The First Line of Defense: Freedom of Conscience


Since the takeover of our embassy in Iran by Shia Muslim Radicals in 1979 our nation has been focused, albeit with various levels of commitment, on the security threats and challenges of Radical Islam.  The 1983 bombing of our Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 by Sunni Muslim Radicals, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000 all demanded our attention.  But the shocking impact of the attacks on 9/11, mostly by young Saudi men, finally brought our nation to war against Radical Islam in 2001 in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.   As part of that war, President Bush unintentionally, and it turned out inadvisably, expanded the “hot zone” in 2003 to include American military combat in Iraq in the effort to eliminate Saddam Hussein.  Only then, in the ensuing instability and violence did most Americans – including in our government – learn about the difference between Sunni and a Shia and why theological, historic, and cultural differences mattered.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Regime seized the opportunity to reassert itself in Iraq and elsewhere.  President Obama and Secretary Clinton initially reached out to the Syrian dictatorship, as they had with the Iranian regime, but found that so awkward that they eventually retreated to a “head in the sand” strategy of ignoring the growing tragedy and threat in Syria.  That lack of strategy combined with President Obama’s decision to withdraw our military from Iraq and use the success metric as “successfully departed” rather than successful furtherance of America’s long term national interests dishonored the sacrifice of those who died or were injured and of their families.  It also placed at even greater risk religious minorities and women, who are the favorite targets for repression and violence of Radical Islamists.  And it enabled the tragic Syrian turmoil to merge with the Iraqi exit debacle, and turn into genocide.

This brief and recent history begins to illustrate how religious freedom and our national security interests are linked.  Freedom of conscience or the lack thereof matters.  Many Sunnis do not regard Shia as legitimate Muslims, many Shia do not regard Sunnis as legitimate Muslims, and both want everyone else to be a Muslim just like them.  Protestants tend not to want people to become Catholics. And Catholics tend not to want people to become Protestants, but gratefully they aren’t killed over it anymore.  They’ve learned how to agree to disagree by rediscovering that human dignity demands freedom of conscience.  Not so with Radical Muslims bent on reestablishing the greater Caliphate. Such radicals, whether Sunni or Shia, agree that non-Muslims and those Muslims seeking to convert to another faith or coexist with or defend non-Muslims are legitimate targets of persecution or violence.

Animosity towards Jews and Israel is one of the other rare items that may unify Islamic Radicals across sectarian lines.  Moreover, anyone declared a kafir, unbeliever or infidel, becomes a legitimate target for violence.  Yes, our policies can exacerbate intolerance in the Majority Muslim world but at their core these issues that so deeply affect or reinforce the culture, are fundamentally theological and interpretative and require internal reform before peace and stability can be established.

The first line of defense against these ongoing and growing threats is freedom of conscience.  Our long term strategy to defeat Islamist intolerance, intimidation, and violence must begin with a clarion call for promoting “the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” as articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Military strength alone will not be successful in defeating Radical Islamists globally. Any meaningful long term tipping point will come when Muslims reject violence against conscience and violent jihadism toward those who choose something other than their preferred version of Islam. As Americans we have a critical part to play if we desire to limit the need for military responses which endanger our men and women in combat as well as those living in impacted countries for future generations. Americans need to demand that our leaders and government officials also stand unequivocally for freedom of conscience. We must communicate this to allies and foes alike. We must also rededicate ourselves to implementing it authentically and robustly here at home.

But a comprehensive plan will need to do more than that.  We must preserve and promote freedom of conscience.  We must promote understanding of and respect for freedom of conscience and belief as an inherent aspect of whom each of us are as human beings and as essential to respect each individual’s inherent dignity.  Our three part plan needs to be 1) Stand for Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Religion (the freedom to believe, not to believe, or to change one’s belief), 2) Stand Against Violence including Violent Jihadism, and 3) Stand for Equal Treatment of Women (since women and children bear the brunt of this intolerance and violence).

Unfortunately, some of our diplomats whose colleagues have been targets of attacks and of violence such as in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Benghazi still view such an agenda as cultural imperialism.  While this confusion makes our challenge greater, it is not insurmountable.  In contrast to imperialism, we are promoting fundamental human rights when we promote freedom of conscience and religion for all men and women.   These are universal human rights.  For example, women can only choose to live however they want and to maximize their God-given talents when they have the freedom to do so.  Young and courageous Malala Yousafzai’ recent receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize is a testament to this principle as well.  In contrast to the violent targeting of girls and their education by Radical Muslim groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Malala preferred to practice her Muslim faith in freedom.  Muslim girls should not only have the freedom to go to school but also the freedom ultimately to embrace or reject Islam.  Moreover, to truly secure these freedoms one must affirm the right of other faiths to have the same freedom and dignity and those of one’s own faith who may choose differently.

Some on the left exhibit confusion in this area.  They need to recover some of the clarity and courage that Eleanor Roosevelt exhibited when she helped shepherd the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through the United Nations in the wake of the atrocities of World War II. Article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”  Not only did she believe in the equal treatment of all people which expressed itself in her advocacy for the downtrodden and for civil rights reforms she championed here at home, she also expressed it even more profoundly after President Roosevelt’s death in championing the very notion of universal fundamental human rights, including the foundational freedom of conscience.

Earlier in January 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt said to Congress in his “Four Freedoms speech” “We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”  This is still true today.

What does this look like in practical terms?  Respect for freedom of conscience and belief requires an abiding commitment to equal treatment and respect for all people, even when we disagree.  When we are for religious freedom and freedom of conscience we are against barriers to that freedom. We need to strike down barriers to these basic freedoms.

These barriers include the A, B, C, D’s of anti-religious freedom and conscience laws around the world.  The use and abuse of these laws and religious practices are the foundational building blocks of oppression and suppression of human dignity.  A is for Apostasy laws which condemn conversion to another faith.  B is for Blasphemy laws which are used as a tool of intimidation and injustice against Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  C is for Anti-Conversion laws which are used to protect majority religions from competition or to prevent the free speech of minority faiths.  D is for Anti-Defamation laws which are used to charge people for defamation against not a person but against a religion.  Many majority Muslim countries, which are where most of these laws are found, have been advocating these laws in international bodies like the UN as well.  By legitimizing them at the international level, it reduces pressure to repeal them domestically and undermines human dignity.  But such laws are also on the books in countries that do not have Muslim majority populations, such as Ireland and India. Eleanor Roosevelt would not have been impressed.

As Americans we know that some freedoms are more important than others.  Freedom of conscience is more important than avoiding hurt feelings.  All of these laws and movements violate freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.  We should unequivocally stand against them.  Our lack of conviction and clarity slows the necessary process of reform essential to marginalizing Islamic Radicals.  Pretending that much of Islam has already done this is counterproductive.  Christianity’s journey to largely embracing freedom of conscience was slow and required reformation and reflection hundreds of years ago even though Christ himself declared that we should not only love our neighbor but our enemy as well.  Islam in the present day seems to lack a similar self-limiting theological impulse.

Not only should we oppose the intolerance and violence of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Al-Shabab, etc… we should also oppose the lack of religious freedom and freedom to worship for other faiths in Saudi Arabia, oppose the requirement that one’s religion be displayed on identity cards in countries like Egypt, and oppose the inability for non-Muslims to be citizens in the United Arab Emirates.

I enjoy many cultures, including Majority Muslim cultures.  But for too long we Americans have been going soft on the inviolability of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.  We should no longer give the Muslim faith or any faith a free pass.  The freedom that flows from human dignity is not a one-way street that only benefits its own faith adherents or the dominant side.  It is this passivity and initial tolerance for intolerance which facilitates Radical Islamists and violent jihadists to take the next step to violence and repression against out–of-favor Muslims, other religious minorities, and women.

Yes, other faiths including Christianity have been intolerant in the past, and some are still today.  Religious freedom and freedom of conscience includes freedom for Muslims to practice their faith as well.  But objectively, Radical Islam now represents the greatest current global challenge to freedom of conscience and belief and the equal treatment of women.  Accordingly, it is unwise for President Bush or President Obama to call Islam a religion of peace when, though diverse culturally and theologically, and with more than a billion followers, it is deemed appropriate (culturally, theologically, or politically) in many majority Muslim countries to target those who would choose another faith.  Islam today is a “missionary religion” that doesn’t permit other religions to be missionary religions in many parts of the world.  Many Muslims are people of peace, but that does not make Islam a religion of peace, especially for those who may chose another path.  Moreover, unlike Christianity, which says that you are entitled to the full panoply of human rights by virtue of the fact that you are a human being, Islam, at least, as practiced today in many countries with a majority Muslim population, says that you are only entitled to the full panoply of human rights if you are one of them.  This is a distinction with tragic consequences around the world today. Muslims are the primary victims of this reality today. In places like Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan other minority religions are targets or are caught in the crossfire.

Muslims should have the freedom to condemn theologically those who choose to reject their faith or leave their faith.  They should not have the freedom to propagate violence on those who exercise their freedom of conscience to do so.  Those who support this discrimination or violence or look the other way because of their faith or faith infused culture and laws cannot genuinely claim to represent a religion of peace.  I would say the same for any Christians or followers of other religions who would support violence toward those of other faiths because of their faith.  Apostates, or those who renounce a religious belief or principle, deserve this freedom of conscience as well.  If not, there is no such freedom in the same way that there is no freedom of speech or expression if speech that offends is banned.

The majority of the Muslim world today has not yet embraced this principle of the inviolability of conscience.  In many countries those courageous enough to stand up for freedom of conscience for others become immediate targets though they may be devout in their Muslim faith. Greeting others with peace, shalom, or salaam does not make a religion of peace.  Nonviolent and respectful responses to those who would choose something else through their conscience and reason make a greater claim for peace.

In America one of the great needs in our political culture is to remind people how inviolable freedom of conscience and religious freedom should be.  Yes, some freedoms are more important than others.  Classic liberalism understood that freedom of conscience was foundational and universal.  On the other hand, there is no such thing as the right not to be offended.  Absent such an understanding, the hecklers will have a veto and the free and open discussion and exploration of ideas will not exist.

When we get serious about promoting and strengthening the first line of defense, freedom of conscience, our long-term prospects will begin to brighten against the challenge of Radical Islam and other forms of tyranny around the world.


Randall J. Brandt, Strategic Consultant, Attorney, and Mediator.  Previously served as Policy Director for Rick Santorum for President in 2012, Senior Advisor at the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, and Deputy Staff Director and Counsel at the U.S. Senate Republican Conference.