Religious freedom, political gain and cynical human rights imperialism

The freedom to practice the religion of one’s own choice is a basic human right. Sadly, not all countries allow this right to be practiced free from persecution. Please, do not use religious freedom, as US ruling circles do, as a cynical and perverse exercise in interfering in the internal affairs of other nations.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is a body which purportedly examines the status of religious freedom in nations around the world. It issues an annual report where, among other things, it lists nations which restrict the ability of religious people to practice their beliefs. This year, it has named Vietnam as a ‘country of particular concern’, the phrase used by the USCIRF to indicate nations where religious freedom is, in its opinion, subject to restrictions.

One has to wonder at the astonishing arrogance of US authorities assigning to themselves the function of arbitrating religious freedom in nations around the world. We will examine the role of the USCIRF as an instrument of US foreign policy later. Let’s first address the accusation that Vietnam suppresses religious followers and undermines religious freedom.

There is absolutely no basis in fact that the Hanoi authorities repress religion or religious worship. The Vietnamese constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion as a human right. The three main religions are Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, all of which are openly practiced. There are various minority religious groups, including Catholics and Protestants. Cao Dai, a particular religious minority highlighted by the USCIRF, is practiced openly as well.

Indeed, there was a long period in Vietnam’s history when religious groups were suppressed. No, not by the Hanoi authorities, but by the American-backed and installed regime of South Vietnam, formerly located in Saigon. The South Vietnamese leaders, with the full knowledge and support of the US, violently suppressed the Buddhist population and monks, while maintaining a position of privilege for the Catholic minority. The Buddhist crisis very nearly led to a mini-civil war within South Vietnam.

The USCIRF report highlights the fact that the Vietnamese constitution contains a clause which enables the government to invoke national security to suspend freedom of religion. The US is hardly in a position to hector other nations when it comes to the thorny issue of national security. The latter has been invoked by Washington’s ruling circles to rationalise all sorts of war crimes overseas, and domestic restrictions on civil liberties.

It is true that since 2018, the Vietnamese authorities require religious organisations to register in a national database to determine their authenticity. This measure guards against scams and hucksters who have exploited religious belief to further their own financial gain. Such scams have been prevented, and none of the religious minorities have complained about such a national registry.

There is no shortage of religious scams in the United States; organisations masquerading as religiously-motivated, accumulating masses of money from their followers, and enriching a handful of so-called pastors. The prosperity gospel, a purportedly Christian doctrine which holds that material wealth is a goal of worshipful belief, has resulted in the accumulation of tremendous wealth for the leaders of such groups.

The preachers of the prosperity gospel, while inspiring millions with the simplified doctrine that God will provide wealth, endless happiness and fulfilment, also rake in millions of dollars as well. A perversion of the original Christian doctrines, the prosperity gospel elevates a kind of individual salvation into a collective exercise in narcissism. The late bell hooks, scholar and activist, made an observation that applies to the practitioners of the fraudulent prosperity theology:

I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.

The USCIRF, rather than being a politically neutral body, is specifically an extremist-dominated institution, dedicated to the spread of fundamentalist doctrine around the world. The politicians who make up this commission are advocates for a strict, Americanised Christianity, condemn equal marriage status, spread anti-LGBTI propaganda, and condemn Islam specifically as a hateful doctrine.

The putative concern for religious freedom has been deployed as a weapon of US foreign policies for decades. The covert intervention of the US in Afghanistan, for instance, was carried out by citing the alleged lack of religious freedom in the socialist-era Afghanistan of the 1980s. The US exploited religious feeling to mobilise extremist groups, in an anticommunist insurgency.

However, religion was not the main reason the Afghan mujahideen rebelled, but rather the social and economic reforms – particularly distributing land to the peasantry – which impelled the reactionary mullahs to throw in their lot with the United States. The mullahs may have had culturally regressive views, but they were fundamentally committed to restoring an economic system of feudal-like inequality.

Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. Perhaps the US should re-examine its own cynical history of abusing this claim to promote cultural interference around the world.

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