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Religious abuse or excuse to intervene?

The US State Department’s report on international religious freedom focuses on prosecutions based on blasphemy and apostasy laws

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

The US State Department’s report on international religious freedom focuses on prosecutions based on blasphemy and apostasy laws. I support religious freedom, not as a distinct category but as a subset of many other freedoms humans are entitled to. I am against blasphemy and apostasy laws.

However, this report does not serve freedom or relief from prosecution; rather, it appears to give the US government tools to impose sanctions against adversarial states.

US foreign policy

The report is submitted to Congress in compliance with the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The IRFA was initially drafted to protect churches in Sudan from persecution, and was identified with the Christian right. This places the law squarely within American interests or those of religious groups in the United States that have political agendas, not within human rights interests.

An example is the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. They have been persecuted for decades, some even saying their persecution amounts to genocide. However, that did not incentivize the United States to consider a law protecting Rohingya Muslims, who are almost absent in reports on US-Burma relations. One such report to Congress had just one sentence on their plight.

From drone attacks to supporting oppressive regimes and sustaining violence in various countries worldwide, the United States has lost its moral ground to speak about human rights

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The persecution of Sudanese Christians led to the IRFA because it was not envisaged to protect people, but to create new legal grounds for US action against certain countries. Furthermore, since the law is meant to serve US interests, the sanctions it stipulates against violators of religious freedom are discretionary, not mandatory.

According to the IRFA, the president has the right to waive sanctions against abusive countries when “the important national interest of the United States requires the exercise of such waiver authority.” The law has only been used against countries that the United States already had issues with.

From drone attacks to supporting oppressive regimes and sustaining violence in various countries worldwide, the United States has lost its moral ground to speak about human rights. The report should be seen not as a record of abuses of religious freedoms, but as a US foreign policy tool.

Lack of specificity

According to the IRFA, the report is supposed to track abuses of rights related to assembling for peaceful religious activities, speaking freely about one’s religious beliefs, and possession and distribution of religious literature. However, the reported abuses only qualified for inclusion due to religious identification.

Muslim violence against Christians or vice versa is mostly due to ethnic divisions and conflicts that happen to identify with religion. Conflating religious freedom and ethnic conflict distorts one’s understanding rather than reduces abuse. For example, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about religion, or about an unjust and illegal occupation?

In its page on Israel, the report says: “Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity.” This sentence is repeated with other countries, pointing to a crucial definitional problem throughout report: confusion between religious identity, religious freedom and ethnicity.

Another example of this lack of specificity is the way the report cites anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim violence. On Hungary it says: “There were reports of anti-Muslim sentiment as the migrant crisis in Europe intensified. The Muslim community reported physical and verbal attacks and threats, including 10 to 15 physical assaults against Muslim women wearing headscarves. Manifestation of anti-Semitism included assaults and verbal attacks, Holocaust denial and revisionism, and cemetery desecration and other vandalism.”

Does anti-Semitism infringe on the religious freedom of Jews? Is anti-Muslim violence motivated by hate of practicing Islam, or are Muslims categorized as an ethnicity? There is a clear imbalance throughout the report regarding anti-Muslim violence and anti-Semitism, even though more of the former was physical abuse and more of the latter involved matters of opinion.

Perhaps the worst example of lack of specificity is with regard to victims of Burma’s government, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Boko Haram. The murderous crimes committed against Rohingyas in Burma, Yezidis in Iraq and Christians in Nigeria cannot and should not be categorized within religious freedoms or liberties of any form. They are a category on their own.

The report seems to be more of an aggregation of abuses against any party that has a religious identity. This gives the US government more cases of so-called religious abuses to leverage against other countries. It does not shed light on the real situation of religious freedoms.
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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.