Amidst news of violence, kidnappings, imprisonments and much more, the world quietly celebrated International Religious Freedom Day on October 27. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement to mark this important ideal of the American consciousness with words that sounded well-intentioned and carefully thought out. He mentioned the experiences of the first pilgrims who established colonies in what was later to become the United States of America due to a desire for religious liberty and discussed the role this nation has played up till today in offering a refuge to all peoples facing persecution for their faith.

Senator Kerry talked about his commitment to protecting religious freedom throughout the world:

This is why we believe so deeply that governments everywhere must fulfill their responsibility to protect religious freedom equally for all and to ensure that those who claim religion as justification for criminal acts do not walk away with impunity.

While his statement was well-meaning, only time will tell whether the Obama administration is indeed committed to religious liberty in the international arena. Minority populations in almost every country in the world are facing danger, from Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws punishing Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus for the slightest of imagined insults to Islam, to Malaysia’s recentruling prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to God. Diversity of faith and religious thought are scarce in countries such as Iran, where Christian missionaries are routinely jailed for distributing their literature and lashed for drinking communion wine. Religious and cultural heritages of any and all faiths considered heretical are destroyed by groups such as the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia demolishing some of the most sacred of Islamic sites and the Taliban in Afghanistan breaking down statues of a peaceful ancestral Buddha.

But for those who think that only Muslims are guilty of religious intolerance in this day and age, need only look across the pond in Europe to witness discrimination of religious minorities under the pretext of cultural assimilation. France and Germany have both banned the veil and other religious symbols, while many European countries now restrict ritualistic circumcision and slaughter. Attacks on mosques and synagogues are on the rise everywhere, including in the United States. Despite the announcement of Religious Freedom Day, misunderstanding, hatred, violence and extremism flourish in virtually every corner of the globe, and the position of U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom remains unfilled after the sudden resignation of Suzan Johnson Cook.

Secretary Kerry’s statements may be well-meaning but to the average American, they mean little. After all, when governments meet, foreign policy consists of much more than pesky issues of religious freedom. At Cook’s Senate confirmation hearing in 2011, Jim DeMint, then Republican senator from South Carolina, described the status quo as such:

When pressed, they tend to pat you on the head, and I’m speaking of my head, and say, ‘That’s important rhetorically, but frankly it’s too messy to compromise a political or economic relationship”.

So if the U.S. government, despite all its power and glory, cannot (or will not) pursue the ideals of religious liberty around the world, what hope is there for us to do the same? Actually, more than you may think. As individuals and citizens of this great nation built on the notions of plurality and freedom, we can take some of the following steps today to promote and encourage these ideals around the world:

  1. Contact your elected officials to ask them to vote against laws and propositions that may be discriminatory in nature.
  2. Get a group of like-minded people together to participate in grassroots community activities promoting tolerance.
  3. Join interfaith discussions or social action groups. The more we know about “the other” the less we can hate him or her.
  4. Bring attention to organizations within the U.S. and abroad that actively discriminate against religious minorities.
  5. Financially support organizations that are working towards education, poverty and peace building in poor nations. Extremism and intolerance flourishes wherever there is a lack of education and peace.
  6. Stay informed about issues at home and in international news. Go beyond the headlines to learn about issues and challenges.
  7. Write articles, blog posts and letters to the editor in publications of other countries. With the rise of the internet, much more is accessible to the average writer.

For those who are religious, I would add “pray” to the above list. Otherwise, I think these steps are within each American’s ability. May religious freedom flourish in our times and the time of our future generations.

Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.


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