Very few people in the West have drawn more attention to crisis of the religiously persecuted than Paul Marshall. Formerly with Freedom House, Marshall has been a senior fellow in the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute since 2006. ConservativeHome's Ryan Streeter recently asked him three questions. Any citizen concerned about the rights of religious minorities around the world will want to read what Marshall has to say in response.
RS: You've drawn attention to instances of religious persecution (e.g., recently in the case of Said Musa in Afghanistan, or Coptic Christians in Egypt) that have gone relatively unreported by U.S. media and unaddressed by lawmakers. Why are American public opinion shapers so silent on this front?
Marshall: One reason that American opinion shapers are silent about many cases of religious persecution is that, in much of the media, they simply don’t know anything about religion (here, if I may, I'd like to plug a book I co-edited—Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford University Press, 2009)). The reasons for this are many—many people are still shaped by defunct sociological theories that religion is passé, or going away or at least diminishing—so they often don’t notice what is going on around them. There is also often a secular antipathy to religion, an attitude that it causes violence, wars etc, so there is a lack of sympathy for victims who suffer because of their faith.
In the case of Christianity, there is also the assumption that Christians are west and white, and are somehow the agents of colonialism and imperialism. In fact, 80% of active Christians now live outside the west, and Christianity is probably the largest ‘third world’ religion.
Lawmakers are somewhat better, but one can find similar attitudes—including in the State Department. There is often what I call a ‘secular myopia’ at work.
RS: When you look at religious repression around the world, which countries or places do you wish American policymakers and citizens were more aware of, and why?
Marshall: I wish they were more aware of the repression that continues in China. If they were, they would be less surprised at increased crackdowns at, say, the time of the Olympics, or now, when the Chinese government feels threatened by the revolutions in the Middle East. Also, the number of Christians in China is over 100 million, and still increasing rapidly, which may produce unforeseen changes in that country.
The repression of religious minorities is also intensifying and spreading throughout the Muslim world - even in traditionally tolerant countries such as Indonesia - indicating that extremist forms of Islam are still increasing their reach. Also, the Administration and others should stop using the term “Muslim World’ - Muslim majority countries have as many religious minorities as does the Christian world - we should emphasize and seek to build on that religious diversity.
RS: Given our current fiscal challenges in America, there is a lot of sympathy for cutting foreign aid and little interest in thinking about the problems of small groups of people in places that seem so remote from our daily lives and interests. How do you respond to policymakers and citizens who hold these views?
Marshall: I think most Americans are in fact sympathetic to foreign aid - we give far more of it privately than does the government, or other governments. While some don’t believe government per se should be in this business, for most it is more a concern that government aid is often wasted or counterproductive. In a case, like now, with Japan, or earlier with the Indonesian tsunami, where people know there is a need and we can be effective, there is great support for government action. In cases of religious persecution, the ‘aid’ most required from governments is diplomatic efforts, support for free civil society organizations, and media—such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which are, in government terms at least, very inexpensive, and also contribute to other things that are in our national interest. But the major change we need is to see religion and religious freedom, as did our Founding Fathers, as key elements of freedom in general. It is the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights.