Exporting Law, Exporting Freedom



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The third post in our ongoing review forum on Anna Su's new book, Exporting Freedomcomes to us from Mona Oraby. You can read earlier entries by Michael Graziano and Jeffrey Wheatley. Look for our final post in the series next week.

Mona Oraby


Exporting Freedom complements a recent spate of scholarship that queries the timelessness and neutrality that is often attributed to the right to religious liberty. Drawing on historical case studies that span twentieth century U.S. foreign policy, Anna Su charts the emergence and promotion of religious freedom first as natural law, and subsequently as a human right enshrined in national constitutions and international law. Su argues that American religious freedom promotion abroad is part and parcel of U.S. global ascendancy.

The book is a significant contribution to our understanding of how “the malleability of religious freedom enabled its invocation abroad to be articulated and made salient within particular historical and institutional contexts” (4). Su not only excavates the political and intellectual milieu in which American discourse on religious freedom took shape. She also explains the modes through which this discourse figured into three U.S. military incursions: the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, post-World War II Japan, and Iraq after the 2003 invasion. By foregrounding the interstice between discourse and imperial power, Su opens up a productive inquiry into religious liberty’s distinctly American provenance.

If Exporting Freedom casts religious liberty and American power in a new light, it falls short of articulating a broader claim about the centrality of law to the U.S. export of both Protestant values and secular liberalism. After all, religious liberty was not exclusively deployed as a discursive tool, but as a legal instrument that curtailed preexisting power structures and reorganized local religious traditions. In all three case studies mentioned above, the career of religious freedom promotion followed a categorically legal course. American officials drafted constitutions as a means to achieve occupation goals. They increasingly sought to codify the disestablishment of church and state first in order to civilize subordinate populations, but always to secure U.S. material and moral interests. To her credit, Su demonstrates that religious freedom protections became entrenched in national constitutions and the panoply of international legal instruments we are familiar with today. However, she does not theorize the significance of this multi-jurisdictional spread of religious freedom as law. How, we might ask, has the constituent relationship among law, religion, and freedom changed over time?

The U.S. colonial experiment in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century points to the imbrication of these concepts early on in Exporting Freedom. Using a constitutional framework, the U.S. government sought to promote religious pluralism and simultaneously limit forms of religious worship it deemed antithetical to its civilizing mission. The U.S. colonial administrator of the Moro Province, John Wood, remarked that Filipino Muslims and Catholics practiced “an unruly amalgam of local customs” (32). Su further tells us that “[a]lthough Wood believed in religious freedom, it was freedom that came in a particular shape and size. He praised Jesuit missionary work in the Moro Province…because he considered the principles of the Christian religion conducive to the observance of law and order and respect for authority” (32). Given that the book provides rich historical evidence for a robust theory of what law does in the context of military occupation, it is curious that Su asks but never answers whether it is significant that religious freedom is law (161).

Viewed from this perspective, U.S. ascendance is characterized by the global propagation of law and constitutionalism, American-style, of which religious freedom promotion is but one component. The histories of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and the post-2003 Iraq Transnational Administrative Law (TAL) are cases in point. As Su explains, “[b]y enacting the IRFA into law and ensuring that adequate religious freedom guarantees were written into the Iraqi TAL, the U.S. government brought together its old and new ways of promoting international religious freedom” (157). The old way consisted of unilateral standard setting, often by military force. The new mode interprets and implements these standards, which are supported by a variety of domestic and international legal mechanisms.

This line of thinking extends to other realms in which law’s productive capacity is used to legitimate U.S. projects of global domination. Prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, Baghram Air Force base outside of Kabul, and Guantanamo Bay are haunting examples of how U.S. officials have bent legal definitions of what constitutes torture in order to sanction harsh interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition. And just two years ago, the Obama administration expanded the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force law to justify the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The point here is that it is no coincidence that American discourses on ‘defending religious freedom’ and ‘eradicating terrorism’ are tied to national security interests. Such interests are being realized through the force of law with alarming frequency.

The ongoing centrality of law to American power thus casts considerable doubt on Su’s assertion that “the slow realization of religious freedom is and should be a profoundly political act, one that is built on continuing deliberation, contestation, and mutual recognition” (162). Exporting Freedom may be “[f]irst and foremost a cautionary tale [that] illustrates the ambitions and limits of what religious freedom promoted as law by an external actor can achieve,” (10) but the book’s elite-centric view does not suggest how the ideal of religious liberty can be instantiated otherwise.

Mona Oraby is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.

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