Interview: David Saperstein, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom


Amb. David Saperstein. Photo/U.S. State Department

On 19 June 2015 CIRIS hosted Amb. David Saperstein for a roundtable discussion with Cambridge academics on religious freedom in international affairs. Saperstein is the fourth U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. He leads the State Department’s Office on International Religious Freedom and serves as the principal advisor to President Obama and Secretary Kerry on religious freedom issues. Prior to his current appointment, Saperstein serves for 40 years as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC).

Here CIRIS research associate Chris Moses gets Saperstein’s views on the mission of his office and how it can advance religious freedom in challenging places—including in the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

CIRIS: Why was your office established?

Amb. David Saperstein: It was established as a kind of affirmative action programme for religious freedom. The perception of a number of advocates of religious freedom was that, compared to other core human rights it did not get the same level of attention—by the State Department, other nations’ foreign affairs agencies, international organisations, human rights courts, or human rights organisations. By establishing someone devoted to this issue it would help raise it up to the same level of attention, concern, protection, and engagement as other human rights have.

CIRIS: What do you think you specifically have brought to the role?

Saperstein: One thing clearly that is different is that I’m the first non-Christian to hold it, and that’s interesting. It allows me to speak on behalf of Christian concerns and Christian rights with no perception of self-interest. It brings something of a new perspective on these issues as well. I represented the largest denomination of the Jewish community in Washington to the Government for forty years and that’s something I did longer—according to reporters—than anyone else in history. So I brought those years of experience with me, and I hope that has been felt, and helps.

CIRIS: What tools do you have at your disposal to enable you to undertake your role effectively?

Saperstein: First, the visible backing of the President of the United States and the Secretary of State. Their strong statements on the issue of religious freedom have been very helpful as I travel around the world and work with other people within the American government. Second, we have the entirety of the State Department and the diplomatic skills that our embassies, our Ambassadors and their staffs bring. Third, I’m integrated into the broader human rights work of the State Department. Fourth, the annual report that we produce on the 192 countries is widely used by other [suggest addition of “democratic” or “like-minded” here for clarity] governments as blueprints for how their diplomats should address these issues. Finally, we have the full range of diplomatic tools at hand, from sanctions to démarches to quiet engagement to conditioning certain benefits on an improvement of human rights.

CIRIS: Players in the international community are sometimes suspicious of US claims of international religious freedom promotion. What are the most frequent criticisms you receive, and how do you engage with them?

Saperstein: There’s always an argument of relativism from countries that disagree with the views of the United States. They say, “What right do you have to impose your views on our domestic behaviour?” But the entire schema of internationally protected human rights, including Article 18 that guarantees freedom of religion for all across the globe, have been signed on to by every country. They’ve said “We endorse and we embrace these rights, and we are responsible to make sure they happen in our country.” That means when we speak about religious freedom, it’s an appropriate thing to do—just as other countries can challenge us. In the United States we have problems. We have failed in areas to live up to our own aspirations and commitments to true equality for all people, and we’re constantly struggling to do better, and other countries have a right to challenge us.

CIRIS: The most recent Pew Data says that the three countries with the most government restrictions on religion are China, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan.[1] Could you comment on possible political developments in these countries in relation to religious freedom?

Saperstein: Indonesia is a very diverse country in which there are clear efforts of major religious and political leaders to maintain an open, more inclusive society. As the most populous Muslim country, what Indonesia does will be a model for other countries. I remain hopeful about Indonesia maintaining the kind of inclusive, pluralistic tradition it has. There are problems in terms of restrictions on some religious groups, as well as social tensions. It’s a very daunting task for a government to change social attitudes, and to ensure that until they do, there will be protection for all. The government is trying to do that, and we know that there are real pressures on some religious groups, but it’s a very different situation than in those countries that have, as a matter of law, structures of restrictions on different communities.

As for Uzbekistan, what happens in Central Asia is very important. Uzbekistan is a very influential country. Again, it’s dealing with a lot of challenges. It’s responding to challenges in terms of what it feels to be threats of terrorism, and in ways that we think are not helpful. A more inclusive, open society actually works to mitigate terrorism. Driving religious expression underground, out of the public view, and denying people the right to participate fully because of their religious identity, leads them filled with frustration and despair. This then becomes a fertile ground for extremist groups to recruit people.

And China, of course it’s the most populous nation on earth, and what China does on religious freedom is vitally important for a large segment of the world. There are significant restrictions in China, and we are hopeful that it will begin to ease some of these restrictions. From time to time there are indications that that might be the case. The efforts to crack down on corruption in regional areas are hopeful; some times corruption actually leads to restrictions of minority religious groups who can’t compete with other groups for power in those areas. But right now, China is a “country of particular concern,” and we continue to engage as much as we can to encourage them to make changes that would lead to a more open society.

CIRIS: What does your office have to offer to discussions regarding the self-declared Islamic State?

Saperstein: We’ve pushed hard to begin the discussions with the Iraqi authorities about what conditions would be necessary for people to return to their homes when ISIL is forced out. We’ve encouraged them to begin to move now to set some of those things in place, to provide the necessary security for these communities for when they return, and deal with transitional justice disputes that would avoid sectarian violence within local communities.

How will Prime Minister Al-Abadi’s idea of giving more authority to local communities and engaging the different groups in the governance of the country actually play out? Well, we’re working through the programmatic activities that are funded by the State Department in our engagement with the Iraqi government, to try and support and work with them. The United Nations sees the challenge the way we do: creating the conditions that have the possibility of restoring these communities. It is a huge priority for us.

CIRIS: On a more abstract note, does religious freedom just give more freedom to extremists, or does it help curtail extremism?

Saperstein: We really think that you cannot deal with combating violent extremism if there is one dominant group that can shut out others’ participation in the society. If those minority groups feel that they cannot work through the system of laws in a society in a way that will allow them to have the kind of life for their families that they wish—or if you shut people out of governance, out of opportunities, or drive their religious life underground—you do create a fertile field that extremists will manipulate to get support for extreme responses to perceived injustice. And the more that there is a system of rule of law and equal opportunity for people, the better it will be in combatting terrorism and defeating extremism.

CIRIS: Is it problematic for religious freedom if a state has an established religion?

Saperstein: Look, some of the truly revolutionary ideas that America brought to the world were its bar on religious tests for office, its guarantee of free exercise of religion, and its caution about government establishment of religions. But, it doesn’t mean that America’s anti-establishment clause is the only way to do it. The real test is not whether a country has an established religion, it’s whether or not they grant to all of their citizens equal rights to participate without regard to their religious identity. And where there are restrictions, where people cannot access education, jobs, and public services because of their exercise of their conscience, there are clear restrictions on religious freedom. No one should have to choose between living their lives in accordance with their religious conscience and their right to participate as a citizen in their nation. That’s the real test.


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