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Where's our ambassador for religious freedom?

Canada’s abrupt severing of diplomatic ties with Iran has alarmed pundits of all stripes. It should.

Cutting off diplomatic relations is a drastic step and, in this case, one with little public preamble. But while the rupture in Canadian-Iranian relations gets dissected, the key questions are: What do our ambassadors do, and what are they for? Asked that way, the fast and furious closure of our increasingly marginal embassy in Tehran looks less shocking than the prolonged absence of an ambassador for religious freedom.

Envoys provide critical intelligence to both foreign affairs and political elites. They work hard to cultivate productive relationships and develop expertise even in parts of the world most Canadians would consider morally dodgy at best. Canada has sustained formal foreign ties with many states such as today’s Iran in hopes of reformation, conversation and dialogue. Abandoning that hope rightfully raises critical concerns about whether we might have quit too soon. But such debate shouldn’t crowd out equally important questions about our approach to the growing swaths of the globe that mix their politics and their religion.

The United States recognized this when Bill Clinton established the Office of International Religious Freedom in 1998. Even that might have been too slow given that, despite its cultivated political-theological expertise, the Americans were still analytically blindsided three years later by the events of 9/11. Fast-forward 11 years and we now have no doubt that, of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims (23 per cent of the world’s population), at least some have distorted their political-theological beliefs into a world view of violence and terror. A far greater percentage, of course, simply live lives of religious devotion, but even that has political-theological consequences. Most of the world is not secular. Some of that world is violently opposed to our secularity. Yet, we lack the tools of analysis to engage this with direct diplomacy.

Globalization hasn’t marginalized the powers of the state, any more than the decade after 9/11 caused the collapse of an American empire. But the comparison is instructive: It’s not that one has fallen so far, so much that others have risen so fast. Fareed Zakaria’s post-American world is now widely accepted, a world in which American decline isn’t the headline but rather the “rise of the rest.” The same is true of state-to-state diplomacy. States clearly continue to enjoy political monopolies in global politics, but the global resurgence of religion has caught some regimes off-balance. The secular state persists but now alongside “the religious rest.”

In the aftermath of the 2006 bombing of Samarra’s al-Askari Mosque, one of the holiest Shia sites, teenagers chanted in the streets across Iraq: “We are the soldiers of the clerics. We await the orders of our preachers!” In a global climate charged with religious devotion, religious illiteracy is not only imprudent for Canadian foreign policy, it’s dangerous. Not every problem in the world is religious, but almost every enduring solution will require some level of religious accommodation. That’s a numbers game, a simple observation.

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter how cosmopolitan Westerners feel about other societies mixing religion with their politics. We may have cathartic domestic fights about it, but the numbers are pushing in the other direction globally. Hate it or love it, doing business or politics around the world will increasingly mean the need for religious literacy.

Canada has its own somewhat workable secular consensus, and we shouldn’t abandon it. What we must do is learn how to relate to the new (and old) ways of doing politics, the theological kind among them, in the rest of the world. That’s what ambassadors are for.

The real issue isn’t just about embassies closed, but which ones are too long unopened. That’s something that an ambassador for religious freedom, working out of the new Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs, might set right.