Fighting Terror With Religious Freedom Abroad

Before saying a final farewell, we invited our graduating research assistants to reflect on their time working with the Religious Freedom Project. We asked them to comment on how their experiences with the RFP have affected their success at Georgetown and how an understanding of religious freedom has influenced their perspective on certain issues in fields such as political science, economics, and theology. 

By: Kelly Thomas

As an undergraduate majoring in international politics with a focus on defense policy and counterterrorism strategy, it seems unlikely that the most academically formative position I’d have undergraduate career would be as a research assistant for a project oriented around the study, and protection, of religious liberty. My two academic interests had always been international security and theology, which seemed divergent to say the least. However, it was through my work at the Religious Freedom Project, and also as student in Thomas Farr’s two classes on the “Politics of International Religious Freedom” and “Religion, Justice, and American National Security,” that I realized how very intertwined religious freedom was, and remains, to the national security challenges currently facing the United States.

Today, the United States has been mired in two wars in the Middle East and has carried out countless airstrikes in the name of defending our nation against the threat of global terrorism. As a student of counterterrorism strategy, I am of course vastly interested in how the United States chooses to engage these enemies, but as a student of theology, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the secularization which permeates our foreign policy and refuses to acknowledge religion as a driving force in international politics, and in many acts of terror. Casting about for a way to bridge the gap between effective counterterrorism military doctrine and a holistic approach to achieving our stated goals of stability in the Middle East, I found that the answer, or at least a glimmer of the answer, was a more robust international religious freedom policy. Sitting down to write my final papers for Professor Farr’s classes, two papers which will hopefully go on to form the basis of my Master’s thesis and potentially a dissertation, I sought to reconcile my perpetually divergent academic interests into a cohesive and sustainable counterterrorism strategy. 

At its heart, religiously driven violence, which comprises most of the terrorist organizations the United States faces today, is  grounded in an ideology, and ideologies cannot be stamped out with drones or targeted airstrikes. They must be traced to the root and eradicated. Paradoxically, however, the best way to eradicate these extremist strands abroad, is to allow for a plurality of religious views and perspectives to have a voice in the public square, even in conflict-prone areas. This de-escalates the violent extremism born out of religious oppression and marginalization and seeks to create what Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. called “creeds intelligibly in conflict.” It’s a difficult argument to make in a field where most policymakers and practitioners are accustomed to seeing religious liberty solely as a human rights issue, not as a factor in US national security threats. Nevertheless, it is a critical position to defend if there is to be any hope in achieving a semblance of sustainable stability in those regions of the world that have been decimated by religiously motivated conflicts and are fast becoming breeding grounds for terrorists. 

Prior to working at the Religious Freedom Project, I had always taken the right of religious liberty for granted, and when I did consider it, it was as an ideal enshrined in our Constitution, not as a crucial tool in counterterrorism strategy. However, I quickly gained a new appreciation for how religious liberty strikes at the heart of what it means to be human, to be able to hold, profess, and practice your beliefs publicly and without reproach. No coherent and comprehensive strategy, be it related to counterterrorism measures or not, could be complete without factoring in this perennial facet of the human condition. With that notion in mind, and bolstered by research I conducted for the project, the conversations I was able to have with scholars and experts in the field, and most especially by Professors Farr’s two courses on religious liberty and US national security, I leave this hilltop emboldened to embark further on the mission to wed counterterrorism strategy to religious freedom policy abroad.

Kelly Thomas graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2015 with a degree in international politics. 

This piece was originally authored on May 21, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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