this regard, it’s worth noting that the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda and their ilk take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Their goal is to create the conditions for a decisive battle between the faithful and faithless, and ultimately to construct—by force—a transnational theocracy. In various places, in various ways, the U.S. military stands athwart that dark, dystopian vision of the future.
Of course, in a very real sense, the United States has been fighting the enemies of religious freedom for the better part of a century. As University of Texas professor William Inboden notes, “Every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” The common denominator between Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, North Vietnam, Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia is that all of them “embraced religious intolerance,” Inboden observes. We can add the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS to this list.
Brutality and Terror
As Reagan understood, “There is no true international security without respect for human rights.” And the right to worship—or not to worship—is a fundamental human right.
Thus, as John O’Sullivan writes, Reagan helped advance Pope John Paul’s “diplomacy of religious liberty.” The two men viewed Poland as dry kindling in the Soviet Empire’s edifice—and freedom of religious expression in Poland as a spark. Reagan openly lectured Gorbachev about the Soviet Union’s restrictions on religious activity, challenged Moscow to allow Russian Jews to emigrate and called the atheist Soviet state “evil.” At the other end of the spectrum of religious intolerance, Reagan wondered, “How do you deal with a people driven by such a religious zeal that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to kill an enemy simply because he doesn’t worship the same god they do?”
Reagan recognized that the means and methods of Soviet commissars and Iranian mullahs and Hezbollah warlords were largely the same—“organized coercion and brutality and terror”—and that all of them were enemies of America. “Wherever there are forces that would destroy the human spirit and diminish human potential,” he declared, “they must be recognized and they must be countered.”
The same holds true today. Whether they’re mass-murderers masquerading as holy men in Nigeria or Tehran or Abbottabad or Mosul, or godless dictators in Pyongyang, or autocrats defending some warped version of tradition in Moscow, “The only morality they recognize is that which will further their cause,” as Reagan said of the Soviets.
Religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the coalmine of a society’s health and character. It doesn’t tell us everything about a movement, government or nation, but it tells us enough. It seems the world’s worst violators of religious liberty are the world’s most threatening and/or least stable regimes:
• Iran is consigned to the lowest tier—the bottom eight—on a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) ranking of religious freedom. The regime in Iran is in the midst of what USCIRF describes as “ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture and executions.” Iranian authorities “raid church services, harass and threaten church members, and arrest, convict and imprison worshippers and church leaders.”
• Assad’s Syria is only marginally better, ranking in the second-worst tier—meaning Syria is one of the world’s 16 worst violators of religious liberty. The State Department reports the Syrian government carries out policies of “killing, imprisonment, detention and the intentional destruction of property on the basis of religion”; “restricts proselytizing and conversion”; and “does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to other religions.”
• China ranks in the very worst level on USCIRF’s review. According to the State Department, “Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles and Korans, may be confiscated.” “Repression of religious freedom” is severe in Tibetan and Uighur areas. And according to the Laogai Research Foundation, people of faith are regularly imprisoned in slave-labor camps known as “laogai” because of their religious views.
• Likewise, “Thousands of religious believers and their families are imprisoned in penal labor camps” in North Korea, according to USCIRF. North Korea, a tier-one regime, stands out “for its absolute prohibition of religious organizations and harsh punishments for any unauthorized religious activities,” according to the State Department. USCIRF adds, “Individuals engaged in clandestine religious activ¬ity are arrested, tortured, imprisoned and sometimes executed.”
• Russia is a third-tier regime, among the 25 worst governments in the world when it comes to respecting religious freedom. Putin’s Russia restricts the activities of minority religious groups, the State Department reports. A new “blasphemy law” curtails “the freedoms of religion, belief and expression,” according to USCIRF, which adds that the Russian government prosecutes Muslims without evidence, issues baseless fines against Protestant churches, and denies legal status and permitting for Mormon, Armenian Catholic and Muslim houses of worship.
• Finally, while Palestinian terrorists target Israelis with rockets and suicide bombers, Palestinian civil servants target Christian churches with bureaucracy and regulation.
Representing some of the Pentagon’s gravest worries, these regimes—along with movements like ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban—may be the real “axis of evil.” Any regime or movement that rationalizes oppression inside its borders is more likely to rationalize such behavior beyond its borders.
This isn’t to suggest that America should go to war against every enemy of religious liberty, but Washington needs to make it clear that enemies of religious liberty are not friends of America. As Reagan argued, “A little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”
In other words, policymakers should draw attention—relentlessly—to assaults on religious liberty and human rights. The White House should provide a platform for persecuted peoples, help willing governments back on a pathway to respecting human rights and shame unwilling regimes for their actions. Related, now is not the time to cut deals with the tyrants in Tehran, or draw a line of moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas, or reach some sort of enemy-of-my-enemy understanding with Damascus, or avert our gaze from Beijing’s latter-day gulags.
“The most essential element of our defense of freedom is our insistence on speaking out for the cause of religious liberty,” Reagan argued. He even went so far as to say that America’s duty is “to move the conscience of the world.” An America focused on “national-building here at home” cannot fulfill that enduring mission.
Washington also should use its purse strings to bolster those regimes that respect religious liberty and threaten penalties for those that don’t. It pays to recall that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Iraq receive lots of U.S. aid and/or military equipment. And yet Christians are under threat in Egypt; Saudi Arabia smothers any hint of religious pluralism internally while supporting religious extremism externally; Qatar is funding ISIS and Hamas; and the government of ousted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki targeted Sunnis. As a consequence, Iraqi Sunnis were driven out of the political process, paving the way for the spread of Sunni ISIS into Iraq. (This explains why so many advocated keeping a modest-sized U.S. force in Iraq to retain leverage over Maliki, keep a lid on jihadist flare-ups and preserve the gains of the surge.)
And finally, when stateless groups like ISIS and al Qaeda try to dismember civilization, when regimes like Milosevic’s Serbia and the Taliban’s Afghanistan cross the line, when our interests are threatened and our values are trampled, America must rally what Reagan called an “army of conscience” to defend civilization.