- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2019

American ideals often clash with the harsh realities of realpolitik. Saudi Arabia is a brutal suppressor of political dissent, religious minorities, freedom of speech and critical journalists — yet judged by Washington to be an important strategic partner on a number of matters, energy supplies chiefly. Egypt under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who took power in a coup overthrowing a democratically elected president, has reverted to a dictatorship. But the Egyptian leader is valued in Washington for fighting and killing Islamists.

But according to one State Department official, however, America’s highest ideals and its strategic interests need not always clash — and, in fact, are often in concert.

In an interview in Foggy Bottom with a delegation of international journalists facilitated by the East-West Center, Douglas M. Padgett, the strategic initiatives unit chief of the Office of International Religious Freedom, argued that countries that violate religious freedom not only abrogate a fundamental right — but pose a threat to national security as well.

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“From the standpoint of the U.S. government, we are convinced that as a matter of national security, as a matter of principle — and both of these things are important — the promotion and protection of religious freedom is a critical issue,” Mr. Padgett said.

Complying with an act of Congress from the late 1990s, each year, the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom prepares a report on the state of religious freedom across the globe. Perennial laggards include China and Myanmar, both of which suppress religious minorities.

While the reports have been released for some two decades now, under the current administration, religious freedom has become a central focus. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken a particular interest in the subject, and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is currently the ambassador in charge of religious freedom matters.

You might think that religious freedom abroad might fall under the category of “nice to have, but not wholly necessary.” Myanmar’s suppression of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, for instance, may be an international outrage, but it doesn’t actually represent a threat to the United States.

Not so, argued Mr. Padgett.

Religious freedom and other democratic rights, Mr. Padgett said, “are correlated with stability, lack of certain kinds of violence — including criminal violence but also terrorist violence and security force issues — and also correlated with a couple of other goods including economic development.

“If you think about what drives certain types of extremism, [including] terrorist violence, they are often driven by extremely poor and violent relationships between communities and governments, or among communities.”

Mr. Padgett pointed out that if religious minorities are suppressed, they often have no recourse but to “lash out,” sometimes violently. It’s perhaps not surprising that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, hardly a bastion of freedom of worship.

Religious freedom is often referred to as America’s first freedom. But freedom of speech and expression are, perhaps, equally vital rights. Twenty years after Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, it may be time to initiate an Office of International Free Expression Rights as well. It would have plenty of work to do — including at home.

Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.

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