In this piece for The Hill, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd—Northwestern University Professor of Political Science and a Luce grantee—describes the dangers of focusing on religion in discussions of foreign policy, especially as a presumed cause of conflict. She points out the tendency for such stances to aggravate social divisions and instead, recommends placing greater emphasis on justice, equality, and respect for diversity.
Religious freedom as a political ideal has enjoyed the support of many Americans and members of Congress. Yet, elevating religion above other factors in foreign policy risks doing damage to the cause of religious diversity and tolerance. The best way to support religious tolerance abroad is to step back from religious freedom as a guiding principle in favor of justice, equality and respect for diversity.
Here are three examples of why this is the case, and four recommendations for U.S. policy:
First, religious freedom is often mobilized in ways that deepen social divisions and increase the risk of conflict. It encourages people to base political claims on religious identity. This aggravates, rather than calms, sectarian tensions by drawing a line under one’s religious identity as the factor that trumps all others. In Syria, for example, foregrounding religion as the determinant factor in the war meant that being Christian or Muslim, or Sunni or Alawite, often became more important than being pro- or anti-regime, or pro- or anti-democracy. We lose sight of the big picture.