Learn From Afghanistan's Lessons of Religious Liberty
The agreement between the United States and the Taliban is certainly historic, but the prospect of an empowered Taliban rightly terrifies millions of Afghans whose freedom of conscience and religious liberty face erasure.
The rights of religious minorities, women and girls, and free thinkers have advanced considerably under the tolerant, democratically-elected Afghan government. Women have freedom of movement, girls attend schools, and dissent is tolerated.
Experience abroad has taught us that education leads to liberty and liberty to education. The threat of those hard-fought gains being rolled back should focus our minds on their plight as well as the challenges we face here in America.
As we bring our troops home from a two-decade-long conflict, we should bring home the lessons we learned in promoting religious liberty and education, too.
When I taught middle school before September 11th, a student of mine was a refugee from Afghanistan. He spent his childhood surrounded by violence and extremism and he exuded its noxious fumes. He picked fights and expressed rank intolerance for those who were different from him.
I sat him down and challenged his assumptions by asking him to consider that if he had dignity, value, and worth, didn’t everyone, no matter their religious or ethnic background? As this young man started learning about these new ideas, he reoriented his thinking and stopped turning to violence.
In fact, he went so far as to write a letter to then-President George W. Bush asking him to defend the women being stoned to death by the Taliban. He wrote, “These women are like birds in a cage and they cannot speak for themselves. Will you help them?”
That boy learned to hate and hurt because that was all he knew. Children are going to be influenced by their surroundings, which is why we should shape our society to emphasize loving and tolerating others, and even defending the rights and dignities of our fellow countrymen.
But if we allow religious hatred to fester, the results can be devastating and long-lasting. Fortunately, there is an effective model to stop the spread of religious bigotry and give communities, especially children, the tools and knowledge to confer dignity and respect to everyone.
Americans should bring home not only our troops, but also our own international strategies to promote human dignity and religious liberty. We must live our values by using education to affirm everyone’s right to conscience and religious freedom.
As President George Washington wrote to the Jews of the Newport, Rhode Island synagogue in 1790: America “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
At the height of ISIS’s hateful tyranny in Iraq in 2015, my nonprofit education group, Hardwired Global, went to work partnering with Iraqi teachers in affected areas. We developed a small booklet for school-aged girls and their families who had escaped ISIS to teach them about their own dignity and rights. We expanded our operation to teachers in the region through training conferences and created a powerful lesson with two Yezidi teachers that was distributed widely.
The curriculum we developed and implemented yielded astounding results. More than 75% of students surveyed who initially held discriminatory views became willing to defend the rights of others after our program. More than half of students who embraced violence and extremism renounced those views as well. And of those children who entered the program with discriminatory feelings about girls and women, 100% embraced their equal rights by the end.
Partnering with the British Foreign Office and foreign Ministries of Education, the program expanded to Lebanon, Morocco, Kosovo, Nigeria, Jordan, and South Sudan, where we saw similarly impressive impacts on the views of student participants.
In Kosovo, still a deeply religiously divided nation and the source of the highest rate of foreign ISIS fighters, we rolled out our program and have begun to break the cycle of violence through innovative educational simulations, activities, and materials including children’s books.
Our partner teachers are trained to integrate and tailor the curriculum to their students’ grade level, subject, and context. This allows us to bypass cumbersome curriculum reform efforts and provide a cost-effective and efficient method of enacting immediate, systemic changes in educational systems.
The results are changing lives and minds. Sadly, it is a model that is still sorely needed here at home.
America – a country founded on pluralism, human dignity, and personal freedom – is losing itself in growing insularity and intolerance, especially for people of faith. Recent polls find that Americans of all faiths (including none at all) increasingly fear discrimination against their co-religionists. That is not only worrying; it is a betrayal of our American heritage and values.
To restore our great legacy as a “shining city on the hill,” we should learn and implement the lessons we are sharing abroad. American schoolchildren must appreciate that they too have value, dignity, and rights no matter who they are or what they believe.
Such a religious freedom curriculum in schools – adapted and integrated into existing frameworks – would allow us to reach those who are isolated and vulnerable to persecution, as well as those who might resort to violence or harbor extremist views.
Washington implored us to uphold our birthright of freedom when he wrote, “If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail… to become a great and a happy people.”
As we leave Afghanistan, we must keep its lessons on religious liberty in our minds and bring them into our schools.
Ms. Ramirez is the president and founder of Hardwired Global, an international religious liberty non-profit and former staff director of the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus.