Civil war in Syria led to calls for protection of Syrian Christians in the name of religious freedom. Photo: Kobby Dagan, Shutterstock Civil war in Syria led to calls for protection of Syrian Christians in the name of religious freedom. Photo: Kobby Dagan, Shutterstock

Chapter 5 – Religious freedom 
and the crisis in Syria

The “First Freedom”

In the United States, religious freedom is described as the “first freedom,” a fundamental human right and a sine qua non of modern democratic politics, if not of civilization itself. Americans, we are told, invented and perfected religious freedom.

It is ready for export – and exporting it we are. A rapidly escalating number of actors are engaged in promoting religious freedom across state borders. Some are American, but many are not. Some are state-sponsored, and others are not. Legal guarantees of religious freedom are embedded as riders in trade agreements, aid packages and humanitarian projects around the world. Diplomats are taught how to persuade their counterparts to safeguard religious freedom. Foreign policy establishments are formalizing and bureaucratizing its promotion.

The most recent example is Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced recently that his government is creating an Office of Religious Freedom at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, modeled on the Office of International Religious Freedom in the US Department of State. The EU is also promoting religious freedom in its external-affairs programming, adding clauses to bilateral trade agreements with North African and Central Asian trading partners that guarantee a commitment to religious freedom. Initiatives to train EU diplomats in religious freedom promotion are also in the works.

Again, the emphasis is on formalizing religious freedom advocacy by public authorities. At the United Nations, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is in its third decade of promoting religious freedom and recently initiated a campaign to combat incitement to religious hatred. This office has a large bureaucracy, led by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.

It focuses on ensuring state compliance with international human rights norms and standards developed over the past 60 years and embodied in declarations such the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among others. The promotion of religious freedom is ubiquitous, and not only by evangelicals. An impressive array of institutions and public authorities across the political spectrum, secular and religious, have taken up the cause of religious freedom, which is fast becoming a language used to garner international political legitimacy.

When the Moroccan Justice and Development Party won the November 2011 parliamentary elections, prominent party member and future Minister of Justice and Liberties Mustafa Ramid underlined the party’s commitment to religious freedom: “We have a progressive approach to Islam. The Islamicization of Morocco will be achieved only by re-establishing justice and religious freedom.” 1

In all of the excitement surrounding religious freedom as a universal norm – who can be against religious freedom? – it is easy to forget that these are political projects, situated in history and implemented by powerful state and international authorities. It is easy to overlook the fact that religious freedom is a site of politics, discipline and governance. It is easy to be swept up in the collective common sense that guaranteeing religious freedom is what stands between us and pre-modern political orders based on tyrannical forms of religious authority that leave women and minorities in the dust. Positioned as the only alternative to these highly unappealing options, it is not surprising that religious freedom projects and policies have gathered so much momentum.

Yet the promotion of religious freedom is not simply about the spread of a universal norm or international legal standard. Instead, these are projects that help to define what it means to be religious and to be free in the modern world. Reaching consensus on an issue as complex as what it means to be religious – to be free, to be a human being with dignity – may seem difficult, if not impossible, yet this is what these projects claim to do.

They shape and constrain political realities and religious possibilities on the ground. They lead to the creation of new categories of actors in world politics, the adoption of new tasks, mandates and commissions, and the dissemination of new models of social and religious organization. These dynamics are hard to see because over the past two decades the right to religious freedom has become what Lila Abu-Lughod calls a “dialect of universality.” 2 Religious freedom is “being disseminated through international institutions and practices so that it is, to some extent, everywhere – translated, resisted, vernacularized, invoked in political struggles and made the standard language enforced by power.”3 Like human rights, religious freedom has in some sense captured the field of emancipatory possibility. Religious freedom stands in for the good and the right in many difficult and often violent situations.

I would like to step back for a moment from both the excitement and the anxiety surrounding the frenzied promotion of religious freedom. What happens if we examine the political and religious worlds that these projects are creating? What is being made and done in the name of religious freedom? What alternative possibilities for negotiating across deep lines of social and religious difference are foreclosed upon by this laser-like focus on securing religious freedom, at any cost? I will explore these questions in reference to the conflict in Syria. I then ask whether the world created by religious freedom is a world we want to live in. And if not, is there an alternative?

Crisis in Syria

Calls for the protection of persecuted Christians in Syria and around the Middle East have been a cornerstone of US-based foreign policy advocacy in the wake of the uprisings. There are serious concerns here, and we need to pay attention to these developments. But let’s look more closely at how the problem has been framed and the consequences of this framing. Specifically, consider the paradoxical possibility that framing the problem in Syria as a crisis of religious freedom may help to create the very problems that religious freedom purports to solve. 4

Joe Eibner of Christian Solidarity International has lobbied US President Barack Obama to urge UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to declare a genocide warning for Christians across the Middle East. Howard Berman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says that the future of minorities is “on our agenda as we figure out how to help these countries” and their treatment of Christians and other minorities is a “‘red line’ that will affect future aid.” 5

Habib Malik of Lebanese American University calls for Western nations to stand up for the rights of Christians, who he says may be cleansed from lands where democratic elections are used to oppress minorities rather than empower them. While this must be done “in a way that is not misperceived on the other end,” Malik says, “the West should not be cowed.” 6 USA Today reports that “Christians in Syria, where Muslims have risen up against President Bashar Assad, have been subjected to murder, rape and kidnappings in Damascus and rebellious towns, according to Christian rights groups.”

The momentum builds. The logic of the story is clear: When Muslims rise up against Assad, the result is Christian persecution. But the Syrian protests are not captured by the notion of Muslims rising up against Assad. This is the regime’s story. For decades, the Assads have relied on the threat of sectarian anarchy lurking just below the surface to justify autocratic rule. When the media, government officials and public figures frame the revolt not as a popular uprising against a secular autocracy, but as an armed sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against Alawites and their Shiite allies (Iran and Hezbollah), it hardens lines of religious difference.

It brings these lines to the surface, accentuates, and aggravates them. This makes sectarian violence more, rather than less, likely. This framing of the conflict energizes and fortifies categories of religious difference (Christian, Alawite, Sunni) that might not otherwise necessarily define it. Syrians, like people everywhere, hold multiple allegiances, often celebrate diverse traditions, are frequently of mixed backgrounds, and do not always fit into the rubrics of religious identitarianism that are demanded by the sectarian foundational assumptions of religious-freedom discourse. Left out in the cold, these “in-between” individuals find themselves in the impossible position of having to make political claims on religious grounds, or having no grounds from which to speak. 7

In the case of Syria, advocacy in the name of religious freedom adds fuel to the fire of the very sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be uniquely equipped to transcend. To suggest that the conflict stems from a failure to acknowledge the rights of believers conceals the ways in which social divisions cut across sectarian divides.

It obscures the ways forward that emerge when the focus is not on beliefs or communities of believers, but on shared human needs and visions. The crisis in Syria calls for an approach to protecting human life and dignity that goes beyond calls for freedom of belief, and that loosens the grip of this construct on the political imaginary of the conflict.

The enforcement and enhancement of the logic of sectarianism extends beyond Syria to other contexts, where calls for the protection of persecuted minorities have become a defining feature of the political landscape. A similarly tragic trajectory characterizes the uprising in Bahrain, where an embattled regime challenged by both Shiite and Sunni dissenters has framed the conflict as sectarian, mobilizing Sunni against Shiite on the claim that the latter are controlled by a predatory Iran. 8 As Joost Hiltermann argues, “by whipping up sectarian sentiments, the [Bahraini] government hopes to change the perception of the conflict from one that pits a popular pro-democracy movement against an authoritarian regime to one of a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia, with the strong government needed to maintain order.” 9

In Syria, Bahrain or elsewhere, the complex histories, experiences and ambivalences that inflect and shape contemporary religious identification cannot be squeezed into the rigid categories solicited and imposed by the discourse of religious freedom. Here, recent scholarship in religious studies is helpful. As Noah Salomon and Jeremy Walton argue:

What makes someone a believer or a member of a faith community and what makes someone not so? What life experiences, confessional commitments and ritual practices qualify one as an insider, and which prohibit an individual from inclusion? Are ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ categories that we must inhabit permanently, or can we move creatively between them? Most important, should scholars [or governments?] attempt to adjudicate these questions of religious identity and belonging, thereby becoming arbiters of orthodoxy? 10

In this passage, Salomon and Walton allude to the complexities of religious affiliation and practice. They acknowledge the difficulties of assigning individuals to the category of believer or non-believer. They allude to the structures of power – the “arbiters of orthodoxy” – that are implicated in deciding who is in and who is out. Contemporary international religious freedom advocacy works in the opposite direction. Instead of questioning the power of established authorities to make designations, and rather than interrogating the ability and willingness of individuals to live according to these designations, these projects reify these categories, funnel people into one community or the other, and reinforce lines of difference that otherwise might not be as salient. Religious freedom, paradoxically, serves as an arbiter of orthodoxy. Is there an alternative?

Other Freedoms

The globalization of religious freedom is not a sign of the triumph of rational, peaceful religion as individual belief over its archaic and violent rivals. It is also not a sign of the triumph of religion over secularist attempts to run it off the court. There is a more complex – and less self-congratulatory – story to be told. These political and religious initiatives draw lines that divide religion from nonreligion (often marked as “culture”), differentiate believer from nonbeliever, and mark off one religious community from another. Religious-freedom advocacy does not merely enforce a universal norm, as liberal internationalists would have it. Instead, it helps to create individual subjects and “faith communities” for whom choosing and believing in religion are seen as the defining characteristics of what it is to be a modern subject, and the right to choose to believe (or not) as the essence of what it means to be free. To achieve this unity in freedom of belief, belief in belief, as it were, across communities of believers and nonbelievers, is for many advocates what it means to have achieved religious freedom.

This top-down model of religious freedom may empower religious authorities at the expense of dissenters, doubters and those on the margins of a community. It may also undermine democracy. 11 This is not because democracy is necessarily secular, but because 
the hierarchical, institutionalized forms of religion defended by US bishops, the US Department of State, Open Doors, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Christian Solidarity International and other powerful advocates for religious liberty heavily regulate – and may shut down – the spaces in which non-established, diverse and democratic forms of religion actually have a chance to flourish.

If the problem that religious freedom is designed to solve is to find ways to live together across deep, multidimensional social diversity and difference, then it may be something that necessarily occurs, if it is to mean anything, outside of the spaces enacted through legal regulation by authorities public and private, religious and secular. This requires an alternative approach to the construct. One possibility is to adapt to this context a notion of freedom articulated by Foucault. In this image, William Connolly explains, freedom is “not reducible to the freedom of subjects; it is at least partly the release of that which does not fit into the molds of subjectivity and normalization.” This leads to a “conception of rights attached not to the self as subject, but especially to that which is defined by the normalized subject as otherness, as deviating from or falling below or failing to live up to the standards of subjectivity.”12

Religious freedom emerges here as a site of resistance or mode of insurrection against institutionalized authorities, rather than as a form of religious and political discipline. Rather than being enforced by powerful authorities, it is attached precisely to that which is defined by these authorities as otherness, as unorthodox, as dissenting, or as minoritarian.

An example is the campaign by the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States and currently faces disciplinary action by the Vatican for promoting, among other things, doctrinal errors and “radical feminist themes.” These criticisms were detailed in the recent “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.” In Castelli’s description of the assessment, “religious freedom emerges as nothing more than a mode of shoring up the authority of the Magisterium of the Bishops, not a set of values that shelters and protects the acts of conscience undertaken by Catholic women religious in the United States. Yet ironically, recourse to a robust notion of personal conscience is an unambiguously orthodox position in Catholic theology and a fully justifiable exercise of religious freedom on the part of the nuns.” 13

The agonistic model of religious freedom that I draw attention to here is not something that can be promoted by a state, a church, an international organization or any other centralized, hierarchical authority. As mentioned above, it is attached to and emerges as a site of resistance to attempts to arbitrate orthodoxy, whether secular or religious. If this is the case, and if religious freedom is not something that can be promoted by arbiters of orthodoxy, whether religious or political, then what are all of these centralized, hierarchical religious and political authorities promoting? In whose name do they speak? Are the authorities empowered by the viral spread of religious freedom actually capable of assessing and judging the lives of those they seek to redeem? 14

I think not. It is incumbent on scholars, practitioners and others to re-imagine religious freedom as a site of resistance against powerful institutionalized authorities, both religious and secular, rather than as a form of religious and political discipline imposed by them. It is time to respond to the tsunami of religious freedom advocacy in the name of alternate ways of being religious and being human, now sidelined, ironically, by the hegemony of religious freedom.


1 Souad Mekhennet and Maïa de la Baume, “Moderate Islamist Party Winning Morocco Election,” New York Times, November 26, 2011, 
accessed August 2013.

2 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Against Universals: The Dialects of (Women’s) Human Rights and Human Capabilities,” in J. Michelle Molina and Donald K. Swearer, eds., Rethinking the Human (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 87.

3 Abu-Lughod, 85.

4 This section expands upon my post, “Believing in religious freedom,” 
The Immanent Frame, March 1, 2012, This post is part a series, guest edited by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and myself, in conjunction with a joint research project on religious freedom. The series ( considers the multiple histories and genealogies of religious freedom – and the multiple contexts in which those histories and genealogies are salient today.

5 Oren Dorell and Sarah Lynch, “Christians fear losing freedoms in Arab Spring movement,” USA Today, January 31, 2012, accessed August 2013.

6 Quoted in Dorell and Lynch.

7 Elizabeth A. Castelli, “Theologizing Human Rights: Christian Activism and the Limits of Religious Freedom,” in Michel Feher with Gaëlle Krikorian and Yates McKee, eds. Non-Governmental Politics (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 684.

8 Joost Hiltermann, “Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?” The New York Review of Books Blog, May 8, 2012. Hiltermann observes that, “Sunni-Shia interaction is what defines daily life at the workplace and in many neighborhoods.”

9 Ibid.

10 Noah Salomon and Jeremy F. Walton, “Religious criticism, secular criticism, and the ‘critical study of religion’: lessons from the study of Islam,” in Robert A. Orsi, ed., 
The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 406.

11 Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “The world that Smith made,” The Immanent Frame, March 7, 2012, accessed August 2013.

12 William E. Connolly, “Taylor, Foucault, and Otherness,” Political Theory 13 (1985): 371.

13 Elizabeth A. Castelli, “The bishops, the sisters, and religious freedom,” 
The Immanent Frame, May 16, 2012, accessed August 2013.

14 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Anthropology in the Territory of Rights, Islamic, Human, and Otherwise …” Proceedings of the British Academy 167 (2010), 255.