With religious freedom in a state of decline in many parts of the world, the United States will pay particular attention to countries in political transition, like Egypt and other participants in the Arab awakening, to see that they do not follow a worrisome trend.
“We are going to judge by actions, not words,” Secretary Clinton declared in a Washington speech Monday, speaking of Egypt and whether or not the new Islamist leadership of the key Arab country would follow through on commitments to represent and respect the rights of all of Egypt’s religious minorities.
Clinton noted that on her recent trip to Egypt, newly-elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood assured her that “he intends to be the president of all Egyptians” and to include women and Christians in the government. But she added that the actions the US will watch for “are just in the very beginning stages.”
Clinton made her remarks as the State Department issued its report finding eight “countries of particular concern” in the area of respect for religious freedom: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
The report, which covers events in 2011, also finds that a “global increase in anti-Semitism,” an increasing use of legislation to restrict religious minorities, the growing use of new technologies to repress religious expression, and even restrictions on religiously mandated forms of dress, are all part of a world in which religious freedom is under attack.
“The world is sliding backwards,” Clinton said, in her remarks delivered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Clinton, who has traveled more than any secretary of state, said she has witnessed how respect for religious freedom unlocks a path to economic and social growth – and how repressing religious freedom can stymie a country’s progress. “I have seen firsthand how religious freedom is an element of personal freedom – and of social advancement.”
In response to Chinese and other leaders who advance the idea that they must repress yearning minorities including religious groups in the name of national cohesion and growth, Clinton says she responds that it is “the absence of religious freedom that makes it more difficult to achieve national progress.”
If anything, Clinton says, governments are in fact closing down societal “safety valves” when they “clamp down” on religious freedoms.
That is one of the messages that she said she took with her to Egypt earlier this month when she met with President Morsi.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other critics of Obama administration policy toward Egypt and other “Arab spring” countries say the “Arab spring” has turned into an “Islamist spring” in part because of a weak response from the US in support of more liberal political options.
Clinton dismissed such criticism, saying the US will respect the people’s choices in the region’s budding democracies – even as it looks to the new governments to respect all universal rights including religious freedom.
“The US is prepared to work with the leaders the Egyptian people choose,” she said, but American support “will depend on [those leaders’] commitment to universal rights.” She spoke vaguely of “consequences” if governments like Egypt’s fail to protect their citizens’ rights, but she offered no specifics.
Moreover, Clinton said, Egypt’s new leaders will not be acting in America’s interests if they follow through on their stated commitments to serve all Egyptians and respect their beliefs, but will be first and foremost serving the interests of their own country.
“They can bring hope and healing,” Clinton said, “to the many communities in Egypt that need that message.”